How I turned my basement stairs into storage.



This is where death happens.




Mainly centipedes, spiders, and the occasional salesman.

Not the ones that sell Girl Guide cookies though. Anything else is fair game though.  Those gas company hucksters, furnace companies, satellite dish pushers.  A guy selling birds door to door even ended up down there.  Death of a quailsman.






My basement is a horror show.  I’ve made it as nice as I can but it’s still the basement of a 170 year old house.  Complete with rubble walls.  And centipedes. And spiders.  And salesmen.   The stairs leading down to the basement are the worst.

But my basement stairs are one of those things I just walk past and don’t notice. We all have those things in our houses. I’m sure you do too.  The cobweb that’s been there since 1982 that you never noticed until your mother-in-law helpfully pointed it out.  They’ve been this way since I moved in and for some reason I just accepted that this is how they always had to be.

One sad little shelf on the left as you go down the stairs which gets packed with junk a couple of random nails on the walls to hang a thing or two on, chipping paint and crooked stairs, three of which have indoor outdoor carpet stapled to them.  Only three. You can see them in the first photo.   No idea why, but I’m guessing whoever had this house before me had a really intricate and interesting way of going down stairs.  Like hop, hop, hop, JUMP.  Something like that.





As I mentioned this is a 170 year old house. As anyone who owns an old house knows, this means 2 things.   Really curious plumbing and no closet space.

Now, when you don’t have any closet space it means you have to find places to put everything normal people would put in a cupboard or closet.  Putting in the new and fantastic kitchen helped with that but there are still things I had no place for.  Like my cookie making supplies and extra garbage bags and my festive salesman bones wreath.  And other perfectly normal stuff.  This is the sort of stuff that ends up on the shelf leading into my basement.

Then I realized I could actually fix this.  I could fix and change and improve the very stairs I’d been walking up and down every day for 17 years without ever considering I could make them better.  It was like having a wart on the middle of your nose for 17 years and one day realizing a doctor could remove it in their office in about 30 seconds.  Plus there’s the added bonus of being able to steal surgical gloves when they turn their back so win, win.

Really I just wanted more storage space.  And the stairs that go UPSTAIRS are directly above my downstairs stairs.  Which you can also see in the first photo. It seems obvious to me now I only needed to take one photo for this post.  That first one.

So my idea was the quickly put up a few scrap boards underneath the upstairs stairs to give me storage in my downstairs stairs.

The first thing I had to do was clean everything out of the stairway.




So I dragged everything out from the stairs and put it in my dining room. I then went through it and got rid of anything that had been there since day one and sectioned everything else into stuff I wanted to store in the stairs, stuff that could be stored in the basement and stuff that could be repurposed.




Even though it clearly didn’t really need any cleaning I thought I’d do a bit anyway.  Cause I’m OCD like that. Just as I thought it didn’t need cleaning.  I wiped, windexed, and washed for an hour and it looked exactly the same.  Maybe it looked slightly less disgusting but to make it look like anything less than a torture chamber would probably require a contractor. And an exorcist.

Finally I broke right down and got out the paint. I say “broke down” because that makes me seems like Ug, I have to paint, which makes me normal like everyone else.  When really I was all YAY! I can paint!   Paint would help. Paint helps everything.  That’s why women wear makeup.  So I painted the entire stairway. That’s just the beginning of where things went off course.

Then I did what is the worst home maintenance job known to mankind.  Or womankind.  Any kind.

I vacuumed Chez Centipede.  The rubble walls.  The rubble walls filled with cracks, crevices and holes which were swarming with giant black spiders, little spiders and centipedes, sashaying from one condo to the next having a great old time.  I sucked them all up.  I have a central vac with a huge canister so they were merely relocated.  They’ll stay there by the way until the next person buys this house because there’s not a chance in hell I’m ever going to empty out that canister now that it houses several generations of angry centipedes.

I did a few more things and then it was time for the shelves.  I had a junky piece of 1/2″ plywood that I painted white and cut to the width of my stairway.

Then I cut some slats for the wood shelves to sit on and screwed them into the walls.

And that is how I made storage shelves under my stairs.




Yeah, it still looks like a bit of a nightmare but it’s way better than it was and that’s what counts.




