That answer,for me, is very simple. For anyone interested in acquiring practical, applicable stair knowledge there happens to be a stunning lack of good, reliable, up to date, code-worthy information. To become proficient at hardwood stair and rail work (classified as "close tolerance" carpentry) a person must struggle for many, many years working in the field under the supervision of…??? Yes, there are many books available. I think I either have seen them or personally own copies but NONE are definitive. Some of these books are actually centuries old! So much for up to date! There is YouTube and the internet. Neither have been much help to me. Stair and rail work is inherently complicated. A craftsman might build a certain configuration or combination of elements and then may not do it again for 5 or 10 years or EVER! NO one book or video could possibly encompass ALL the possibilities, situations, combinations in one volume. The blog format, I think, might suit this problem very well.
Me? I humbly call myself a stair and rail craftsman. Yes. There I said it! I have been in residential construction full-time since 1985. Though I was a carpenter’s apprentice back in 1977 (I’m an old guy ok). I took a brief couple year time out to attend college (as a percussion performance major)! I have always enjoyed working with wood. Back from the days when I did side jobs with my Uncle Vic, who was a plumber for the Illinois Central Railroad. He, to this day, and I do not say this lightly, since I have known some really excellent, talented carpenters, my Uncle Vic was Mr Can Do! He did carpentry with a curved claw hammer, a framing square, a tape measure, a flat pencil and a set of really sharp hand saws. Hand tools ONLY. He knew and taught me the right saw for the job and kept them oiled up and sharp. He cut simple stairs and roofs, framed walls, installed doors and trim with the best of them. Nothing complicated but he started what he finished and he NEVER gave up. He ALWAYS figured it out, ALWAYS got the job done and ALWAYS got paid and had TONS of repeat business!
Next influence was Ol’ Mr. Lindsey, our High School Building Trades teacher. He said things like “leverage built the pyramids”, “do SOMETHING even if it’s wrong” and "don't leave boards with nails sticking out laying around"! In a way, I hate my experience with him for one sad reason; that the WHOLE WORLD didn't think like him! Huh? Here’s what I mean. He set us up for a future in a business where his professionalism, work ethic and attention to detail rarely exists. He taught us that a good carpenter thinks about the trades that will come in after him. He taught us to pick up after ourselves and to always do our best. I can still hear him saying; “a plumber will be drilling a 4” hole right around here (he'd be pointing with his weathered old fingers to a spot on a 2X4 plate where I had just pounded in some 16cc nails) and his drill bit cost $40. Where are you gonna get $40 to replace his destroyed drill bit”? $40 was a lot of money to a high school kid in 1975)! He was a trip. HE MADE SENSE and I STILL THINK OF HIM WHEN I DO CERTAIN THINGS! Whenever I have to frame a header, I will still put all the nails in rows on one side and face it out so the Building Inspector will be able to see it!
The birth of my children in the late ‘80’s had a great sobering effect on me. I put it like this; I got serious! I got hungry for knowledge and desired to become the absolute best damn remodeling carpenter anybody ever saw. I built kitchens and bathrooms, room additions and decks that I am proud of to this day. Many companies say they want extreme quality, especially to new customers but rarely do they truly expect it or are seriously willing to pay for it. They mostly expect good work done FAST. Period. That’s been my experience in three large metropolitan markets over thirty years. For the record, let me say that I am NOT slow by any means, I am thorough and complete. When I walk away from it IT’S DONE!
That is why I eventually started my own business as a multi-trade residential remodeler. This turned out to be really great and I did very well except that I am a terrible employer. I am a nuts and bolts, slog through the mud, get the job done carpenter, not a boss. I had a TON of trouble hiring, supervising and keeping people. I could not find people who could do it as well or as fast or as thorough as I could. Consequently, I hired helpers and did all the work myself. Along with all the prospecting for jobs, all the designing, all the quoting, all the ordering, the gathering of plans and permits and lining all the sub-trades. It was waaayyy tooooo much!
I always sought the more complicated aspects of carpentry like trim work and eventually roof cutting. These did NOT satisfy my thirst for knowledge. I wanted to specialize. I chose stairs. In early 2000's I went to work for a production stair company in the Chicago area. We did stair work in four states! They really taught me about production carpentry. As an installer for them, the key to job security was; “dollar per hour”. Lots of filler and lots of shortcuts. This really was not at all what I wanted. However, I did learn to be organized and disciplined. To group processes and to develop three-dimensional thinking. That’s right, to work with stairs and really be good at it you need to think in 3D! You have to see it in your mind from different angles and sometimes almost in color to be able to figure things out. The thing was, even though each installer averaged 2.5 completed stair jobs per week none of us knew how calculate the height of a volute newel or measure for a curve stair. I learned those aspects only after my experience with them. After the crash of 2008. Not from any books or videos either. Just trial and error, asking questions of knowledgeable people and some blown parts.
Ok, so here we are today. I am in the Carolina's. Working as a post and rail installer.
More to come…
In the meantime send your questions.