I’m quite proud of all of my hand-refinished oak floors in the house.
And I like our cheap-fix painted basement floor – so much so, I’m not even thinking of what we’ll do to improve it in the long run.
But the basement stairs – those still really sucked.
This was the state of things when we first bought the house – a toxic green tunnel leading roughly down into a cheap-paneled hellhole.
The unpainted/unsealed stairs and balusters were likely put in about a decade and a half ago when the original owners received a grant from the town to improve safety in the home. (At the time they also had a one-story drop off from the back door as well…) The wood used on the treads is a soft pine and is well-dented, gashed, and full of too-wide nail heads.
I thought about re-finishing (or finishing for the first time) the treads anyway, but the wood really sucked. I thought about painting them, and prepped and primed them to do so, but the color I picked out was too dark, and a lighter color was going to be too light, and the wood was still shit, so painting it would just be painting over shit, which would make it look like painted shit, which is only marginally better… And then I wanted to carpet them. I hate carpeting except on basement stairs. It’s a practical thing because I’m a klutz and most likely to fall on basement stairs and I don’t clean the basement often enough so carpet helps to trap dust and sawdust and whatnot from being tracked up into the house. So I went shopping for the cheapest, not too light, not too dark, low-pile grey carpet and didn’t find anything that would cost less than $100 which was my top limit on the project. (I wasn’t able to find a cheap remnant place around here either…) My next option was to find cheap jute or rag rugs to “carpet” the stairs, or else a fairly wide runner to cover up most of the painted shit – and though I came close, most options still topped off at or over $100, though those would have been nicer than cheap grey carpet. For half a minute, I considered weaving something myself, but since I don’t own much of a loom, that put me way over my budget, and then I considered knitting, sewing, or felting something, but that would mean I still wouldn’t have something covering up the stairs for at least another 7 to 10 years…
So clearly, I was craving a challenge for something super cheap and somewhat interesting, and with color but not too colorful, and light but not so light that every dirt clod would show, and somewhat fast.
Decoupage was my answer, my cheap savior.
For a moment, I wanted to use fabric, but as much as I love the above, my fabric stash isn’t so vast and a little too precious for the floor.
Then I looked hard at the paper bag floor. There are many, many tales of successes and surprises (hi Grackle & Sun, I bumped into yours!) and techniques and alternates with colored kraft paper and red rosin and the like… But I didn’t want brown – I love brown, but there is enough of it in the house already, and I didn’t want just one color, or one stair in one color and another in another, in a motley sort of way…
So how about paper maps?
I had a few too many in my car, so I made a test step.
(The obligatory shoes with something on a floor pic I would have posted on my instagram if I had a smartphone of my own and posted regularly and ironically.)
I let it dry, gave it a coat of poly, let that dry, and in a few days deemed it successful.
I started decoupaging all of the edges first – I used the map’s edge against the riser and tread’s edge to mimic the look of a runner and reign in the scrappy visual chaos a bit.
After the edges were all framed out, I tried to do a couple of treads and risers every evening, and in the morning, I’d give them one coat of poly. This made the stairs still functional for a few hours a day…
And after a week, I was done, and gave the whole thing another coat of poly.
Though I still need to do another coat… and perhaps one more on the treads only after that, but maybe not…
I’m quite pleased – the transition from our lovely upstairs oak to the painted cement works – casual but not too crude – and the subject is appropriate for our basement library too…
The functionality is good – not too slick in sock feet, but it might be a bit slick for dog paws, so we still might need a runner at some point.
Since the map paper is thin, and I used a self-leveling poly, the texture of the wood still shows through – I like that it does.
And the final cost?
(Because we only needed more poly)
The nitty gritty: I used plain paper maps – the kind you get from AAA – I could brag about recycling and whatnot, but I’ll spare you. The glue for the decoupage was some fancier acid-neutral PVA leftover from my book repair and binding years (roughly 15) ago. It was fairly lumpy, but still usable, and I cut it with water maybe at a 1:3 ratio – but mostly it was globbing some in a yogurt cup, filling it with water halfwayish, and stirring it somewhat until it looked milky. I brushed it on the back of a torn piece of map with one of my old fancy oil painting brushes, positioned it on the stair, and brushed over it again. I couldn’t brush it or re-position it too much or it would tear. I tried to distribute colors and leave meaningful places in visible spots, but after the first step or two, it was a geographic free-for-all except for color distribution. It was also very uncomfortable for me to be sitting on a step in a spinal twist, so even if I wanted to work on bigger chunks at a time, it was painful, so spreading it out over a week worked for me. I used a triple-thick, self-leveling, satin finish polyurethane and I’d brush on the first coat about 24 hours after the decoupage to insure it was well-dried (our basement currently has about 50% RH). After the whole thing was decoupaged and had its first coat of poly, I coated the whole shebang again. I am about to put on a third coat. And I might put on a fourth just on the treads. We already had about a half of a quart on hand, so when it’s all said and done, it probably took about a quart and a half.
Some things to consider: the acid-neutral glue I used will not yellow (I can’t say the same for standard white school glue – I think that stuff might yellow) and the water-based poly should not yellow either (oil-based most certainly will). I don’t know if the map paper is acid-free or not, so that could yellow though it is no longer exposed to air, and the stairs were sealed with primer, so they shouldn’t leach too much yellow-inducing acid either. I like the triple-thick poly because you don’t have to use as much and the coats go on thick enough that you can safely sand between them if so desired – but it goes on translucent and if left too thick, could dry with a bit of a milky haze – again, not a problem since the maps had a white base, but if it was dark surface, I’d be more careful about thinner coats. (But generally for wood that stays wood, I only use oil-based products – yellowing only adds depth and richness over time.)
And how will it wear?
It should be fine – the same as poly over finished wood – it will scratch and gouge under extreme circumstances, and will eventually need to be re-coated. If there’s a particularly bad spot, I can patch it with more map. Dirt can be swept/vacuumed up and ick can be wiped up with a damp cloth. You could probably even decoupage the whole thing just with poly instead of glue, but it would be messier, dry more quickly making re-positioning harder, and perhaps the paper might dry more translucent instead, but I’ve no idea.
I’m eyeing a few other things in the basement that could benefit from some decoupage now too…