One more Stair Rail

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Project by reedwood posted 369 days ago 1498 views 1 time favorited 8 comments Add to Favorites Watch

One thing for sure,

there are really good framing carpenters, fine cabinet makers and high end trim carpenters,

and then, ...... there are the custom Stair Makers.

As a carpenter/contractor, I’ve had the pleasure of working with a few of them.


The Stair Master

They are like Gods that walk amongst the nimble minded wood butchers that we are.

Oozing stoic confidence, an undeniable air of respect, a silent swagger, hiding privileged secrets we dare not ask, for fear of exposing our tinder bellies. (ending up looking stupid)

Behold the Stair Master with his tool box of magical goodness!

Full of jigs and wtfit’s, shop worn Starrett squares and odd brad point bits, scratch awls and modified countersinks, grandpa’s wooden torpedo level and a medley of clamps, widgets and rasps.

And then you see his other tools, his miter saw and stand set up,

and you know …. this guy’s the One. – end sarc


I’ve seen a few Journeyman carpenters step back when asked to install the stair railings.

I wondered if it’s because they never had a chance to try, or is it the math they’re not sure of?
..... the ability to see angles and think it through. To accept a challenge for the sake of the challenge.

It’s part of being a wood worker, I think. The fun part.

And they’re really not that hard to install after you’ve done it once or twice with a pro breathing on your neck.

A carpenter friend, who now sells millwork called the other day,

.... said he had a client who was looking for a stair man for a remodel.
Normally, I would call my stair guy and assist with the incidentals and paperwork but, things have changed.

My stair guy moved to Kentucky to open up a bait shop – lucky him.
I don’t know anyone else and I don’t recommend strangers. Learned that lesson long time ago.

I’m 56 years old and I’m at a point in my life where the jobs I take on have less to do with money and more about doing things that I enjoy. And no, I don’t work for free, just different priorities.

It’s like completing a bucket list of final projects, like building a big fancy walnut hutch, a 20 ft. mahogany canoe, or maybe even ….. a 40 ft. tri hull catamaran. Who knows, I can still dream big anyway.

It’s pretty cool, I guess …. except for that finality part.

So I went to the jobsite to take a look. The homeowner, Scott was a really nice guy with a good eye for detail.
I could tell right away that we were a good fit.

The existing oak staircase was varnished natural and had a 90s traditional look to it.

Scott wanted to replace the spindles and paint them white, add new posts – stained darker with new white aprons and wider 4/1/2” base trim,... more of a metropolitan look. Nice.

We would remove the old railings carefully to be sold at a garage sale or recycled through Habitat for Humanity.

From my experience, a stair guy would install the oak stair parts bare – no stain. He would install plugs to hide wall bolts and screws, fill all the nail holes and sand the crap out of everything …. 99% ready for stain.

The contractor would cover with plastic to prevent hand prints until the painter arrives. But, the painter is still responsible for it including missed glue stains or nail holes … he owns the final finish.

The painter would prep everything, stain and varnish two coats, the hand rails and posts. Once dry, he would blue tape the stained oak, touch up primed spindles and spray or brush on two coats of white paint.

But, apparently, Scott’s painter has a better way.

He says it’s way too much work to blue tape and paint all those spindles in place and wants me to install everything prefinished. He would spray all the white parts and stain and varnish the posts and handrails in his shop at the same time.

So, we put our heads together and talked about it.

I said I liked the finish of sprayed spindles verses hand painted. It also would be a cleaner joint to the stained cap. I point out that it would be more work on my end, but the painter assures Scott that it’s less work than blue taping all those spindles.

I explained there would be a dozen 15 ga. holes in the cap to be filled afterwards with a matching color stick and, everyone seems OK with that.

It seemed like a reasonable request ….. never done it that way before.

Is this …..... a challenge? I install prefinished cabinetry and stuff all the time. Why not?

The only condition would be that I will cut all the parts and pre install everything as a dry fit, then disassemble. That way I can sand all the cuts and railings so he can prime or stain the ends.

The Big Production

One challenge would be replacing the first step, making it 6” longer, 2” wider and stronger so we could add a spiraling hand rail on the left.

The new oak flooring stopped half way through the step with a beveled edging for the carpet.

So the new step will have to be notched to the floor and scribed to fit.

It’s like the original stair guy planned to install a spiral hand rail but there wasn’t room so he just ended it straight.

Why else would someone install this kind of step? ....... go figure.

We added a post and short rail on the right side so the step had to be lengthened about 3 inches.

The existing first step was pretty flimsy and had to be replaced. There was no way to add on to it and make it strong enough. The step was dado’d in to the side boards and the risers were nailed and glued from behind.

...... Lots of fun to remove.

The new oak step was 1” thick by 16” wide, and 5 ft. 6” long. I glued three 5/4×6s with Titebond and biscuits.

Trying to figure out the new radius was fun too. The premade spiral hand rail directions didn’t work and I ended up laying it out from scratch on rosin paper.

I thought about building a plywood frame and wrapping with 1/2” oak plywood but decided to make the base solid out of stacked, glued and screwed 3/4” plywood.

It made it easy to deal with the 3/4” transition in the oak floor … ain’t going nowhere, neither.

It took a couple of try’s but I was able to bend the 1/2” oak ply around the tight corners without busting it or have any kerf lines showing.

Making the 1/4” kerf cuts perfectly the same distance and depth with a jig is the answer.

Here you can see the old base next to the new solid base.

Originally, this room had a two story ceiling. The owner, Scott had a floor built to create space above for a library for his huge collection of books.

