woodwork, millwork, stairs

Stair Masters

A monumental stair is a combination of art and engineering that requires an expert’s experience.

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By Marieke Cassia Gartner

The Millennium Staircase was built by Sterling Staircase and Handrail for a home in rural Vermont. The stair is supported on one side by a wall; it is freestanding on the other side. Photo: Sterling Staircase & Handrail

A grand stair can provide just the right touch for a grand traditional home – an aesthetic statement and an invitation. Including such a stair in new construction requires much thought, however, and careful planning.

Custom wood stair builders get all sorts of directives from architects--from two concentric circles drawn on a piece of paper to a complete design. "Most of the time, they submit basic floor plans, a plan view with the stair in the shape that they want it. Usually, it’s not too detailed or designed," says Douglas Adams, president of Grayslake, IL-based Adams Stair Works & Carpentry. Either way, the stair builder needs to be involved with the planning from the start to ensure there’s room for the stair; that the design is physically possible and, where applicable, that it follows code. "Even when a designer or architect has specific ideas of what they want the stair to look like, I essentially have to draw and figure it all out, using their ideas as a guideline, to make it workable," explains Frits Momsen, owner of Stowe, VT-based Sterling Staircase & Handrail.

From Drawing to Structure
Once to-scale drawings are in hand, material and style choices must be made, including the selection of a material (wood or metal or some combination) and the design of spindles and balusters. "We’re often given photographs of what a client is interested in," explains Adams. "Usually, we tell people to look at the rail and stair concepts on our website. At this point, curved or straight doesn’t matter. It’s more the aura you’re trying to create – that is, the feel that you’re trying to achieve when you walk into the house." Once this is established, Adams Stair will list profiles and style options that it thinks accurately reflect what the client is looking for. Importantly, a price list is included at this point. "Even architects are misinformed when it comes to stair pricing," says Adams. "Often, they’re building a house to a $200 per-sq-ft. budget, but they pick a railing from a house that has a $700 per-sq-ft. budget. This happens a lot." To complicate matters, there are plenty of resources available to people researching stair prices. However, many "misrepresent this aspect," he adds. "For some reason, most of the time, architects use cost-estimating books. We can’t figure out how those books come up with their figures, which are usually way too cheap."

Stringers for the Millennium stair were set up over the full-sized plan on the floor. Photo: Sterling Staircase & Handrail

In addition, issues of code and function come into play "Sometimes, you’ll see designs shown on television that clients like, for instance a stair with a rail only on one side, but it doesn’t meet code, so we can’t do it," says Adams. Another example in houses with tall ceilings is tall stairs, 24 risers for example, with no landing in the middle of the stair. "You can’t do that," he says. "It’s too tall. It needs a resting platform in the middle. Architects need to make sure they know the code and its correct interpretation."

Next, accurate measurements must be made. "I don’t have an engineering background," says Momsen, "but I can figure out what forces things to go together for support. A lot of it is intuitive, and a lot is experience." Adams agrees, "A lot of it is years and years of practical experience. We know what will hold up and what won’t, and the quality of different woods." The question is, for stairs, how do you engineer something that will support itself? In one project Momsen worked on, called the Millennium Staircase for a new home built into the hillside in rural Vermont, the stair was supported on one side by a wall but was freestanding on the other side. "In this project, the straight section of the stair extended down and formed a kind of truss into which the curved section then led. As the components came together, they became stronger and stronger. Each one on its own wasn't particularly firm, but the curves began to work with one another. When it was done, the builders came and looked at it and wondered how much steel I had in it," Momsen says. "I had none." In fact, the stair handrails and treads were made from black walnut, with quartersawn treads. "Whenever I get some say in how the wood is finished, I recommend, especially for mahogany and walnut, a coat of Watco oil, followed by three coats of satin urethane," he adds. "The oil gives an extra depth and richness to the color and grain."

