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A step in the right direction?

After the major renovation two years ago, the stairs to the second floor remained unfinished. The plan was to paint the stringers and spindles white, re-stain the oak railing and carpet the treads and risers. But one flight of  the exposed stringer was clad with some narrow tongue and groove paneling strips, the other flight was clad with knotty pine paneling and the whole thing was trimmed out with a mishmash of  moldings. So I stripped out all of this added trim work with the plan to replace it with something simpler later.

In July I decided it was time to check the stairs off of my project to-do list.

The first order of business was to strip the old finish off the railing and spindles. I had scuff sanded everything two years ago, but decided to go the extra mile and strip everything down to the bare wood. After spending about $60 at Canadian Tire on stripper, brushes and sanding supplies. I spent about 6 hours stripping and sanding 20 of the 60 spindles and a section of the railing. At the end of the day, I came to the conclusion that I had wasted $60 and 6 hours.

The stairs: a work in progress.

Issue:  not enough space to work

The stairway consists of one ten-step flight up to a landing, turning 180 degrees and continuing up a few more steps to the second floor. On the main floor, the railing system turns 180 degrees and continues to the steps leading to the back door landingThere is precious little space between the railing and each of these segments. Painting spindles is tedious work to begin with. Getting the  brush between the main floor section and the first flight section to slop on the stripper was difficult enough when neatness didn’t count. Actually doing a neat paint job would be a daunting challenge.

Issue:  not quite up to code

The building code state that the hand rail going up a flight of stairs must be continuous with no obstructions. On the first flight of stairs, the railing is too close to the stringer of the second flight. There are a number of other issues as well. Building codes change and no homeowner is expected to continually renovate his home to meet the new standards. But it is hard for me to justify spending a lot of time and effort to prettify something that just ain’t right. You can put lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig.

Issue:  Holy crap, that’s a lot of work

Okay, I’ll admit it. My propensity for laziness has taken over. It took me six hours to strip a third of the railing and spindles. That means another twelve hour investment in time and effort to complete the stripping. Painting multiple coats would also require a significant amount of time and effort. My thoughts turned to hiring this job out,  but there would still be the issue of the railing not quite being up to code.

The idea: build a wall

As much as we like the open look of the stairs, I am thinking that building a wall between the first and second floor may be a viable solution. The wall would not completely close in the stairs;  there will be “window” openings. The concept looks something like this (keeping in mind that I am not a graphic designer):

stair wall
Closing in the stairs.

The spindles are attached on top of the tread on the inside of the stringer, so by getting rid of them we would actually be gaining an extra inch and a half of useful stair width.  The front post/column will receive some fancy architectural detailing since it will be the dominant feature visible from the front entrance.

Building this wall solves a number of problems:

  • It solves the code issue by eliminating  obstructions.
  • It solves the painting issue.  Granted, painting the spindles may only be a one-time occurance in my lifetime, but getting rid of two thirds of them will simplify the renovation.  Framing a wall, installing and finishing drywall and painting will probably take less time than painting the spindles, and the results will likely be a lot better.
  • It solves an on-going maintenance issue.  Fewer spindles to keep clean.
  • It allows more options for finishing the treads, since the spindles will no longer be encroaching on the treads.  Installing hardwood treads or carpet would  both be simplified without having to cut around the spindles  The proper way would be to remove and then reinstall the spindles, but the way the railing ties in from the main floor to the first flight makes that solution nearly impossible without causing damage.

The only downside will be loss of openness, but at this point I think the trade-off will be worth it.  

The architect’s opinion

I ran my idea past the architect. He not only liked it but he also offered a suggestion for how we could finish the area off.

framed doorways

By building a wall with two doorways– one for the stairs and one for the back landing– we separate the front entrance from the back part of the house. The doorways would be framed the same as the other doorways so everything ties together. The downside of this idea is that there is a headroom issue at the stairs if the bulkhead is brought down to the same level as the other doorways.

My modification

I like the idea of creating the two doorways and intend to accomplish that with arches rather than framed openings. That way, I can keep the bulkhead higher so there is no issue with headroom.  It also avoids disturbing the tile at the sides and eliminates the corners on the floor where dirt would inevitably accumulate.

arched doorways
Quick sketch of my idea for the front hallway.

Archways accomplish the same separation as the framed doorways. Photo modifications were done quickly by a talentless hack (me)  but you get the idea….

DIY or not?

This is turning into a bigger job. The arches may be a little tricky for me as I have never done anything like that before. The front hallway, being such an important part of the house, probably isn’t the best place for me to experiment. I think I will leave this one to the pros. There will be framers and drywallers here when we rebuild the addition. We’ll just add the stairs to that contract.