Painting Your Spiral Stair
Why You Should Paint
Painting your stair can either be an aesthetic choice, a method of protection, or both. The first is personal preference, the second may or may not be necessary depending on the material and location of your stair. Whichever your reason for painting a stair, it’s worth the time to take and make sure you select the right paint for your needs and to make sure you paint your stair properly.
Doing the job properly the first time will lessen the amount of maintenance needed down the road and lengthen the lifespan of your stair overall.
Know Your Material
With a spiral stair, you’re looking at either wood or metal for your components. Each category can be further broken down. Metal can be broken down into standard steel, aluminum, and galvanized steel. Wood can be broken down into multiple species, which typically include such options as oak and cherry for indoor applications and teak and mahogany for outdoor applications. There are several more species that can be used, but what’s actually available will depend on your chosen manufacturer.
Aluminum, being primarily for outdoor application, by its corrosive resistant nature does not require a protective coat of paint. So painting it would be only for aesthetic purposes. Keep in mind that aluminum is usually powder coated. Powder coating can come in standard black or white with most manufacturers, but it can also be custom colored according to any color on the Pantone perfect spectrum or RAL color matching systems. So it may not be necessary to paint an aluminum stair at all even for aesthetic purposes as the selection of colors is literally whatever you can think of in the powder coating department.
This idea also applies to galvanized steel. Galvanized steel has gone through a hot dip process wherein the steel components have been dipped in molten zinc. This process creates a metallurgical reaction between the steel and the molten zinc which in turn creates a durable armoring for the components. In this case, painting isn’t really necessary for protecting the stair either. It’s more a matter of taste.
Even if for the purpose of personal taste, painting a galvanized stair immediately upon receipt is not wise. The hot dip process causes gases to release slowly from the stair over a period of 6-9 months. Moreover, any paint applied to the surface during that period will bubble and crack. This 6-9 month period is called the “weathering” process. Its effects are visible because a galvanized stair starts out with a shiny appearance that turns battleship gray eventually. When this battleship gray look is apparent, the stair is ready to be painted.
Most, however, find the battleship gray look singular and desirable. It creates an attractive nautical theme. It may be necessary, however, to preserve this battleship gray appeal with a specialized zinc rich paint. Sometimes, through wear and tear, the zinc surface armor can be scratched deeply enough to expose the raw steel beneath. If left unchecked, this will lead to rust. A simple patch job with zinc paint will address that before it becomes a problem.
Standard steel, if placed indoors in an a room with moderate temperature, doesn’t really need to be painted. Especially since most manufacturers of quality will prime a steel stair. So, again, if indoors, painting is more for aesthetic purposes than anything else. If the stair is outside, however, then it will absolutely have to be painted. Specifically with a specially formulated rust-prevention paint product. Several coats of this rust-prevention paint and a few coats of sealant to follow will be necessary. These steps should be applied as soon as possible following installation.
Wood covers so many things: pine, oak, teak, alder, cherry, and more. Not all of these various wood species are easy to paint. With some, you’re much better off applying a stain and finish. Some can even be left alone entirely.
Rather than try to provide a complete list of which woods are more susceptible to a coat of paint and which are difficult to paint, we’ll just cover the characteristics that make a wood species receptive to paint.
One thing to keep in mind is the color of the wood. The lighter the wood, the easier it will be to paint to your desired shade because it will require fewer coats and less labor. Darker wood will require more coats before any significant change is visible.
Wood that’s easy to sand to a level surface without raised grain will also be easier to paint. The more level the surface, the more even the distribution of your paint. Most manufacturers of quality will pre-sand/prime any wood components prior to shipping, though. So this likely won’t be a concern.
Plus, some darker woods, e.g. mahogany, just look better without paint when their allowed to be in their natural glory. The same applies to cedar, teak, or any wood suitable for outdoor use. These are purchased for their raw appeal and best left with their natural finish. If you are wondering which woods fall under this category, just think of which woods are used for outdoor decks.
Whatever your wood, though, if you really must paint it, just be sure to clean your surface thoroughly first. If you don’t, just as with unsanded/primed wood surfaces, you’ll have an uneven coat.
When Should You Paint
Besides the points listed above—waiting for galvanized steel to “weather,” sanding/priming wood first, etc.—there are other factors that affect when you should paint a stair for obtaining the best results.
These factors have mostly to do with outdoor settings and opportune weather conditions. Obviously, you don’t want to paint your stair while it’s raining. Not even if it’s just a light spritz. This will make your coat uneven. Plus, you'll essentially be sealing moisture into your stair surface, which will lead to corrosion. You want to paint on a dry day with zero precipitation. And you want to clean and dry your stair completely first.
You also don’t want to paint when it’s windy. The wind will cause your paint coat to distribute unevenly, which will make it thinner on some sides. Those sides will be prone to corrosion.
Lastly, while you want it to be a clear sunny day, you don’t want it to be too sunny or hot. Otherwise, the side of your paint coat facing the sun will dry quicker than it’s supposed to, which will lead to your paint coat not living up to its protective potential.
So take all of these elemental aspects under consideration when choosing a time to paint. Other than that, just make sure your surface as clean and you paint at the soonest possible time.
How Often to Check for Touchups
A galvanized stair should rarely need to be touched up, but it doesn’t hurt to check it periodically.
A steel stair will need to be checked so any potential corrosion is addressed before it spreads and becomes a problem.
For both stairs, it helps to just follow the same rule of thumb. Check your stair after the end of your first harsh season. If any scratched were in the galvanizing or if there were any weak spots in your paint coats, the first harsh weather season will make them apparent. Touch up where needed. After that, you’re likely okay to just check your stair annually.
In the case of your steel stair, it’ll behoove you to check one week after you’ve applied your paint so you can get ahead of the curve on any rusting. One week is enough time for thin points in paint to be visible. After that week, just stick to the above directions.
What Spots are Prone to Needing Touchups
Primarily, you’ll want to look over joints first. These are the spots where rubbing, stress, and other things that can expose raw surfaces occur. Where balusters meet handrails, where steps meet columns, where any hardware is used. That’s what will need a touchup first and most often.
Besides elements of the stairs structure, you want to again think of environmental factors. Is there a side of your stair that sees more sun exposure? Or a side more often hit by rainfall and other precipitation? You want to check these points more often as well. Just as these elements affect your ability to apply paint, they also create wear and tear for paint post-application.
Going along the line of environmental factor concerns, there’s also the issue of where you are in general.
Besides paying attention if you’re in an area that sees a larger than average amount of precipitation of any kind or beating sunlight, there’s the environmental factor of pollution. If you’re located in a more urban setting, then there is likely a higher concentration of emissions and other corrosive agents in the air. That means you have to be vigilant in checking your stair for signs of rust more often.
You may be looking at a little bit of an upcharge from typical paint products since you’ll need something with the rust prevention in the mix. It won’t be drastically different, though.
As for wood, most species will likely translate to being better off with an oil based paint. This won’t lead to any real difference in cost.
The one area where you’re likely to have a noticeable difference in average cost for a paint is if you run into needing a zinc rich paint for a galvanized stair. Such paints are very specialized and not packaged in large quantities. And the higher the zinc in the compound, the higher the price tag will be. But such paints are really your only option for effectively painting galvanized steel.
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