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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
And here’s the solution:
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.
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.