Sep 182015
 September 18, 2015  Uncategorized  Add comments

We returned from a vacation in southwest England (Devon and Cornwall are beautiful if you ever have a chance to go) at the beginning of this week to find that Gregg had reinstalled the old handrail and newel post while we were gone. If you’ve been following along you might remember that the old handrail came in several pieces that could be connected with threaded pins imbedded in each section of handrail. When assembled, the handrail formed a single curved strip of walnut that wound up two flights of stairs and around a landing. Originally the handrail was installed so low that it was mostly out of reach for anyone going up or down the stairs. And since increasing the safety of the staircase was one of the major goals of this renovation, we asked Gregg to raise the handrail a few inches to make it more useable.

Gregg used the temporary 2×4 handrail he  built at the beginning of the project as a brace for the original handrail. This way, he was able to position the entire handrail as a single piece and ensure that everything lined up properly before he actually began the reinstallation.

Braced Handrail

Braced Handrail

At the base of the stairs, the handrail connects to the newel post, and since Gregg raised the entire handrail a few inches, he needed to raise the newel post by the same amount. He planned to build a new base for the newel, but the question was, what would he use to build this new base? Ideally the base would be built out of wood that matches the original newel and handrail, which seem to be made out of 160-year-old solid walnut. Since antique walnut is expensive and hard to come by, we thought about building the base out of pine or poplar and trying to stain it to match the rest of the newel post. But stained wood would always look a little off. Ultimately, we realized that the newel post is the visual centerpiece of the stairwell – it’s the first thing you see when you walk in the door – and spending a little extra on matching wood seemed like the right thing to do.

So after work one day I made the trip up to Longleaf Lumber, a lumber yard in Cambridge that specializes in reclaimed wood. When I visited, they had a huge selection of cherry and pine, but very little walnut. But hidden behind some longer boards, I found rough-cut five-foot length of reclaimed American Black Walnut.

walnut board

The board in question is the darker board in the picture above. It actually looks lighter here than it did in real life. Walnut is some of the most expensive wood that Longleaf carries, and even though this was a small piece, the total came to just over $65. A pricey piece of wood to be sure, but not outrageous in the grand scheme of things. I crossed my fingers, bought the board, and hoped that it would match the newel post.

Back home, Gregg cut the board into eight equal pieces to build an octagonal base for the newel. Here’s the base clamped and glued:

Newel Base

Gregg added a beveled edge to the top of the base to make it look like an intentional part of the newel, rather than a strange modern addition hacked onto the bottom of an antique newel post. While we were away, Gregg installed the base and reinstalled the original newel post on top of it.

raised newel post

The base is unfinished here, so it looks very different from the rest of the newel post. But when Gregg wiped the base down with some water, it matched the original walnut almost perfectly, a good indication that it will blend in seamlessly after a few coats of varnish.

I mentioned at the end of a post a few weeks ago that Gregg had a plan to quickly and easily fill in the gaps left behind when the stair treads were shimmed and leveled. You can see the problem here:

Stairwell Cove Mouldling

And here’s the solution:

Foam Patched Treads

That’s right. High-density spray-foam. This stuff is normally used for insulation, but we’re using it here to quickly fill in irregular gaps. It may seem like a weird solution, but keep in mind that this is a purely aesthetic fix – this isn’t load-bearing foam. The plan is to shave the foam down so that it’s flush with the side of the staircase beneath it. Then I’ll skim-coat over the foam with joint compound. Once everything is painted, it should look seamless. And spraying foam is much faster and easier than cutting little strips of wood to fill in each gap.

Stairwell with Newel

This is where the stairwell stands now. The only work left for Gregg is to install all of the balusters. Then I’ll get started on a mountain of finish work.

  13 Responses to “Rebuilding the Stairwell: Reinstalling The Handrail”

  1. So cool! It will look amazing.

  2. I absolutely love following this stairwell transformation. You and Gregg have many innovative solutions! The raised newel post will look like it has always been there.

  3. This is an amazing project. I bet it is really satisfying for Gregg to build something like this, to restore this beautiful staircase and know that it will last another 100 years or more.

  4. Always love seeing the progress of your projects. You and Gregg seem to work very well together. What a find to have a carpenter who is so creative, resourceful and talented! Looking forward to seeing the big reveal.

    • We’re lucky to have Gregg working on this project. I’m sure other carpenters could do it faster, but I don’t think many others would offer as much attention to detail.

  5. You and Greg should have a home improvement show. You could be the new age Bob & Norm!

    • Haha as fun as that sounds, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from renovating this condo, it’s that I’m not capable of finishing projects on a tv timescale – we’d probably only come out with two episodes a year!

  6. Just love the sinuous curve of the handrail and how it falls so steeply as it turns from one floor to the next. Bravo to you and Gregg!

  7. That’s going to be amazing! That handrail is so beautiful. I love the solution to raising the base of the newel post. Looking forward to the finished project. Your common areas will be so beautiful.

    What do the other owners think?

    • Everyone is really excited – even just walking up level, evenly spaced stairs over the past few weeks has been a very welcome change for all of us. And now that the floors are refinished, we’re all relieved to finally have relatively clean common areas. We’re looking forward to seeing how the space turns out!

  8. You and Gregg have done a remarkable job; your Grandfather would be proud of you as am I.

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