My stairway is now holding all the same stuff it was but it a much more organized and attractive way.  PLUS enough extra room was made that I could keep all my preserves there.  Normally they’re scattered around the house in different places.  The jars of peaches like to stay on my bedside table.  On more than one occasion I’ve woken up with a spoon stuck to my forehead.




I also painted the sides of the stair rails and put down new indoor/outdoor rug on EACH AND EVERY STAIR. I know.  Extravagant.




The stairs are still wonky and there’s nothing I can do about that.  They feel safer now and WAY cleaner.




Plus now instead of being creeped out every time I have to go into the basement I kind of like it.  I’m greeted by smiling jars of jam, chili sauce, peaches and tomatoes.  The pickled beets don’t really smile.  They just aren’t that way. They’re kind of bastards.




And now my shelf can hold things that are going to be there temporarily and only temporarily.  Like my bags and bags of seed potatoes.




There are some people who will be able to take this very idea and apply it to your own home.  For the rest of you, let this be a reminder that sometimes awful things can be fixed fairly quickly.  Sometimes you don’t even notice the awful things so maybe take a day to actually look for them in your house.  You know.  Before your mother-in-law does.




For all the door to door water heater salesmen out there?  I hope you learned a little something from this post too.

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  1. pat says:

    Good job girl. As usual. Every now and then we need that sister, mother-in-law, guest, whoever, to make us re-evaluate our space with a critical eye because, as you said, we just don’t see it anymore. My front door has been crappy for too many years and we all walk through it every day. Broken decorative accents, mis-matched brass hardware, ugly off white paint that didn’t match the trim around it. One day I looked at it from a stranger’s point of view; ugh, what uncaring slobs live here? It’s now painted a fresh white colour to match the trim, all the hardware has been spray painted oil rubbed bronze, decorative accents are mended and painted. It says “welcome” instead of “go away”. Critique is what we require sometimes.

  2. What a useful post! I was mostly concerned about the whole centipede problem, but at the end I admired how you transformed squeaky, old stairs into a a great storage space!

    • Karen says:

      Yeah, centipedes are gross. And abundant here in very humid Southern Ontario. I did a quick spray with something rather deadly so that should help. I’m all “organic this and that” until centipedes come a marchin’. Then I’m all, I HAVE TO KILL ITTTT WITH ANYTHING!!!!! ~ karen

  3. Jordan says:

    I love this! It’s not only really useful, but it really makes the space look more gorgeous. Would definitely love to have something like this underneath our stairs!

  4. j says:

    You are a genius and the people who read you are genius also!! Love reading you, and look forward to it,,,Two thoughts–the plug in things that are supposed to make the rodents and spiders unhappy enough to move, forget-a-bout-it! I bought three and put them all around! My rodents and spiders quickly decided that they could live with the plug in things easier than vacating my abode. I also keep everything possible sealed in plastic Tupperware kind of stuff to keep the mouse poops and dead spiders off everything. [I will try the peppermint, cloves, cinnamon, even hot pepper.] Second thought-in Mexico on a ruin with a million stairs-they had a heavy rope tied running top to bottom. If you fell, when your hand hit the stairs, there was the rope to grab on to. Just a thought, but when you fall what ever you are carrying falls too, so you can grab the rope. Believe me free falling a flight of stairs is to be avoided if possible!

  5. Penley says:

    I just recently did something similar; not adding shelves but cleaning out, dusting, vacuuming and wiping down the (scary) space under my stairs. It was ridiculously pleasing to have all the space back again. Plus we vacuum more now because the thing can actually be dragged out. I’m inspired by your post – I think I might have to add more head height shelves!

  6. Mindy says:

    That stairway is horrifying. And you’re right, you really only needed the first photo, ’cause I couldn’t get past it. I’m pretty sure it will work it’s way into my dream state tonight. That being said, I’d love an old house like that.

  7. Kate S. says:

    For some reason, the stairwell leading to my basement is like a cramped, but bustling, dust factory. I have shelves installed like yours and also on the wall directly across from them, floor to ceiling (my basement door opens from the side and you turn to go down the stairs). Basically, I use the shelves to store the exact same things you do–seed potatoes, onions, garlic, preserves and some random kitchen items that don’t fit anywhere else. But I swear I’ve spent half my adult life just dusting the goddamn place. I don’t even know where the dust comes from, but everything in that nook is totally covered in dust the minute I turn my back. There’s obviously a very dusty poltergeist living there.

