ISSUE 41  |  Orange is the New Black

Hardscaping 101: Stairway Lighting

October 16, 2014 1:30 PM

BY Janet Hall

By day, the best stairway lighting is barely noticeable. After the sun goes down, well chosen lights can transform staircases to glowing jewel boxes. Here’s our primer to make your exterior stairs safe, sure-footed, and if we’re counting first impressions, stunning.

N.B.: This is the third in our series of landscape lighting primers; scroll to the end for links to our posts on uplighting and pathway lighting. Sources for landscape lighting are also below.


Above: Above: Specht Harpman Architects (now Specht Architects) won a 2013 Gardenista Design Award for a landscape created in collaboration with Gunn Landscape Architecture. See more in Best Architectural Garden Feature.

Besides location, how is stairway lighting different?

Stairway lights generally offer a lower level of illumination than standard path or garden lights, leading the way without blinding the walker or distracting from the landscape. The direction of the shine is downward or sideways to create soft pools of light for safer footing.


Above: Concrete steps and discreet lighting courtesy of Growsgreen Landscape Design.

What are the different types of step lights?

Many outdoor lights can be used to illuminate at foot level, but some fixtures are designed specifically to light exterior stairs. Below are the most commonly used step lights. (Keep in mind that some lights can fit into more than one category.)

Riser Lights

Demure and effective, flush lights that mount on risers provide easy stairway navigation and can be coordinated with their background material so they don’t distract during the day.



Above: Single riser step lights center mounted in concrete stairs in garden by Remodelista Architect and Designer Directory member Pedersen Associates.

Under Tread Lights


Above: Hardscape lighting that mounts beneath the overhang on a stair tread is discreet and effectively directs light downward. For more, see Design Sleuth: Hidden Hardscape Lighting. Flexible light tape also can be used. Photograph courtesy via Kichler.

Recessed Wall Fixtures


Above: Mounted in adjacent walls, recessed lights cast a glow sideways across the stairs, creating safe stepping and visual interest on a far wall. Photograph via Delta Light.

Wall Sconces

Outdoor wall sconces mounted on posts alongside a stairwell can provide effective shine. Keep glare to a minimum by using down lights (or down/uplight combinations).


Above: For more, see Designer Visit: The Black and Green Garden of Chris Moss.  Photograph by Marcus Harpur.

Pathway Lights

If your stairs are flanked by greenery, consider pathway lights, fitted with canopies to direct light downward.



Above: Strategically placed pathway lights lead the way. Photograph via Delta Light.

What are tips for stairway lighting placement and selection?

  • Space out fixtures to avoid a bright stream of light. In other words, don’t use a light at or on every stair.
  • Consider placing a brighter lamp at the bottom and top of a stairway to guide walkers to the start and end points.
  • Choose fixtures that direct light downward or sideways at foot level.
  • Consider the width of your stairs. Extra-wide flights may need multiple fixtures at each level.
  • Select lights with frosted glass or shielded to prevent glare.
  • If your stairs are not uniform, consider placing lights where careful navigation or extra attention is needed.
  • Use lighting to enhance your landscape (most stairs are not worthy of a spotlight). Pay attention to placement so you can simultaneously highlight a prized plant or create an attractive light pattern.


Above: Photograph courtesy of Remodelista Architect and Designer Directory member Pedersen Associates.

How do I power step lights?

Unless they are solar-powered, outdoor lights need to be connected to an electric power source. You can plug them into an outdoor power socket, hard wire them to a full 120V electric source, or install a low-voltage transformer. From safety, cost, and easy installation, low voltage is the way to go. Low-voltage transformers change the electric current from 120V to 12V, ideal for outdoor garden use because of the wet conditions. (Electricity and water are typically a bad combination.)

Using regular electrical power requires wiring to be buried at least 18 inches deep or to be encased in a conduit, while low-voltage systems can plug into an outdoor socket. Then the wires can be easily buried under soil or gravel. Installing stairway lights in risers or walls adds an extra dimension of work. Consult with an electrician, contractor, or outdoor lighting professional for guidance.

For more landscape lighting ideas, see our earlier features:

Read our other outdoor lighting primers: Landscape Uplighting and Pathway Lighting. And for more staggeringly beautiful views, see Meredith’s Architect Roundup: 10 Garden Stairways.