Adams Stair Works & Carpentry fabricated this cherry double-open freestanding circular grand entry stair, which features custom newel posts and custom painted metal balusters.Photo: Adams Stair Works & Carpentry

Adams Stair does a lot of restoration work, and by doing so, its staff has learned a lot from other people’s mistakes. For an 1860s freestanding staircase that had developed 5 ins. of tilt, the company took it apart, looked at it and figured out where it had failed. "You build on that experience," explains Adams. "In that case, it failed mainly because when the building (it was a church) was remodeled 50 years ago, the floor joists were cut to get pipes in. No one realized that this had caused a problem in the stair because the floor joists were 20 ft. away from it in a different room."

Other than the issue of support, the handrail can present the biggest challenges to stair builders. "A skilled carpenter can build the carcass of a staircase," Momsen says, "but the handrail, when following curves, and then meeting straight lengths, creates complications." Luckily, there is a method for dealing with curved handrails. The Tangent Handrailing System is a geometric process where you can plot exactly the turns that a handrail goes through. "This system makes it possible for someone to send me a drawing with the radius and elevations of the stair, and, without going there, I can build a handrail and ship it off," says Momsen. The planning itself, however, tends to all be done by hand in smaller stair building shops. "I haven’t been convinced that there’s a computer program out there that can fully develop the shapes that you need," he adds, "but I might be wrong."

Adams Stair Works fabricated this stair in walnut. Custom features include the rail profile, the turned 1¾-in. balusters, the design of the 6-in. square posts and the panelized stringers and wall paneling that follow the pitch of the stair. Photo: Adams Stair Works & Carpentry

This custom cherry elliptical entry stair by Adams Stair Works has metal balusters. Photo: Adams Stair Works & Carpentry

New Materials, New Problems
Species of wood not often used for stairs in the past but becoming popular now can be a challenge as well. "Each species has different characteristics," says Adams. "Because of its properties, wood often causes engineers to have a hard time calculating support because of different stresses when you bend the wood. Now we’re seeing a lot of santos mahogany, jatoba, Brazilian cherry, Lyptus and other imported species. These have different stability ratings compared to traditionally used stair wood, such as maple, oak or cherry. Different adhesives must be used, as well as different clamping times. These woods also have different memories, so when bending them, some hold their shape better than others." The use of these new woods for stairs is being driven by the flooring industry, Adams adds. "Importing flooring can be inexpensive, because it’s usually made out of lower grade lumber then graded up. What people don’t realize is that for stairs it’s harder than for floors to import because of the larger size and the shape of the pieces."

Connections are another area of potential problems with newer materials. "Often in coastal areas, buildings are concrete and block, which require different connection techniques," explains Adams. "You need to set bolts while you’re pouring the concrete. Steel flanges, epoxies and boring concretes are all needed. The process begins a lot sooner than it used to."

Another issue, especially with large stairs, is lead time. As a one-person operation, Momsen needs from six months to a year to complete a large project. "There’s a tremendous amount of handwork in it," he says, "with specialty pieces and the handrail, which can’t be done by machine." Momsen adds that while bigger outfits can turn around stairs faster, they can be limited by how tight the radius is. As he points out, there are no limits when fabricating a stair by hand.

Early Involvement
Stair builders emphasize, whether an architect has an exact design in mind or whether it’s just a vague idea, that they need to be involved from the start, or the staircase may not happen. "The architect should always start out with a floor plan and plan view. They need to allow the space and make sure they’re following code. If they have questions, they should consult a bona fide stair company or stair manufacturing association like the Stairway Manufacturers Association," says Adams. "Talk to someone who’s been around and who knows the business, who can answer technical questions, such as those about the rise and run of stairs. On a major house, consult the stair company after the floor plan is initially drawn but before the mechanicals, before the structural drawings. Then we can look at the stair and tell if it needs more space. After the structural drawings are done, if we need more space for the opening, at that point it’s too late." Momsen adds, "What is really important is to have contact with the owner or, at least, with the person with the ultimate aesthetic authority. Without direct communication, an element that might be unimportant to the customer or, vice versa, to me, the builder, can become incorporated into the design and can sometimes affect the complexity and, therefore, the cost."

Click here for a list of wood stair suppliers
Click here for a list of stair parts suppliers
Click here for a list of wood railing suppliers