  8. Lesley says:

    Now I’m just imagining you doing this, with salesmen, only in your basement.

  9. I’d say this is more than a marginal fix. Pretty damn good fix. I don’t see a centipede or spider in sight, so I could actually go down those stairs now, or reach up and pluck one of those jars off the shelves — though that might be stealing — without having to carry a hammer in my hand for the killing of c & p. Boom!

    Death of a Quailsman…………… bwahaaha!

  10. Andrea says:

    Love it! But now that you have put in so much work why not go all the way. I say add a lamp cover to the bare bulb and paint some fun sayings on the wall. (I’d say add artwork but too narrow!). And couldn’t you add a rail by installing a long dowel type piece of wood from the underside of the upper stairs (where they stop) to the floor? Much less scary. In for a penny in for a pound. :)

    • Karen says:

      Ha! No. A girl’s gotta know when to stop otherwise nothing else will get done. This is all I need. Also for the hand rail (which someone else mentioned) I don’t need one because I’m always either carrying something up or down the stairs so my hands are always full, lol. Also, the staircase is a total of 18″ wide. A handrail would narrow it even more. As it is now my Tupperware bins of Christmas decorations scrape the sides of the walls. I have a lot of Christmas decorations. ;) ~ karen!

  11. A great use of space Karen. I only have one jar of bastard beets left……I will have to stretch them until fall!

  12. LazySusan says:

    My “basement” stairs are outside and part of the deck. I’m pretty sue the “basement” was tacked onto the house as an after thought, since it’s accessible only from the exterior of the house. The house is on the side of a hill, so it’s a half basement with no drain. The underside of the stairs to the upstairs were encapsulated into a storage room accessible from the garage. So I can’t do this, but I’m glad you did. What a difference it made! All nice and clean looking, and organized also! Did you use a brush or a sprayer to get that covered so well? I now have basement stair envy, something I previously would never have thought possible.

  13. Mel Owen says:

    My Aunt & Uncle had shelves like that on their basement stairs when I was a kid. They had a thick piece of wood hinged on the right side and held up with a barrel bolt or two. When they needed something from the shelves, they un-did the wood and put it across the “abyss” like a drawbrige, to rest on the left-hand shelf. Then they could walk right up to the shelves & get what they needed.

  14. Nancy Blue Moon says:

    Great job Karen..I so wish I had a basement..even an old spooky one like yours..I need the storage space..

  15. Valerie says:

    I have come to the conclusion that organized functional basements, no matter what their vintage is are one of the keys to carefree mental health. My home is the same age as yours. My basement stair approach is similar to yours and once down there it WAS (notice past tense) a disaster. I made a choice between the guest room and the basement and after consideration ended up putting a few thousand dollars into the basement. I had a fellow come in and line every wall with inexpensive wood sheeting and erect 3 foot wide shelves on all four walls that surround the wood stove down there. He cursed and swore throughout as the cement floor is so uneven. It will be finished this week and already it is beyond perfect and my mental health has stabilized, at last.
    The only concern I have with your stairs is that there is no hand railing. On closer examination I recognize that there is no place to put a railing on your stairs. Here is my suggestion: on the right hand wall about three steps down, just hammer a perpendicular length of a 2 by 4 into the wall so if you happen to lose your footing on the way down you can reach out and grab the wood. You can cover it with florescent paint; I realize it doesn’t “go” with the new carpeting but may save you one day. Steel wool in the wall cracks will help to stop the mice – the coarse steel wool not the fine. There is also a device on the market now that emits some type of noxious sound that only mice can hear (?) and evidently works well. I have no idea if this tiny machine is useful.
    Big nails in the floor joists above are useful also for hanging things also.
    You are a terrific example to those of us out there who are daily doing our stuff – it seems, endlessly.

  16. Linda Penrose says:

    OK, Karen, I know that you have more than 20 or so mason jars of preserves. Where are they?

