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Staircase in a Bottle

A Blast from the Past

Have you ever thought about building a model ship in a bottle? What about a staircase? Of course, if you think about it, it’s not the bottle that’s the problem, it’s the bottleneck. Quite a few years ago, I was facing just such a challenge. At first, it seemed simple enough, but the more I thought about it, the tighter the squeeze seemed to be.

The “bottle” in question was a multi-million dollar home on Harbor Island, Newport Beach, California, and the neck of the bottle was the combination of a few seemingly insurmountable circumstances.

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The job itself was hard enough. I was to provide a free-standing circular stair and balustrade in an existing home which was currently undergoing extensive remodeling. This kind of work is never easy, but this is my specialty, and so I thought I could manage it well enough. The complications were mostly associated with jobsite conditions.

I should probably explain something here: In my opinion, the very best way to build a finished staircase (either straight or curved) is in a shop or factory. Then you can truck the stair to the location and stand it up. Even the balustrade is best pre-fitted in the shop and then reassembled onsite. I realize I might start an argument here, but I feel that the very best staircases (like bookcases) are really fine pieces of furniture, and are best constructed within a factory.

Unfortunately, a completed factory- or shop-built staircase was out of the question in this particular case, since there was no way to fit a full-sized stair down a long narrow hall.

There were only two ways to get to the stair location: down the hall, or through the back door. Of course, I had considered bringing the stair in from the rear of the home via the sliding glass entry. That would have involved moving a very large private yacht (which appeared to be permanently docked), as well as hiring a transport barge to ship the stair across the bay and up the channel. In retrospect, I now believe that probably would have been my best bet, but, for some reason, I didn’t think so then.

The bottleneck

The next best option seemed simple enough: I would simply build the stair on-site. I’d done this often enough and, though it would require more time, it was certainly possible—or was it? “Not really,” suggested the architect who was also the general contractor, “and I’ll tell you why in one word: PARKING.” I thought about it for a moment and decided he was probably right—there just wasn’t any place to park. All of the exclusive homes on this tiny strip of sand were long and narrow and nearly right up against each other. The only part of the homes facing the street were their garages and small side entrances. Every time you’d park your truck anywhere on the island, you’d invariably be blocking someone’s driveway. “Of course,” the architect continued, “the garage will be made available to you as required. But you’ll need to schedule your parking time, since you’ll be sharing it with all the other subs.”

 

Open stair in shop

Okay, let me get this straight, I thought to myself, I can’t build the stair in my shop and I can’t build it on-site. So what’s plan C? The only option I could see was to do as much work as possible in the shop, and then schedule parking time for the rest of the project. “Oh, and one more thing,” said the architect. “We’re going to have to use the stair for quite some time during construction. After it’s installed, you’ll need to wrap or cover it up securely. I’m afraid those marble setters will be here for quite a while.”

That night I had nightmares about huge slabs of marble crashing down on my staircase (which I had economically constructed from toothpicks). I remember waking up in a sweat and lying there, telling myself over and over again that it was only a dream. It was a bad dream though, and I believe it had an effect on the project. I ended up overbuilding the supporting carriage, which is a slight embarrassment to me now, but I haven’t lost any sleep over it since then, and it’s been nearly twenty-five years.

Rough stair in shop

I ended up building a complete “rough” stair in the workshop, and then taking it apart and setting it up again. It remained unfinished until all the heavy construction was completed. The bottom, or soffit, of the stair was lath and plaster. It was overlaid in the traditional manner, with white oak treads and painted poplar risers and trim. The balusters were also painted poplar, and the handrail and newel posts were white oak.

The “bell” shaped handrail was a bit of a challenge, since it had to be wide enough at the bottom to fit a 3 1/2-in. baluster, but only 2 in.-wide at the top to meet the (ridiculous) Newport Beach building code. All the curved hand railings were fabricated from stacks of matched horizontal laminations in 4- to 6-foot segments. This gave it the appearance of being cut from solid timber-sized blocks. This was a method that I had originally come up with on my own, but later discovered that it was just a lesser-known approach.