Hey Scott! .... I thought you were going out to buy coffee and donuts!

The first floor ceiling is still nine ft. tall so it was a great idea.

A 12×18 library room for free? .... hell yea.

The Stair Rail Assembly

There are a few ways to install stair spindles but I like to screw things whenever possible.

But the spindles came with a predrilled hole and a weird dowel that wouldn’t work with an angled stair cap. So I had to drill and plug all the angled spindles, cut to length, and predrill for a 2 1/2” screw … no biggy.

Then, I discovered some of the spindles were swollen or they were from different batches because all the upper round ends were different thicknesses. They came pre primed so I had to sand down and widen the angled holes slightly with a sharp spade bit ….. Yippee.

When I demo’d the original stair cap, I discovered the framing stuck up 1/2” higher than the skirt boards.
I had to scrape off the old glue, sink all the framing nails and plane it down … a two hour unexpected project.

The stair wall caps were replaced with wider 1×8 oak to cover the new 3/4” apron trim. I routed the edge to give a little detail.

The spiral hand rail was fun to build. It’s been a while since I’ve installed one. But, like riding a bike, it all came back to me. The two cuts at the transition to straight is key to a good install.

The spiral chunk of oak looked like a tree root gone wild and somewhere in there was the perfect cut.
I had to make a wedge to hold it at just the right angle, clamp it to the miter box and pray my lines are right.

..... as if there was any doubt …... come on, it’s just a bicycle, right? ..... whew!

The railings, posts and spindles were prefinished as planned and I’d say it came out pretty good.

Although I don’t know if I would recommend someone doing it this way. I took a big chance of damaging it during the install and having it not go back together exactly the same way and ….. after all that,

...... you’re not going to believe this part.

The painter got a 2500.00 advance and Walked Off The Job..... won’t answer his phone.

Ain’t that something else? all that effort for him ….... huh.

Just the same, the job came out really nice. Scott found a really good painter to come in and finish the paint job.

I haven’t gotten final pictures yet. Still waiting for the painter to finish and carpet to be installed.

I’ll update this post later.

The best part is I’ve made a new friend in Scott.
And now, he wants me to build his fireplace mantle and book cases.

I’m sure there’s room for that on my bucket list.

-- Mark - I prefer the tumult of liberty to the quiet of servitude. - Malo periculosam

8 comments so far

View WayneC's profile


12265 posts in 2732 days

#1 posted 369 days ago

This is really nice work. Sucks when people have no integrity. :(

-- We must guard our enthusiasm as we would our life - James Krenov

View Tony_S's profile (online now)


422 posts in 1717 days

#2 posted 368 days ago

Nice work Mark….Looks like your one of ….....hush…....’us’....

”They are like Gods that walk amongst the nimble minded wood butchers that we are.
Oozing stoic confidence, they carry a certain amount of respect, a silent swagger, hiding privileged secrets we dare not ask, for fear of exposing our tinder bellies. (ending up looking stupid)”

Had to laugh when I read that!! I’ll have to ask a few of the guys tomorrow If I have a silent swagger!

Maybe a ‘John Travolta’ Strut LOL!!

-- "The trouble with people idiot-proofing things, is the resulting evolution of the idiot."

View MarkTheFiddler's profile


1774 posts in 823 days

#3 posted 368 days ago

Mark, once again, you have produced some masterful work. It’s stunning. Congrats for earning Scott’s faith. There was really no doubt that you would. Thanks for sharing your work and the cool story.

-- Thanks for all the lessons!

View 489tad's profile


2295 posts in 1646 days

#4 posted 368 days ago

What a difference the new stair case makes. Well done.

-- Dan, Naperville IL, I.G.N.

View reedwood's profile (online now)


872 posts in 1310 days

#5 posted 368 days ago

Thanks everyone,
Wayne – yea, there out there. Big believer in what goes around comes around….and it’s a coming.
Hopefully, he’ll have regrets and it haunts him for the rest of his life. Scott didn’t deserve that.

Tony….my man. How did you know I was talking about you? Ha!
This was supposed to be about how we admire certain talents that seem out of reach when in fact, it’s not that hard once you try it….. Like pretty much everything in life.
I hope it didn’t come off like I was a God or as good as you.
I was blessed to be mentored by a few stair men that obviously made a valuable impression.
This is about them…...and maybe it’s OK to show my work and brag a little.

yea, you do look a little like Travolta.

Hey Mark! glad you lied it. I was about 75% done writing this when it suddenly published! I had to quickly edit it numerous times, add the last pictures and changed the name 4 times. I hope the message came out right. Usually, I wait a day to rearrange everything ‘cause I talk backwards and trim it by 25%. Then, I let my wife read/edit my stuff. sorry it’s so long winded.

Thank you Dan in Naperville, hey…we’re almost neighbors. Ever go to Owl Hardwood? my favorite place.

-- Mark - I prefer the tumult of liberty to the quiet of servitude. - Malo periculosam

View Puupaja's profile


310 posts in 1735 days

#6 posted 367 days ago

Great story… and the execution is very nice. It´s sure much more rewarding to work when you are in same “wavelength” with your client


View MarkTheFiddler's profile


1774 posts in 823 days

#7 posted 365 days ago

Mark, always a good read my friend. What you call long winded, I call entertaining.

-- Thanks for all the lessons!

View reedwood's profile (online now)


872 posts in 1310 days

#8 posted 363 days ago

mark, glad you liked it….l.i.k.e.

I thin there’s a toe nail clipping under my k.

-- Mark - I prefer the tumult of liberty to the quiet of servitude. - Malo periculosam

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