    • Karen says:

      Nope, that’s really it. I make enough of everything for one year. So I have a few jars of jam left, peaches, chili sauce, and tomatoes. I’m dangerously low on tomato sauce because I used so much last year making pizza sauce. Ditto for the chili sauce and pickled beets! I have 1 pickle left in my fermented pickles and then that’ll be it for them. Check back in the fall. That’s when I’ll be loaded up with cans! ~ karen

  17. nancy says:

    Hey, we just finished our stairs. This house is only 75 years old, but the basement stairs are very rough and were painted battleship version of green. A while back, I decided to paint the basement walls yellow and the ceiling sky blue cause I am from the Southern part of the US and we paint our porch ceilings blue. But, I don’t have a porch now.
    Anyway, that made the stairs really look worse so I primed and painted all that yellow too. Then all the millions of cracks and crevices of rough carpentry showed up so I caulked allllll of them, I thought I would never finish. After repainting all the caulk, I realized latex paint is not so hot for stairs, haha, what a mess, so beat up so fast. So, we stapled some attractive enough (cheap) carpet runners from Target down and now the stairs are so quiet. And so much nicer looking. And calmed down So Much freaking yellow.
    Before all this, my husband cut a hole in the wall under the stairs and made a little hobbit looking door, we keep suitcases and the bales of toilet paper and paper towels in there. Very handy use for otherwise wasted space.

  18. Stephanie says:

    Excellent as always Karen. A friend of mine who is a serious canner (her cantaloupe jam and ginger pear jam – yum) and lives in an apartment just discovered that her couch is the perfect height to hide her jars under, so she built a long low box the height of the jars, painted it the colour of her couch, added tiny castors and whalla – her jams and jellies have a new home – hidden from sight and out of her teeny tiny kitchen.

  19. Patty says:

    My parents have similar shelving in their house which has a stairwell a lot like yours. It’s an old farm house that has been handed down through the family. My grandmother made sure everything had a place to go, so for a very old house there is a lot of storage. In the stairwell going down to the basement she had shelves put in like yours but also put in shelves on the left hand side (where you have your paper bags lined up). They are slightly narrower then the ledge. Then on the upper right hand side she put in extra nails or hooks to hold other odds and ends out of the way. You may also be able to stick some hooks on the bottom of the upper stair (where they start to turn) if you have some small short things to hang.

  20. Nancy says:

    When I open the door to my basement, it looks EXACTLY like yours (except our walls are painted a sickly green color.) We’ve lived in our house over 30 years and I’ve only been in the basement a handful of times. The creaky stairs, the spiders, the cobwebs, the dirt floor – no thanks. I love your ideas, however, and will pass them along to my husband!

  21. Jenifer says:

    Great job! OK, so my house is only 145 years old so obviously my basement has smaller spiders. I would love to add shelves but I (OK, my husband but whatever) can barely get down there without hitting my/his head now so…I know, I know, he should just take one for the team! Big Baby!

    Here’s a tip for any potential mouse issues…mice of any size are not welcome in my house:
    Put some Peppermint oil on some cotton balls and place them strategically around your shelves. This will keep them and some other critters at bay. I’ve been using this trick for a couple of years now in our basement and camper and it’s never failed me. I’ve also heard that cinnamon works for bugs but haven’t tried it yet.

    BTW-what are the ‘trays’ under the canned peaches??

  22. Darlene says:

    Beautiful! Wait where is the cooking making stuff that started this project???

  23. Fantastic~ well done!

    So now there’s a closet with my name on it that I have been ignoring. Thanks for pointing it out. Thanks ALOT!

    You’re such a cheerleader. Yes, that’s internet sarcasm. :)

    • Karen says:

      That’s what I’m here for. To make you feel better and worse about yourselves all at the same time. :) ~ karen!

  24. Heather says:

    The pickled beets don’t really smile. They just aren’t that way. They’re kind of bastards.

    You do make me smile.

  25. marilyn says:

    great job

  26. Emily Carver says:

    Reading this made me smile, laugh and remember…remember how much I love reading your posts. It was my routine to read you every morning but something happened, don’t remember what, and I hadn’t in a while. I aspire to be like you when I grow up! I love doing things with my tools… I bought a new sander the other day, the kind with a little bag on it so if I wanted I really can sand in the house. Anyway… you rock !

