Where carpentry and sculpture merge; and CNC machines fear to tread
When you walk into a custom home, an old Victorian or an old Colonial, one of the first and most impressive sights is the stair. There it is in the great room. Graceful. Elegant. It is often the biggest piece of furniture in a home and one of the most valuable ornamental assets.
Or is it?
Is it graceful? Is it beautiful? Was it built by the hand of an old-time craftsman? Was it built for the house, or chosen from some catalog of cheap foreign-made parts?
Chances are, if you have an old Colonial or a Victorian home, the stair was designed according to traditional geometry based on natural rules for elegance and form. It was built by hand out of carefully chosen materials. The handrail was carved using time-honored tangent geometry, sharp chisels, a trained eye, and real human sweat. If that’s the case, I bet a century or two after it was made, people are still impressed with the look and feel of your railing, and the amount of skill it took to make it.
On the other hand, if you walk into a modern custom home, there is a good chance you will find a catalog stair complete with machine-made parts designed not from natural forms or classical elements, but for the ease of the machining. Sure, they are an approximation of those old cherished forms, but they are a poor approximation at best (sort of like big-box furniture). This is not to say that the only good styles are old styles. I have made many beautiful handrails in modern styles using tangent handrail geometry. Styles may change over time, but geometry doesn’t.
Catalog stairs have their place dressing up lower value homes or McMansions, but to my disappointment, they are rapidly becoming the standard in high-value custom homes, too. There are two reasons for this. The first is economic. Often, a builder or homeowner is trying to cut costs, which is understandable but wrongheaded. Do you really think that the biggest piece of furniture—the centerpiece of a multi-million dollar home—is the place to cut corners? Do you think anyone a hundred years from now will be impressed with how much money the builder saved? How about five years from now? Will anyone say “Wow! Look at that stair! I’ll bet they really saved some money there!” Would you want that?
The other reason machine-made faux stairs continue showing up in custom homes is that many builders, homeowners and architects don’t know that it is still possible to get high-quality, hand-made custom stairs with furniture-grade handrails. They may believe that carving is a lost art or a quaint hobby for retirees. They don’t know that professional woodcarvers are still around. They think those kind of skills died out with the dinosaurs—it’s too difficult, too expensive. Many builders and designers think that catalog stairs are all that’s available. Not true. Not true at all!
Hi, my name is Mike Kennedy, and I carve handrails for a living.
I’ve been carving wood professionally for 25 years. I started carving effigy pipes in my teens and twenties, traveled extensively—carving and performing with wooden marionettes—and worked for several stair companies carving handrail and architectural elements.
I am going to show you how I carve rail using modern tools and techniques to make quality rail parts efficiently and affordably. Yes, someone still does that! You can, too.
One Volute, Four Patterns
If you read the last article in this series, Jed Dixon’s story, Drawing A Volute, then you already know about the drawings and the patterns. If you haven’t read that story yet, then STOP and read it before reading this article!
For the spiral and wreath that I am about to carve, I need four patterns. The first is a plan view of the spiral section, wreath, and a length of straight rail. I use this pattern when I assemble the pieces to make sure the angles are correct and that the pieces fit properly. This pattern gets taped to my workbench or a nice level surface (see photo, right).
Next are two copies of the plan view of the spiral section itself. These two are identical to the first pattern, but without the wreath and straight rail. One spiral section pattern is glued to a 10/4 block of mahogany (planed to the finished thickness of the rail) to be sawn to shape (more on that next), and the other is glued to a piece of 3/4- in. plywood to be used for a shaper pattern.
The fourth pattern is in two parts: A side view, and a top stretched view of the wreath. These two can be drawn as one pattern to be folded and glued to the wreath block (see section “Layout the wreath” in “Drawing a Volute”). Occasionally, the top stretched view is longer than the block (when the curve continues through the end of the block); in that case, I glue the top pattern to a thin (1/8-in.) piece of plywood to hold the pattern up where it comes off the top end of the block. The side view is glued on the block directly.
