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July 14, 2013
Last stair rails

Russell measures and marks stair balusters so they can be hacksawed to the correct lengths

When we last left our mountain home at the end of May, we had just started installing permanent stair railings and banisters. We finished the top landing, though one set of upright balusters was a bit crooked. We finished the bottom flight, though things were not actually screwed in place yet.

It was more than a month before we were finally able to come up for another weekend. Gail and Russell drove up on Thursday evening, July 11, leaving our two sons at home. The goal was to finish the rest of the stair railings, including the middle and upper flights.

It was not our best weekend. We got a late start, were stuck in rush-hour traffic and arrived well after dark. We opened the house to find six dead rodents (two in sticky traps and four in Gail’s water traps) and the associated smell. The weather on the mountain was extremely hot – in the mid-90s – and we had to hook up the air conditioners. We were out of practice and struggled to remember all of our steps and processes. We ended up getting pretty crabby with each other throughout the weekend. At least we got some work done.

Our first task was to screw all the pieces of the lower flight in place. The half-newel in the wall was a particular challenge, as the lag screws were directly in the path of a metal baluster. Russell ultimately got them screwed in by using a ratchet with a long chain of extension rods.

The lower stair flight

The half-newell was difficult to install because the lag screws were directly in the path of a metal baluster

Straightening the upstairs landing balusters was even more challenging. We figured that the reason the balusters were not plumb was because the rail was slightly too long at one end. Rather than completely remove the rail, we decided to trim it while in place. Gail used her oscillating multi-tool, protecting the newel with a piece of sheet metal to keep it from getting nicked. We couldn’t get the balusters completely plumb, but they look better now. The anomaly will simply have to be one of the “features” of our owner-built house.

The upper landing. Note that the left-most baluster is closer to the newell at the bottom than it is at the top

Gail used a multi-tool to trim the end of the rail in place. She wedged in a piece of sheet metal to protect the newel.

We also installed the rails and balusters for the middle and upper stair flights, a total of nine treads and 20 balusters. The process was fairly straightforward; the hardest part was remembering the process we used last time:

“Fit everything together” was the hardest step. We had to go back several times and re-cut the balusters. They kept being too long. It finally occurred to us that it would be easier to enlarge the holes in the rails. We were just about to do this when Russell made one last brute force attempt to shove everything together. It all finally fit.

In a somewhat anticlimactic moment, the stairs were finished. The balusters still need to be glued into place, the railings sanded and everything stained. But the hard work of the stair installation is finally done, almost four years after Russell first began construction in August 2009.

The upper flight, before and after. We put the rails in place temporarily to measure and mark the baluster holes in the correct places. The rails then had to be removed to install the balusters.

Another view showing both the middle and upper flights, before and after

We spent our final morning on Sunday assembling a couple more strands of reflective streamers to keep woodpeckers away from the last unprotected exterior house walls.

We have already mentioned that this was not our best weekend. One last incident confirmed that. Right before departure, Russell noticed that one of the plate-glass windows on our first-floor panorama looked odd. On closer inspection, he discovered that the window was completely covered with tiny cracks. The entire 8-foot pane has been shattered.

One of the window panes on the southwest wall somehow completely shattered, even behind a closed shutter

(Gail did some research and learned that “spontaneous shattering” is actually a known problem with large panes of glass.)

Someday down the road, we will need to replace this pane, as soon as we can figure out how to remove it without it disintegrating into thousands of shards. On the plus side, Gail had been wanting to add an additional downstairs door anyway…

The stairs… now with permanent stair rails!


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