  27. judy says:

    Usual Genius but can I make a teeny tiny suggestion? Get some paint the same color as the stair carpet and paint that little landing, it still smacks of the before shot and detracts from all of the hard work you put into this result. I know this was not a half hour job it must have taken a lot of running up and down and how you got that whole area painted is beyond me. I have realized you are a super Woman in a surprisingly small body. So from now on I refuse to do anything beyond the minimum effort to keep from having the house condemned. I am old, tired and I have BEEN CLEANING,COOKING,WASHING FOR several hundred years and I pass the baton to all of you. I am going for a very slow stroll in the Sunshine.

    • Karen says:

      Well may be for old times sake you could come paint my landing. ;) I didn’t paint it because it’s actually a piece of plywood set on top of the actual landing which is even worse than the plywood. The plywood isn’t quite the right size. So I want to cut a larger piece and put it down. Even though I probably won’t paint it but might carpet it. Haven’t decided. :) ~ karen!

      • judy says:

        Hey!!You can’t imagine how tired I actually am. I have decide to come to your house under the guise of “painting your landing” and instead I will move in-in the dead of night while you are hanging from your bat perch in that spooky basement- a huge van will show up and move my junk in and then I will adamantly refuse to move or paint! I will claim some sort of illegal worker status and demand to see the American Ambassador………I am sure I’ll kick the proverbial Bucket before sweet kind Canada will deport me. So there! Miss nasty pants Be seeing ya…

        • Karen says:

          LOL. You’re right. Canada would probably just give you a flag and ask nicely that you behave yourself while here. ~ karen!

      • Cussot says:

        Aha, I, too, was wondering why you hadn’t painted it. It looks like such a DESTINATION in your photographs that it deserves something beckoning. In part to reassure the salesmen being lured to their doom, but mostly to lighten your heart – before the centipedes get you, of course.

  28. Su says:

    Looks great! Paint hides such a multitude of sins…. damn beets are just too smug all pickled and canned like that

  29. Tigermom says:

    Hooray! This is one of my favorite types of posts. I love to make things better and prettier. It is quite the improvement and has me shamed at the current state of my garage.

  30. Mary says:

    You’re so smart. Great job!

  31. Ev Wilcox says:

    My house was built in 1806. The basement stairs were a re-do somewhere in time, so they are not like yours, plus, they are not against the wall. But boy, this house has lots of “oldisms”. The basement walls really need repointed. They are made of hand placed rocks. And the floor has different heights, as previous (many) owners prob hand dug them through the years. I often wonder what it would be like to live in a newer house. Sigh…. Your stairs re-so is great!

  32. You crack me up. The skull wreath. Nuff said. hahahahahaahha.

  33. Jody says:

    My dad lives in a crazy old house and I get creeped out every time I have to go into the badement. Your before stairs are just like his with the exception of the bone wreath. He has old bones too but he’s still using his.

  34. jaine gayer says:

    UGH, centipedes. I had to sleep in a hotel one night because one was running up my bedroom wall and it was too fast for me to smash. I just knew it was going to crawl on me while I was sleeping.

    Oh yes and I love the stairs.! Nice job!

  35. Ann says:

    Am I odd cause I would actually love to have stairs? We live in a 1 story, 15 year old house. With a huge attic that we do store things in. But it has the typical pull down stairs which at age 61 are not my favorite things to navigate. I want so badly to have a real carpenter come in and build a real set of stairs going up to the attic. And at the same time turn the stairs into more storage space. But that is not on my summer to-do list. Which by the way has tripled since I posted it here. And only 2 things have gotten partially done. But it is still helping, as is a daily to-do list. So again, I am thanking you from the bottom of my heart for pushing me into even making the said list.

    • Karen says:

      Ha! Well that’s what happens with lists. They grow, they shrink, they evolve. Like thighs. As long as you have a list it’ll help though. ~ karen!

  36. Zoe says:

    Oh and I wanted to add we have a great shelf around the corner from our basement stairs. My husband uses it for his beer. We may need to work on a more useful use for it ! As always I am inspired.