Loading the trailer

I hand-turned all the 5 1/2-in. newel posts on Grandpa’s old wooden bed lathe using his home-made turning tools. (I had to finally cut up the old lathe last year—after more than 75 years, it was full of termites). All of the poplar balusters were turned by a local company on their ancient Madison lathes, which I heard have also been retired to a bone orchard somewhere.

The completed project included not only the main stair and balcony, but also a back stair, numerous room divider balustrades, and an exterior balcony. Almost all of the field work was accomplished by one very skilled (but very temperamental) finish carpenter who never stopped trying to teach me a thing or two. I miss him like a hole in the head, but I have to admit, I may have learned a thing or two.

•••

AUTHOR BIO

James (Jim) Baldwin has worked for 35 years in the “stair business,” and continues to do so. For 15 years he was the owner of a small Southern California stair company which specialized in high-end, custom residential staircases; but, for the last 20 years, he’s been a supplier and consultant for custom “sculptural handrail parts.” Jim’s been able to “carve” out a niche for himself by recreating the curved and “wreathed” handrail components that were once commonplace in colonial America but are rarely seen in today’s mass-produced industry.

As a teenager, Jim says he got off to a good start by working with his “Grandpa Jake,” an architectural wood turner from Holland. “I mostly shoveled shavings and sanded,” he says, “but eventually I ended up doing most of the turning as well.” As a young man, Jim also completed a Carpenter’s Apprenticeship, becoming a “Journeyman” in 1976.

“The transition,” Jim says, “from hand turner to handrailer seemed like a natural path, but, in fact, was a long and winding road. The best part of the job, though, is the opportunity I’ve had to get to know and work with some of the very best stair builders and companies in the business. As an individual stair builder, I’ve certainly built quite a few stairs, but, working as a custom handrailer, I’ve now been able to contribute in a meaningful way to several thousand projects. It’s been fun, and sometimes even profitable.”

Jim and his wife Roxanne (also of 35 years) divide their time between their home among the red rock canyons of Southern Utah and their 40-foot sailboat, docked in Long Beach, California. Jim says that he and Roxanne also got off to a pretty good start by eloping and sailing away on a 17-foot sloop. “We were only 21 when we sailed that little boat 26 nautical miles from Long Beach, California to Catalina Island and got married…but that’s another story.” They have four grown children (and a few grandkids, too).

Jim enjoys “talking shop” and can be reached anytime:

Jim Baldwin/18th CENTURY HANDRAIL (www.handrailer.com[email protected] 951-662-6840

Comments/Discussion

16 Responses to “Staircase in a Bottle”

  1. Brian Kropp

    Jim, I did something like this about a year ago up in Washington. We used Keith Mathewson’s shop, built it then took it apart and reinstalled in house. I have pictures on my web site, it was all walnut it turned out really nice

    Reply
  2. Mike Hawkins

    Nice job on the stairs Jim. Nice article, good reading. Keep up the good work.
    Mike

    Reply
  3. Mkie Kennedy

    Sounds like 90 percent of the stairs we build. Rough stairs built on site, carrying stair parts and tools up through obstacle courses no parking….yup stair building is not for the faint-hearted. Only the manliest of men (and women) are cut out for this. You have my sympathy and admiration.

    Mike.

    Reply
  4. Mark

    We have worked on many custom homes with a local stair company that builds curved staircases on site, it’s quite amazing to watch the process. Hundreds of clamps with miles of hardwood veneer glued, bent and formed in jigs that may never be used again. It is an art that you obviously have mastered.

    Reply
  5. Jim Baldwin

    Hey Guys,

    The architect designed these stairs along with the balustrade but the actual construction details were left up to me. The stringers were just mountains of laminated luan plywood. Today I would do things a bit different but this was the way I did it then.

    Thanks for the comments thus far

    Reply
  6. Dan Kormash

    Hey Jim, I have always been big on challenges. I was working as a finish carpenter for a custom builder in Ann Arbor, Michigan a few years back and was asked to build a set of stairs that spiraled from basement and up 2 stories. Never did this before but it turned out nice. It was like a barrel in a barrel. The outside roundwall was about 9’in radius and the inner wall was about 2.5′ in radius. The inner barrel turned out to be a storage closet on both floors. I was lucky to be able to do all of the work on site and with very few other subs in my way.

