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August 5, 2012
Stairs: last tread, first newels

Russell and Gail install the first stair newel, at the top of the stairs

With a rare break in our work and life schedules, both Gail and Russell were available to go up to our mountain home the first weekend in August. Our goal was to make progress on the last remaining item on our inspection checklist: the stair rails.

We drove up on Wednesday, August 1. We spent much of the afternoon unpacking the van, including a new futon and television table that we picked up for free from someone’s garage sale cast-offs.

Over the next few days, Russell would be working his day job remotely from the mountain; so his availability would be much less than Gail had originally hoped.

We have written before about how Gail and Russell have completely opposite work styles. Gail likes to dig in and make immediate visible progress, while Russell likes to move slowly, methodically and analytically. It has been awhile since we both worked together up here, but man did we hit some rough patches! Yow!

Gail wanted to get to work right away on the newels, the posts that support the stair rails. Not so fast. While we had installed 14 of the 15 stair treads, we had never cut the lowest tread. This was because its size and shape would depend on the type of starting newels we used.

On Wednesday afternoon, we had a long discussion before ultimately deciding to simply cut the tread the same length and size as the others. Gail bull-nosed and stained it on Wednesday evening, and we installed it on Thursday.

Almost two years (!) after doing the rest of them, we finally cut and installed the final stair tread!

Time to install newels? Not yet. Russell argued that once we had newels in place, we would no longer be able to carry large objects up and down the bending staircase. So first we had to bring up the new futon and bring down the old one.

Time to install newels? Not yet. We also had to bring up six more pieces of 8’ x 4’ OSB sheets that we would need to subfloor the master bedroom sometime in the future.

Time to install newels? Not yet. We still had to re-install the lights over the stairs, which we had removed to get the upstairs ceiling dry-walled. This would mean re-installing a temporary platform over the stair hole, which would be impossible once the newels were in place. So we had to do that first.

Russell, atop a ladder atop a makeshift platform, re-installs the lights over the stairs

Time to install newels? Not yet. We had to determine exactly where to place them. Placement of the newels would be determined by placement of the rails, which would be determined by placement of the balusters (the vertical rods along the stairs). Russell sat down and spent a considerable amount of time going through his instructions and building codes, taking measurements and writing notes. Meanwhile, Gail waited patiently.

Russell measured and re-measured. Gail constructed mockups using scrap wood. Russell constructed more mockups using cardboard. (Ultimately, it was a good thing that we did all of this pre-work, because we discovered more than one measurement error that would have cut a newel too short.)

Russell, with two pads full of measurements at his side, cuts a cardboard newel mockup with a box knife. (In the background is a previous mockup cut from scrap wood.)

Meanwhile, Gail waits very patiently, newel in hand…

It wasn’t until Friday – after a drive into town to pick up more supplies – that we finally started on our first newel. We had nine total newels to install, and we decided to tackle them in terms of ease. The easiest ones were the two at the top of the stairs; they simply had to be cross-cut and screwed into the floor.

Even so, Russell made an error in how long they should be cut. (He failed to account for the additional rise from the distance the newel was set back from the edge of the platform.) Fortunately, Gail decided she wanted the posts shorter than she had originally specified, so it worked out okay.

Before and after: our first two newels, installed at the top of the stairs!

We used L-brackets on all four sides to secure them to the hardwood floor.

On Saturday we tackled the next easiest newels: the starting newels on the bottom tread. Here again, we discussed and re-discussed. We came up with three possible scenarios:

  1. Set the newels on the ground,
  2. Set them on the first tread freestanding, or
  3. Set them on the first tread adjacent to the second tread.

After looking at it from all angles, Gail decided to set them on the ground.

Now, Russell determined three different ways to install them:

  1. Notch the newel,
  2. Notch the tread, or
  3. Notch both the newel and the tread.

It was at this point Russell realized why he has been dragging his feet on installing the newels, not only this trip but over the past several months. After spending so much time and manpower designing and cutting these beautiful cherry-stained stair treads, he really didn’t want to notch into them. He did all the calculations for leaving the treads intact and notching the newels instead. Gail even agreed to it. But in the end, Russell realized that to create the strongest structure, he would have to cut into his beloved treads.

Our original plan was to notch the treads using chisels – a labor-intensive and messy process. Fortunately, Gail’s new oscillating multi-tool had a saw blade that cut through the treads neatly and cleanly, “like butter.”

Russell uses an oscillating multi-tool to notch the stair tread that we just finished installing

Once Russell finally made the decision to notch the treads, the actual work was quick and easy. By Saturday evening, we had both of the starting newels finished. We called it a day before actually lag-screwing them in place; we’ll continue that on our next work trip.

Before and after: the notch for the starting newel

Before and after: the starting newels, installed!

On Saturday night, we were treated to a rare dry thunderstorm over the Sierra Nevada mountains. We sat outside on the deck and watched lightning flash all over the sky, followed by long, loud and booming thunderclaps.

Gail called these “jellyfish clouds,” as the storm slowly moved in from the southwest

We weren’t able to get any of our own pictures, but we saw a lot of this (photo from sacandco.net)

We spent Sunday morning cleaning up and going to the monthly American Legion breakfast before heading out.

We now have four out of the nine newels cut and in place. Those were the easy ones; the hardest ones are yet to come. Hopefully we’ll make faster progress next time.

On the wildlife front, Russell was discouraged that he didn’t spot anything… until he got up early Sunday morning and saw this jackrabbit on the southwestern knoll!


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