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May 5, 2013
First banisters

Russell measures the hardwood floor to drill holes for balusters

At the end of March, Gail made a quick trip up to our mountain home to meet a septic repair person. He diagnosed that the septic alarm went off during our last visit because the float mechanism was malfunctioning. Fortunately it was not something more serious. A couple of hundred dollars later, we have a new float mechanism and our septic system is working again.

During her trip Gail also saw that there has been no further infestation from woodpeckers or mice. In fact, all of her interior glue traps were completely mice free. She came home declaring that Ė after years of struggle Ė she may finally have sealed off her rodent problem.

Due to scheduling conflicts, we were not able to return to the mountain until more than a month later. We still havenít made a decision whether to put stucco or sheet metal around the exterior of the house, but we have a lot of construction tasks to work on, including stair rail installation and finishing the master bathroom.

Gail picked stair rail installation as the priority task. On Friday, May 3, Russell took a day off of work and we drove up for the weekend. (As usual, our sons are both home this weekend to look after each other.) Gailís happy mood was completely destroyed when we pulled up and she saw the front door standing wide open.

(For context, a young girl in the nearby town of Valley Springs was murdered a week ago on April 27. The murderer is still at large, and is rumored to be hiding somewhere in the remote area. One of the reasons that Russell took a day off of work was because Gail didnít want to come up to the mountain by herself.)

After a quick check of the house, we concluded that Gail had not completely locked and fastened the front door after her last visit. The wind had blown it open. Fortunately, nothing has been stolen. Unfortunately, the wildlife and vermin have had an open house for the past month. Gailís glue traps had not only captured a lizard, they had also captured five mice and voles.

We would have to turn around and go back out to buy some more traps. We decided to work until sundown, then drive into town for supplies and dinner.

While Gail went through the house cleaning and sweeping, Russell took care of the rodents and immediately started work on the stairs. As usual, we decided to tackle the easiest part first. The second floor landing has two openings overlooking the stair cavity. These have to be closed off with railings and banisters. These would also be the easiest installations, as everything is either completely horizontal (the railing) or completely vertical (the balusters).

The weekendís task: install railings on both sides of the upper floor landing

Keeping to his methodical methods, Russell proceeded with excruciating attention to detail. The first step would be to secure the half-newel to the wall, where there is no supporting stud behind the drywall. Our original intention had been to use strong molly bolts, but we decided those would not be strong enough. Instead, we would reverse-engineer a stud. Gail accomplished this by cutting through the drywall on the other side of the wall, in Cameronís bedroom. Russell attached some additional 2x4s to the existing stud, and we were in business. We also got holes drilled into the hardwood floor for the balusters when we decided to call it a day.

The half-newel on the right attaches where there is no supporting stud behind the drywall

Gail saws through the drywall in Cameronís bedroom so we can attach more studs behind the half-newel (pardon all of the drywall dust!)

In town we bought glue-traps, a larger paddle-bit for the balusters, and various other screws and bolts to continue work. We bought various types of blades for cutting the metal balusters. We looked for a precision drill guide (to drill holes into the stair rails at an angle), but couldnít find one. Finally, we had pasta dinner at Strings in town.

On Saturday morning we continued work, cutting and drilling holes into the stair rail. We measured the length by placing the rail between the newels. We measured the holes by lining the rail up to the corresponding holes in the floor. Gail held a level against the rail while Russell drilled the holes. It was a very methodical process (which Russell likes) that had visible results (which Gail likes).

Gail holds the round-topped railing level while Russell drills baluster holes

Cutting the metal balusters was a bit trickier. We had bought a metal blade in town for Gailís handheld grinder. But when we applied it to the baluster, it created so many sparks that we had to stop due to fire danger. Our only alternative was to cut each baluster by hand with a hacksaw. Again this was a very methodical process, and we got the process down to about a minute per baluster.

We ended up needing to cut all of the metal balusters (11 on the right landing and 17 on the left) by hand with a hacksaw

The hardest part was fitting all of the balusters into both the floor and the railing at the same time, then putting the railing in place. We discovered that the railing was a little bit too long, putting the balusters at a slight angle. The railing needed to have a bit shaved off, so we held off installing it permanently. It was midday and we treated ourselves to a long lunch break.

In the afternoon we started on the other side of the landing. Once again, the first step involved a newel. This time, because the newel was up against a window, we would need to completely remove it in order to measure and drill a hole through it to support the rail. This ended up taking most of the afternoon. Once again, Russell got as far as drilling the holes in the hardwood floor before we called it a day.

On Sunday morning we had to depart by noon due to some obligations at home. Once again we started work early. By now our process was down pat, and we made excellent progress. By mid-morning we had finished both sides of the landing. Once again the hardest part was fitting all of the balusters into the floor and railing, and once again we decided not to do a permanent installation yet.

The left-hand landing, with holes drilled and with balusters installed

Gail is absolutely thrilled to have finished both of the upstairs banisters in one weekend. Russell is already looking ahead to the challenge of the actual stair rails, where we will need to do everything at an angle. We will need to buy some additional baluster knuckles Ė we have too many angled knuckles and not enough flat ones. And we will need to find some kind of precision drill guide.

But we are working very well together and it feels like we are back on a productive roll. As long as we donít get distracted by woodpeckers and rodentsÖ

The upstairs landing with banisters installed


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