    Reply
  7. Hartley Edmonds

    Jim, I’m an old generalist who’s occasionally found himself carving traditional volutes to complement the other period details on my stair and balistrade restorations. Of course, it’s the cream de la cream that has survived the Colonial period but I’ve seen few contemporary examples of stair and balistrade building to equal their grace. I would love to see some pictures of your traditionally inspired work.

    Hartley

    Reply
  8. Jim Baldwin

    “…but I’ve seen few contemporary examples of stair and balistrade building to equal their grace.”

    I couldn’t agree with you more Hartley, much has been lost or intentionally omitted in today’s stair building business and nowhere is this more evident than in the production of standard volutes.

    Not only are volutes entirely flat but they’re not even drawn from any kind of geometric spiral lines. Instead they’re just half-circles with a blob at the end. The inside lines never converge to a spirals apex but instead loop around into another half circle. The standard factory volute is a cheap impersonation of what use to be an art form.

    I must admit that I don’t always carve the volute cap to a proper “nautilus” but I always offer it as an option. I am also proud to say that I haven’t manufactured or installed a single flat factory type volute in at least 25 years.

    Well you can see that you’ve struck a cord here…

    You can also see some pictures of my work on my web site under “galleries” (the link is on the bio).

    Thanks for the comment.

    Reply
  9. Roy Haney

    When gluing up the stringers, what type of adhesive do you use?

    Reply
  10. Jim Baldwin

    Roy,

    Glue is glue and I have no high-tech answer. I think I used yellow glue and ten million staples on this. Today I might opt for plastic resin, fewer staples and plenty of Jorgensen clamps. I usually glue-up a few layers at a time and then stop and clamp them and return later to continue the process. I think the clamps are more important than the glue.

    Generally speaking, I consider expensive epoxies, two-part glues or “big-monkey-purple-poo”, messy and a waste of money. I only use these on stuff I can’t adequately clamp.

    On the subject of glue, I think you’ll find that the number of personal opinions are directly proportional to the available products (and could be expressed as an exponent of 10).

    Reply
  11. Jennifer

    I am building a cottage on Lake Erie and trying to incorporate oars/paddles into my balusters – have you seen anything like this? Ideas?

    Reply
    • Jim Baldwin

      No Jennifer but this sounds like an interesting idea…

      I have seen baseball bats, bowling pins, cargo netting, golf clubs and other fun stuff. Perhaps one oar with the blade up and another with the blade down might look good. They could be mounted on each step with a shorter oar at the nose. You might need to have them custom made to fit the rake angle of the rail.

      Another idea might incorporate a geometric pattern of crossed oars with a marine lifeline netting between them.

      Whatever you do, you need to be aware of building code requirements limiting the allowable open space between balusters to under 4 or 4.375 inches.

      Good luck with this and please post some pictures someday

      Reply
  12. paddy

    Hi Jim,
    i enjoyed this article, i came late to joinery and cabinetry i just finished a stairs for a client with the handrail using cnc cut parts.
    its only been my third stairs in as many years however i just came across your articles on wreaths and volutes a week or so ago and have been really impressed with the way you have shared your knowledge in a way that we can use to better ourselves.
    I decided after reading some of the thisiscarpentry stuff that i should invest in doing something to educate myself maybe bi-annually so i am going to start by getting on a course for autocad drawing.
    fortunately up to this point i have access to some really good tradesmen here in Ireland who are also very free with sharing knowledge and suggestions and have educated me at a fast rate over the last 5years.
    I have priced packages where i didnt see the problems ahead like the no parking, expensive parking, 5 flights to carry up tools and materials etc ha. I love the part where you say you wake up but the bad dream is real with the marble guys, i got a laugh there!
    thanks for your honesty regarding the overbuilding of the carriage , its nice to see a fellow like you had experiences like that at one time or another.
    i told an architect a week ago that i want more stairs so he said he’ll have 2 for me to price after Christmas so thats cool, i look forward to practicing a couple of wreaths over the next few weeks so maybe ill be able to graduate from cnc parts the next time i get something interesting.
    Thanks again, Paddy

    Reply

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