Got Stairs? Here's How to Choose the Right Runner for You

Get the skinny on material selection, color and pattern, installation and more

By Yanic Simard / Courtesy of Houzz.com

A stair runner can be a beautiful and unique accent to your home, showing a lot of personality while cutting down on the pitter-patter (or thumpa-thump) of little feet. Choose the right type and style of runner for you, and soon you’ll be walking on air.

Material

I usually recommend natural fibers when it comes to fabrics, but for carpeting (especially in high-traffic areas like stairs) there’s no shame in using a hard-wearing synthetic. Nylon is a popular choice for durability, as a quality version will resist stains well and can be dyed in vibrant colors for a big look without the immense budget.

Other synthetic materials such as polyester can also be part of high-quality carpets — or low-quality ones. Ultimately you should let your hand be your guide, along with the information the manufacturer provides on how much wear and tear the carpet can take. Polyester can be good at simulating a woolly feel.

Wool carpets are often the most desirable. They offer the most high-end appeal and come in the most rich, natural-looking colors and beautiful textures. They also tend to be very durable; many experts consider an 80 percent wool/20 percent synthetic blend optimal for high-traffic areas like stairs. 

Although the price tag will be higher with wool, it’s usually offset by not having to replace the carpet as soon, assuming it’s cared for properly.

When it comes to carpeting, the weave can be just as important (if not more so) than the actual material. There are near-endless variations to choose from, but here’s a general rule: Carpets with high piles (aka long or tall fibers) will often feel fluffier underfoot, but they’ll also be more likely to snag on pet claws, toys and the like. You’ll have to find the right balance of softness and strength for your household, and make sure to always keep a material-appropriate cleaning product handy.

Color and Pattern

Stair runners can be a smart place to inject a little color into your scheme, for several reasons. First, you don’t tend to live on the stairs so much as pass through them and see them when you enter and exit, so the color isn’t likely to overwhelm you. 

Second, staircases are relatively small, so carpeting them involves much less square footage than, say, painting a wall or carpeting a whole room. A little pop of color or pattern here will go a long way toward giving your home personality you can live with.

For those who prefer a more serene look, draw color inspiration from natural materials. Even if you choose an artificial carpet, an earthy color will remain stylish longer, and it will complement woods rather than demand attention. In general, rugs always look appropriate and timeless in the classic hues seen in heritage homes, so look to sophisticated estates rather than trendy fashions for color palette ideas.

Don’t forget to consider how visible your stairs will actually be. This photo is a good reminder that often stairs are really seen only when you travel on them. To me this is all the more reason to go bold, but for some the preference may be to choose an inexpensive plain pattern and use the budget elsewhere (such as on a stunning area rug).

Stair runners do tend to take a lot of abuse, so including at least a little subtle pattern in the material can be a smart idea for hiding any wear and tear.

Whether you choose a pattern or not, painting the risers (the vertical faces of the stairs) white before carpeting can simultaneously help the runner pop and lighten the overall look. Classic carpet with white risers and rich wood railings makes for a beautiful combination.

To Trim or Not to Trim

Using trim on your stair runner can be a good way to add style and keep the edges from fraying in a busy household. A trim in a dark tone such as navy, black or gray is classic and adds a little punctuation to make the runner really pop.

In fact, many runners are made with a fabric border or trim built in. These may not always reinforce the material itself but they can break up a pattern and reinforce the look. For a more traditional or eclectic style, a little trim adds a lot of charm.

You may notice that many stairs featured in this article have small metal rods called, well, “stair rods.” They help reinforce the connection between the runner and the floor where it tends to be weakest (at the base of each riser), and can dress up a plain carpet like jewelry. However, they should be kept thin and tight to avoid getting underfoot, which is why slim metal rods are generally more popular than wood.

Installation

If you compare the photos in this article, you’ll also notice that some of the runners are tight to the stairs all the way down, and some gently roll off each tread, leaving a little gap between the material and the riser. 

This can be mostly a matter of taste, with the tight look (as shown here) being a little more formal and the looser style more casual. If your stairs have deeper treads (with more overhang past the riser, like this photo) a tight installation may be a better bet to keep things from looking unkempt.

In most homes, staircases will not be wide enough to leave a lot of exposed floor on either side. If you do happen to have a wide staircase (or wide landings or corners, such as in this example), ignore the corners when choosing a width. Instead, start at 40 inches and go up from there to make the runner about 60 to 70 percent of the width of the first and last stairs.

In a more typical home, the stair runner will be 80 to 90 percent the width of the stair. After all, you don’t want to always be awkwardly stepping right on the edge of the runner, so the runner itself should be at least 27 inches, but 30 inches if possible. Revealing just a small amount of floor on either side will be enough to show the beautiful contrast; plus, the skinny border lines will help make the space look long and elegant.

When your home has multiple staircases connecting to tunnel hallways (especially in homes with three or more floors), consider continuing the runner past the stairs as a hallway carpet of the same width. Again, you can choose a bold look and let it define a style statement throughout the home, or pick a more neutral material (like a plain tan Berber) that won’t clash with other furnishings along the way.

The End

The most common way to end a stair runner is also the simplest: letting it meet the floor plane and end in the crease between the floor and the final stair. Highly architectural stairs that float above the floor may be an exception, but then, runners aren’t normally used on these styles anyway.

If your stair runner has its own trim, consider ending it just above the floor, so the trim has a little breathing room. This works especially well with a nautical or beachy aesthetic and a fabric with a natural grassy texture such as sisal or jute.

If the end of your staircase has an unusual shape such as a curve, you can simply end the runner at the end of the last step, as in this example, preferably wrapped around the edge of a tread.

Bonus Idea: Painted Runners

If you love the look of runners but not the feel or upkeep of carpet (some people just can’t stand vacuuming!) try a painted stair runner. You can go wild with colors and stripes, or create a fun illusion of a border trim, all with a little weekend DIY elbow grease and some careful taping. Use a durable paint and your new “runner” can last even longer than the real thing.

Read more on painted stair runners