  37. Zoe says:

    Love it. ! We actually keep our potatoes on our side shelf after I read one of your posts about dark and cold = potato happy place. I may have to investigate the carpet situation. It would make it less of a bumpy ride should one fall down them as my husband did a while back. Interesting interesting !!!

  38. Great job Karen! I thought the seed potatoes were bags of coffee beans! Should have known!

  39. Julia (mumo3kids) says:

    I like your cake stand.

  40. Auntiepatch says:

    OMG! Death of a quailsman?!?! You kill me!

  41. sia says:

    So, what happens when you reach over for a jar of peaches and a centipede happily strolls up your arm signing Frank Sinatra?
    (Cuz surely, Karen Bertelsen’s centipedes are far from ordinary…)

  42. Erika says:

    We also live in an ancient house (172 years old) in Michigan, not far from Sarnia, and we have field stone basement walls as you do and probably have the same issues with everything that comes with that. What you did here looks wonderful but, speaking from experience, I would advise against storing anything in paper, cardboard, or cloth. Any dishes or cookware should be bagged in plastic or stored in plastic totes. The mice will find it and poop, chew, or nest, and what the mice don’t touch the spiders will have at it and just make it nasty. Of course, if you’ve figured out a way to keep the vermin at bay, I’d love to hear about it!

  43. brenda says:

    OMGosh – and for some of us it’s a visit down memory lane to a place I once called home … those crevices that you vacuumed out – I did that every 6 months to no avail – so unfair – once should have been IT! … but, truth be told, all the spiders kind of make the rubble wall what it is (and should be) … don’t be as OCD’d as I was every 15 years or so seems reasonable … spiders are good and so are centipedes … and so is your new stairs storage BTW

  44. Stephbo says:

    I’m having a serious trip down memory lane. The steps to my grandma’s basement were exactly like yours, and they always creeped the hell out of me. I’m not sure how old her house was exactly, but I’ve seen pix of it from the late 1800’s. She did her under-stair storage all the way down in the basement underneath the basement steps and across the basement from the creepy sump pump hole. Good times.

  45. Kathy Hartzell says:

    17 years it took ya, eh? 31 years here, and my stairs still look like your before shots. Only I have a railing and everything is painted battleship gray, as it was when we bought the house. I have built two new kitchens in it, but the stairs still look like, well, chaos.

    As for the bugs in the vacuum canister….saturate some cotton balls with orange oil and suck ’em up. Betcha the critters will expire….it works for fleas in a vac.

    • Karen says:

      I’m still amazed when I look at the new version of my stairs. I can fit so much more and yet it looks 10x more organized and neater. I wonder what the hell else is a disaster in this house I’m not noticing. ~ karen!

      • Carswell says:

        It’s been 17 years in my house – mine isn’t as old as yours but my basement stairwell is every bit as icky as yours and the clutter in mine mirrors your first pic in a most striking manner as do the precarious stairs. I won’t even get into the low ceiling in the basement where the myriad cobwebs lurk just barely above the top of my head.

        A paint job. Some shelving. A new home for some of those things that just don’t have a home. Oh, the possibilities make my heart sing.

        Karen – you made my day.

  46. Edith says:

    Nice job Karen! Do the best with what you got…and you did!

  47. Laura Bee says:

    Holy Shit! This is perfect! I need to put the vintage things I have on Etsy safely away from the cats & my daughter. (as stated on my ToDo list) I have been trying to figure out where to put the shelves. Lady, you always know just what I need. And to top it off – I can put more shelves under the basement stairs. They are in my sewing room in a closet built under the stairs.

    I now love you a little more than I did before.

  48. Sarah says:

    I’m sad that the “festive salesman bones wreath” didn’t make the final cut.

  49. whitequeen96 says:

    Brilliant, as always! Looks beautiful, and very inspiring!

    BTW, those stairs are still kind of scary; are they really as steep as they look?
    And can you easily reach the stuff on your new top shelf without falling down them?

  50. mia pratt says:

    What a wonderfully clever place to store all that stuff you need to keep cool anyway<:} Well done!

    • Karen says:

      Thanks! I’m thrilled with it Mia! I can’t believe how many years I just went up and down those stairs without ever thinking to fix it, lol. We really can be blind to things right in front of us. ~ karen!

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