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Ideas from Ed: Staircase minus 1 or 2 (volume 4 issue 3)

Everyone who loves old houses should be so lucky as to enjoy an elegant old staircase, with fancy carvings, hand-turned spindles, and great woodgrain patterns. The project for this month’s story is just such a staircase. Well, almost. Here’s a picture. Look closely and see if you can notice the issue.

Not easily seen, as the photo wasn’t taken specifically to show it, but toward the upper left is a step with only 2 spindles, while the rest have 3. In reality, there’s another step, not shown, that is also missing a spindle. Really balusters, I’m calling them spindles because that’s what most people do. I’ll concentrate on just one of them for this article.

Not every staircase is built this same way, but the vast majority of historic ones are. Here’s a close-up of one of the normal steps. Notice the piece along the outside of the step, locking the spindles in place.

With some careful prying and tugging with an appropriate tool, while trying to avoid damaging things, the piece can be pulled away. Here’s what it looks like as removed:

Now, let’s return to the step with the missing spindle, after removing that end-of-step retaining strip. In my case, the butt end of the spindle remained in position and needed to be extricated. Pay attention to the way it’s installed, cut like a dovetail joint so as to remain strong and unyielding to any type of twist.

I’ve heard it said that I never do anything the easy way, and what I did next may prove that. Obviously each step has a “set” of 3 spindles, varying in height to mate with the handrail above it. To make a spindle (the shortest of 3 in this set), the logical thing would be to remove another spindle from a similar location on another step. That one would be the same length as the one that’s needed. However, I figured that since I already had the edge removed from this step, and the longest of 3 spindles there was loose and easily removed, I’d use that one as my pattern. That meant the bottoms would need to match up, as would the tops, but the in-between turning would be of different length. I knew I could adjust to that while working on the lathe, since I’d be hand-turning and not using any kind of “duplicator” to make the new spindle. The spindles are typically pressed into that dovetail shape, with possibly a single nail at the top and/or bottom to help keep it secure. Some gentle encouragement from your favorite mallet ought to free things, as is shown in this picture, removing the bottom part of the uppermost spindle.

Even if you need to take your spindle to a local craftsman to duplicate, removing and installing things yourself should save on the cost of this project. For more adventurous types who have the tools and capability, chuck a blank into your lathe and have some fun! I didn’t have a good red oak blank on hand, but purchased one at my neighborhood big-box hardware store for just under $10. It was 1.5 inches square and 36 inches long. The square part of the spindle I needed was just over 1.25 inches, so I began by planing it to size. Here’s me beginning the shaping on the lathe. If you’re not comfortable running this tool, have the work done by someone who is. A piece of oak spinning rapidly in front of you can be quite a launch pad for sharp tools attacking it. Safety is paramount!

I cut the top at the angle of the handrail, and the dovetail at the bottom, on the bandsaw. Here’s the finished spindle:

All it took then was a gentle tapping into position. I also drove a single nail horizontally through the dovetail (after pre-drilling!) to further secure things.

I nailed the retaining shoe back onto the edge of the step, and smiled broadly at what I accomplished. With a bit of dark walnut stain to match the rest of the staircase, it would be nearly impossible to notice as being “different” than the rest:

I hope all your projects go well. Thanks for reading, and happy restoring!


Should you wish to download a PDF of this column, click this link:

Ideas from Ed 2021-March - Staircase min
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