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May 26, 2013
First stair rails

Russell doublechecks a measurement as he tries to fit a stair rail in place

Our original plan for the three-day Memorial Day weekend was to have our two sons join us up at our mountain home for a rare family getaway. Then Joss informed us that he needed to stay home for a videogame tournament. Then Cameron informed us that his girlfriend needed to stay home and study anyway. So once again it was just Gail and Russell who made the trip. We drove up on Friday afternoon, May 24, braving the holiday traffic and arriving too late to do any work.

Our first order of business was to check on vermin activity. Inside the house, we found that Gailís various traps had caught a whopping 10 rodents. Three of them were in a water-filled bucket trap she had devised. Unfortunately, she suspects that we still have more rodents lurking about. Outside the house, we discovered that woodpeckers continue to attack the few walls that donít have glittering streamers attached. We still need to look at a more permanent solution down the road.

Woodpeckers continue to damage the north (front door) wall, where we donít have any protection or deterrents

On Saturday morning, we started the real work of the weekend. Our priority was to install our first stair rails. However, Gail had also brought up a chandelier she picked up on Craigslist that she wanted to hang over the stairs. We decided this would be easier to install before any stair rails were in place, so it became our first task.

With the upper landing banisters in place, it was no longer possible to span planks across the stairwell opening. Gailís solution was to use the scaffolding we had borrowed from Dennis, our building inspector. By setting the platform ends at two different heights, we were able to span the two stair landings. The scaffolding fit perfectly. Even so, the ladder barely allowed us to reach the vaulted ceiling to remove the old track lighting.

We used borrowed scaffolding, set unevenly on the stair landings, to reach the vaulted ceiling

Even so, Russell was barely able to reach things. (Note that Gail is holding a rope tied to his belt.)

Gail also wanted the chandelier to hang lower than its currently configuration. So we spent a considerable amount of time adding chain links and rewiring the light to a longer length. The lighting project ended up taking the entire day Saturday. But it looks very impressive, and Gail is just thrilled.

We needed to increase the length of the chandelier chain by nine inches

Before: track lighting originally installed by Dirk, then reinstalled (after drywalling) by Russell and Cameron
After: a $300 chandelier that Gail found on Craigslist for $100

On Sunday morning, we finally took a look at the stair railings. We knew these would be more difficult than the upper landing banisters because everything would now be at an angle. We had no experience doing this kind of thing, so we made up the process as we went along. We decided to start on the lowest flight of stairs, which consisted of four treads.

How do we cut the stair rail at the right length and angle to fit between the newels? We used the stairs themselves to set the angle, by simply resting the wood on top of the treads. We used the light from a laser level determine our cut lines. We then matched that angle on a miter saw.

The laser level

The miter saw has a nice gauge that ensures the rail is held at a right angle

How do we ensure that the balusters are evenly spaced on the treads? This was harder, as we were trying to measure against treads at different heights. We thought about spacing them evenly along the length of the stair rail, but we decided that it was more important for them to look uniform along the treads. We measured the same distance from each tread bullnose, then adjusted as well as we could eyeball it.

Russell used a drill with a bubble level to ensure that his baluster holes were perpendicular

How do we ensure that the baluster holes in the treads are perfectly perpendicular to the baluster holes in the stair rail? While Russell held the stair rail in place, Gail held a baluster in one hand, a level in her other hand, and marked a line on the stair rail with her other hand. Yes, we know this adds up to three hands. But thatís how we did it.

How do we drill baluster holes into the stair rail at the correct angle? From our preparation research, we knew that we would need a device called a ďprecision drill guide.Ē Although both Home Depot and Lowes advertised them on their websites, we couldnít find any in the actual stores. Gail located one at Grainger for $80 and one at Harbor Freight for $20. Since our use was for a single stair project, we went cheap and got the one from Harbor Freight. Gail also brought a drill guide for a dremel, just in case it would work with the drill. It didnít. We ended up using the Harbor Freight product. It was made of really cheap plastic, but by using it carefully we achieved good results.

Our $20 precision drill guide. Itís made of cheap plastic, but it serves it purpose.

How do we drill newel-mounting holes into the stair rail at the correct angle? We could not use the precision drill guide for this because the target end was too small. Instead, Gail set the railing angled against the ground, and Russell relied on the bubble level in his drill. It worked well enough.

By setting the bevel cut of the stair rail flat against the floor, we were able to get a reasonably horizontal drilling surface

It wasnít until we actually set the balusters in place that we faced our biggest challenge. Gail had bought sets of single-knuckle and double-knuckle balusters, which she planned to alternate. They look beautiful on the upper landings, where everything is the same height. Unfortunately, when we installed them on the cascading-height stairs, they looked downright silly. We tried putting the single knuckle first. No good. We tried putting the double knuckle first. No good. We tried using all double-knuckles. No good.

The upper landing banisters have a beautiful pattern of single-knuckle and double-knuckle balusters

We couldn't achieve the same pattern on the tiered steps, no matter what combination of knuckles we tried

Gail didnít like any of these configurations, and was extremely depressed. Fortunately, Russell devised a mathematical way to emulate the pattern on the landings. We could raise the height of the single knuckles by turning those balusters upside-down and cutting the lengths differently. This would mean wasting the three single-knuckle balusters that we had already cut. Fortunately, we had exactly three extra balusters to spare. We tried the new configuration and it looks beautiful. Once again, Gail is just thrilled.

Our final solution involved installing eachsingle-knuckle baluster upside-down so the knuckle would be higher

It took us 10 hours to install just the left side of the lower flight. It was now Monday morning, and we would need to depart by midday. We decided to work on the right side of the lower flight until we ran out of time. By eating quickly and pre-packing, we were able to get almost five hours of work done Monday morning, and got 90 percent toward completion.

The lower flight, before and after. (This is kind of a cheat, as the right-side half-newel has not been fully installed. But we are 90 percent of the way there!)

Despite Russellís attention to detail throughout more than a year of installing the stairs, he can now see every variance and imperfection as we try to measure and install the stair rails. While we are implementing the most simple stair rail design possible, we are still flying by the seat of our pants as we install them. Fortunately, Gail remains very pleased with our results so far, and we are learning an incredible amount as we go along.

In addition to the chandelier, Gail also found several chairs and benches on Craigslist that she is repairing and refinishing. She plans to set up several sitting areas around the property to better enjoy the views.


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