How you treat woodwork can make all the difference in a space

  • Use of woodwork contrast, as shown in staircase.

    Use of woodwork contrast, as shown in staircase.

Published1/31/2009 12:06 AM

Bargains are always alluring, and never more so than now. But while good deals can indeed be had in today's housing market, the "buyer beware" rule remains very much in force in regard to fixer-uppers. An old, or even not so old, home that "needs some work" can prove to be a great buy or a financial sinkhole, depending in part on the dimensions of the buyer's dreams.

In deciding whether to invest in an old house, my advice is to resist the cute-puppy syndrome and to make an unsentimental assessment of how much a rehab will really cost. Then weigh your willingness to bend the project to fit your budget.


Q. We need advice regarding the semicircular front hall staircase in an old Dutch Colonial style home we recently bought. A previous owner stained the oak steps and the entire balustrade, including the stringer. It's a medium stain but still looks pretty heavy in an average size entranceway with a wooden floor and with lots of wood paneling and moldings. We had intended to cover the stairs with a patterned carpet, but that turns out to be difficult and expensive because of the circular turn in the staircase. Can you suggest a different treatment?

A. The simplest of several options is to paint most of the woodwork - not just the staircase itself but the adjacent moldings as well. In a relatively small space, I'd go with a light color for all the painted surfaces, including the stringer, the spindles on the railing and the risers but not the tread of the stairs. Then, to produce an attractive contrast, I would use a dark stain on the floor, the treads of the steps and the staircase's handrail.

An example of such a crisp and welcoming treatment can be seen in the accompanying photo. There's nothing complicated or particularly expensive about the work that's been done here, which manages to make the space appear larger as well as quite charming. Other casual treatments of older homes can be seen in "Bungalow Style," the Taunton Press book from which this photo comes. Author Treena Crochet is especially adept at showing how to treat woodwork as an important element of interior architecture and design.

Many of the models in this book draw on the Arts and Crafts style that flourished in this country and in England a century ago. Crochet's basic ideas can readily be adapted to other styles, however, as well as to new construction. Here's one more possibility for you to consider: Carpet only the threads of the stairway, not the risers. It will be easier to match a pattern on the treads. The net effect will be similar to adding a carpet runner. It's an easy, colorful solution that doesn't require much material.

Readers with general interior design questions for Rita St. Clair can e-mail her at

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