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August 25, 2012
Stairs: More newels


Gail and Russell use lag screws to attach the lower newels to the stairs

This letter could also be called “Russell’s bad week.”

Gail and Russell made yet another trip up to our mountain home the last week in August. While our sons would be joining us for some R&R over the weekend, we wanted a few days ahead of time to get some actual work done.

Unfortunately, the day before we departed, Gail had a doctor’s appointment for her shoulders and ended up receiving two cortisone shots. The bulk of the work would have to be done by Russell, who is still not at 100 percent after his hernia surgery.

Our critical path continues to be the stair railings. During our last trip, we successfully cut the two lowest newels (upright posts that support the stair railings), but we did not install them yet. That became the first chore for this trip as we started work on Thursday, August 23.

Our plan was to attach the newels to the stairs using 3” x 3/8” lag screws. Russell meticulously cut 1/16” pilot holes to guide the drill bits. Then he cut 1” holes for the lag heads, followed by 1/8” holes for the lag shafts. He was careful to cut the 1” holes first; if he cut the 1/8” holes first, he would lose his pilot holes. He cut four configurations this way – two in each newel.

We recount all of these details because of what happened next. When Russell went to insert the lag screws, he discovered that the bit driver did not fit in the 1” hole. The hole was too small.

Russell would have to drill larger holes for the lag heads. Unfortunately, he no longer had a pilot hole to guide the bit. Instead, he would have to try to drill a 1-1/4” hole, exactly centered around a 1” hole.

Needless to say, it was ugly. All Russell succeeded in doing was gouging a nick in a nice oak newel. Ultimately, Gail enlarged the holes using a rasp bit on her multi-tool instead. The holes are still ugly, but at least we were able to install the newels. We will have to fix them later with plugs and wood putty.

    
Left: Russell's attempt to enlarge a 1” hole to 1.25” only succeeded in gouging the newel
Right: Gail was able to enlarge the hole using a multi-tool rasp

We continue to work on these newels from easiest to hardest, so we can learn as we go. After the lower newel fiasco, the next two easiest would be the two half-newels that attach directly to walls – one at the top of the stairs, and one at the top of the first flight.

The half-newel on the first flight was fairly easy. The only prerequisite was to cut a notch out of the tread. After Russell’s agonizing decision last trip to finally notch the treads, it was a straightforward process. We even put mesh behind the newel to create a temporary “railing.”

         
Before and after: notching a tread to install a half-newel


The lower stair flight, with half-newel and mesh railing installed

The half-newel at the top of the stairs started out easily. We simply cut it to the same length as the other upper newels, then used anchor bolts to secure it to the wall. It was at this point that Gail asked a simple question: “Are these the right height?”

    
We install a half-newel on the upstairs landing;
The landing with mesh railing

Russell froze. He knew that the stair rails needed to be 36” high. He had just assumed that the balcony rails also needed to be 36” high. He went through his notes. He did not have any notation of the building code. He went online. He found one reference to 36”. He found another reference to 42”.

Gail put in a call to our building inspector, Dennis, but Russell wandered around depressed for the rest of the day. If the balcony newels had been cut too short, we would have to purchase new ones.

Dennis finally called back at the end of the day. The good news is that we are grandfathered into the old code, which does indeed allow 36” balcony rails. (The 42” spec is new code. We have the option to choose either one.) Needless to say, Russell was relieved. However, he remained squeamish from that point on, having Gail double-check and triple-check every one of his measurements. (Gail knew this was monumental, because math is not her strong suit.)

Even better, Dennis also recommended an alternative to the bulky lag screws. He would also accept strong-drive structural (SDS) screws, which are much thinner than lag screws and easier to install.

It was too late for us to change the lower newels, but we decided to switch to SDS screws for the middle newels. On Friday morning, we drove into town to pick up some SDS screws and other supplies. While there, we also ate lunch out.

The big task for Friday was to install the final upper newel. The challenge here was to decide exactly where to place it. Because we ended up constructing the stairs differently than the original blueprints, we constructed the upper landing in a way that doesn’t line up with the window. This has always bothered Gail, but the logistics of “moving” the window would have been prohibitive.

Now, we saw that if we installed the balcony railings at the edge of the upstairs landing, they too would run into the window. Gail didn’t like this.


The edge of the upper landing runs right into a window

We brainstormed various alternatives, which included setting the railings back from the landing, setting the railings diagonally, or constructing a small bookcase that angled away from the window. In the end, Gail gave in and decided we should simply run the railings into the window after all.

         
We mocked up several configurations, including putting a small bookshelf between the window and the newel

With this decision out of the way, the biggest problem with this final upstairs newel was leveling it. The floor is not completely level, and the window is not completely plumb. If we made the newel plumb, it would not line up with the window. If we lined the newel up with the window, it would not be plumb. We ended up compromising between the two, and Gail spent upwards of an hour using various shims to set the newel where it would look best.


Gail tries to level the newel using various shims (note her recent cortisone shot)


The last upstairs newel, with mesh railing

At the end of two days, we had installed one newel and two half newels. We had also attached plastic mesh across every point that had two newels to anchor it to.

But there was still one more problem to occur. On Friday morning, as Russell was opening the shutters for the day, he heard a loud “snap” and the entire south shutter came rolling down with a crash. It was impossible to roll back up because the metal sheet, which weighs hundreds of pounds, jammed itself into the ground.

    
The south shutter, post-crash;
Russell couldn’t lift it himself because the heavy metal sheet wedged itself into the ground

Fortunately, on Friday evening our two sons drove up with two friends to join us for the weekend. On Saturday morning, Russell took advantage of the houseful of strong young people. It took five of us to roll the heavy metal thing back up: three manually wound the spindle from the top, while two lifted the shutter from the bottom. Once we had the shutter all rolled up, we tied it to keep it from falling again. We’ll have to figure out a long-term solution sometime in the future.


Rolling up the shutter: a team-building activity

The rest of this weekend will be dedicated to a short family vacation. After all of his stress this week, Russell could use one.


On the plus side, we now have newels and mesh rails on the balcony!

 

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