Once upon a time we had this unfinished basement stairwell. We built our house 3 years ago and left the basement unfinished. As someone who is obsessed with good lighting (read: I hate fluorescent lights), I am constantly dimming lights or turning off bright, undimmable lights in my house to create ambiance. I pretty much drive my husband crazy with this, but I can't help it. Did I mention I love ambiance?
So, this stairwell, unfinished with white primer covered walls, unfinished oak steps and one spiral CFL bulb hanging lonely from the landing ceiling between the split staircase, was my least favorite place in our house. Main reason being: when we host gatherings (which happens often), the adults mingle upstairs in our (perfectly lit) open living area, and our children descend into the unfinished basement to play and make whatever mess they so desire.
But because the kids are constantly up and down from the basement, the basement door would always be open. And...that light! Blinding and sterile, reflecting off white, unfinished walls, would pour into the upstairs space, creating an almost violent interruption of otherwise perfect ambiance. I always joked that I felt like the little girl in Poltergeist..."Go towards the light, Carolann!!" It was more than I could handle. I had to do something about it.
So, as an admitted Pinterest fanatic, I have always been drawn to the very rustic and seemingly simple repurposed pallet wood projects. I have a board dedicated to ones I love. So, not only did I want to solve this horrific and intrusive lighting issue, but I also needed some sort of creative outlet. I took to Pinterest to figure out if there was something creative I could do to change the stairwell so that, with the door hanging open, I would want to look at.
For the sake of documenting (and making this more interesting with some visuals), here is what my stairwell looked like before I started my project:
Plain and boring, and that light! Get out your sunglasses!
I decided that I wanted to create a focal point at the landing and then paint the rest of the stairwell a deeper color, to absorb light rather than reflect it. So once I knew I wanted to create the pallet wall, I headed to Pinterest and searched for various pallet wall projects. I found this article by Cape 27 Blog and it was the closest I found to the end result I was looking for.
Her tips on how to dismantle the pallets was particularly helpful, and before I acquired the pallets I already knew that I'd need to enlist my husband's help. Being that this was not his project, I had to make sure he would be willing to help me with that. When a Sawzall is involved, I dare not do things on my own. I am known to lose phalanges. But that is an entirely different blog post.
I had put out to my world (ahem, Facebook, of course) that I was in search of pallets many moons before. And part of the reason I even got a fire lit beneath me to actually get this project started was the fact that a still unknown person dropped off a pallet in my driveway one day (thank you, mystery pallet gifter!). So, I had a pallet and all I needed to do was find more. Back to Facebook. One more post and I found the generosity of my son's school principle who was more than happy to set aside pallets at the school for me. So, I now had 6 pallets and I was ready to begin.
The first task was to separate the pallet slats from the support pieces. There must be a general rule that each slat is secured with no less than 3,633 nails. I donned a pair of safety glasses (and you should, too. No one likes pallet splinters in their eyes) and held each pallet as my husband violently sawed through each nail with the Sawzall. Somewhere during the dissembling of 6 pallets, 8 beers (ish), and about 2 hours later, this is what the garage looked like:
I hadn't read anything about whether the wood should be sanded or treated in any way before staining, and, after said beers there was some discussion about the best way to clean and prep the boards. I really did not want to sand them. I knew what amount of time that could take and the mess involved. The boards were very dirty - even moldy in some cases - and I really wanted to make sure they were clean before I used them. So, after some discussion, we decided that pressure washing them would be a good option.
Yay. I got to pressure wash in Pennsylvania in late October! Brrrr! But, I was lucky to have a mildly pleasant day for my task and much to my delight, the pressure washing worked GREAT. I pressure washed both sides and then set the boards on the leftover support pieces from the pallets to dry. I set them with the side I wanted to have visible facing up. There was no reason to stain both sides since one side would be against the wall.
Of course there was significant drying time involved. It was October, and the boards were in my unheated garage, so I let them sit for a little more than a week before I was satisfied they were completely dry.
The next step was staining them. I immediately ruled out any dark stain, as I wanted to highlight and even amplify the different colors, textures and imperfections of each piece of wood. After a little bit of spot testing, I ended up choosing Minwax Wood Finish Golden Oak 210B. It wasn't too dark and wasn't too light.
I kept the boards right where they were in the garage (use a tarp or plastic liner, people...you're gonna get messy here) and rolled the stain on. It was immediately obvious that one coat wasn't gonna do it. So, I applied the first coat and a second coat a few days later. The only reason I had to wait so long was because of the cold temperatures. We put a space heater on to help dry it faster, but some boards took longer to dry than others. One more coat and then and application of stain on all exposed edges (they are going to show, some more than others, so don't skip this step), and I was ready to do the next step while they dried completely: prep the stairway.
I chose Glidden Grey Tweed in eggshell finish for the walls of the stairway. I thought that they natural wood and the brownish gray complimented each other nicely. A kind of modern color pallet. The wood I'm holding below was just a pieces of laminate floor sample at Lowe's that I used as a guide when picking out the paint color.
Here is how the stairwell looked after the painting was done.
Yes, that CFL is still bright, but the color of the walls definitely absorb a lot of the glare. Ahhh.
It was now time!! I was so excited to get this wood on the wall. I definitely had some help. A few friends came over one night, and to my delight, what I thought would be a multiple day project was done in one evening (about 4 hours). While my walls and home are different and we encountered a bit of a challenge with finding studs initially, the lesson I pass on to you is to make sure you know where your studs are and use a chalk line to mark them so that you know where to nail the boards. We opted against using any plumb chalk lines horizontally on the wall only because with so many different widths of wood, we knew that sticking to a true level line might frustrate more than help. Instead we used a level to check how true each row was as we went along. This worked really well:
Make sure when putting up your boards that you stick with wood from the same pallets, and hence have the same width for each entire row. Mixing up different widths in the same row would be a total nightmare and a puzzle that would be hard to solve. And you'd have pretty big gaps between wood which would expose the wall (which reminds me: I painted the wall we were nailing the wood to so that you did not see white wall behind it. I suggest you do the same - and if you choose a lighter color for your adjacent walls, I suggest using a wood colored or darker paint on the wall you nail the pallet wood to).
Here are some "action" shots from the evening. Me and my awesome crew of helpers (thanks, guys!!) and me - being dangerous with a nail gun (I have all my fingers intact, in case you were wondering).
The wall turned out a thousand times better than I expected. What was once my least favorite place in the house is now my favorite. The holidays and some travel came up right after we finished the wall, but eventually, my husband used what was left of the pallet wood to trim out the staircase and the walls, which was a nice touch. I also added my own artwork to the wall to add a jolting pop of color, which I think really defines the space. Here are the final pictures, with new light fixture and art (stairs will eventually be stained and varnished, but that's another project).