Align the Grain
In order to conserve wood, I chose 10/4 mahogany for the spiral section and 12/4 mahogany for the wreath (the wreath must twist, and therefore needs to be thicker than the spiral section). Because I’m using different pieces of wood, I need to be sure they match in color and grain as closely as possible. It’s also important that there are no defects, such as knots or checks in the pieces.
The grain direction is very important in placing the patterns on the wood. I prefer the grain to run across the curve of the wreath as long as possible, which gives the piece the most strength. It also makes the glue joint stronger because I’m not gluing end grain. The grain in my rectangle wreath block is then somewhat diagonal in relation to the grain of the stock.
Once I figure out the grain direction, gluing the spiral section pattern is pretty straightforward. Just spray some adhesive and smooth the pattern in the direction of the grain (see photo, above). In a few minutes, it’s ready for the bandsaw.
The wreath must be cut at the pitch of the stair, so I first cut the bottom edge or wedge off the block.
|Next, I glue the wedge to the back of the wreath block using hot glue, which adds a broader base to the block, and makes it much easier to hold the wreath safely and firmly at the pitch angle while cutting out the shape.|
|Before taking the piece to bandsaw, I extend points P-4 and P-5, drawing in sides of the rail profile on the upper end joint;|
Bandsaw the rough shapes
Cutting out the spiral is pretty simple—just be sure to stay slightly outside of the line. I cut the inside of the spiral first, right to the eye, where I have to stop the blade and back out. Next, I cut the outside of the spiral, all the way around to where it meets the inside curve, where I stopped my first cut. The third and final cut is straight across the grain creating the joint between the spiral and the wreath. This must be absolutely straight. I clean this cut on a sanding disc or with a block plane for a nice flat joint (see photo, above).
Next, I cut the wreath, starting with top pattern. The trick here is to support the piece as the bandsaw blade cuts toward the upper joint. I usually cut the outside first, then the inside.
Once both pieces are cut, I take them over to the pattern that I taped to my worktable and make sure they fit over the plan view. Then I clean the paper pattern and the glue off of the wreath joint, and make any minor adjustments, before joining the two pieces.
Join the wreath and spiral
There are several different types of hardware available for joining handrail.
I prefer Tite-joint fasteners because they allow me to adjust the pieces, and they work with any rail profile (www.knapeandvogt.com).
|To install them, I drill a 7/8-in. hole on the bottom of the wreath about 1 1/2 in. from the end, usually centered. I do the same on the spiral.|
|Next, I drill 7/16-in. holes in the ends of both pieces, 3/4 in. from the bottom. I drill all the way through the 7/8-in. holes and beyond them about 1/2 in.|
Carving starts on the shaper
Before carving any pieces of rail, I run all of the straight rail needed for the job, plus a short section to be cut into samples for carving. I never start carving blindly. It’s much easier to start carving off a section of straight rail, so I temporarily join a short piece of rail to the upper end of the wreath with a tite-joint fastener. The bottom end of the wreath is joined to the spiral.
I don’t carve the spiral blindly, either. In fact, the spiral section of the volute can be “shaped” on the shaper, which provides a good starting point for carving the remainder of the volute—and that must be accomplished before carving the bottom of the wreath. I should make this clear: because the wreath twists, both ends must be started before carving the center. The short section of straight rail makes it easy to start the top of the wreath; carving the entire spiral makes it easier to start carving the bottom of the wreath.
Please don’t try anything you see in THISisCarpentry, or anywhere else for that matter, unless you’re completely certain that you can do it safely.
|To make the template, we glue a copy of the paper plan view pattern to a piece of 3/4-in. plywood, then bandsaw to the line of the spiral.|
|The template must be perfectly smooth; a wood rasp or file cleans up any rough edges.|
|Through-holes are drilled through the template…|
|…and counter sunk so they won’t interfere with shaping (if there’s a hand tool that does a job as well as a power tool, we prefer the hand tool).|
Screws are fastened into the bottom of the spiral, where the holes will never show. In fact, we usually lay out the fastener holes at the center of the balusters, which is easy to do with a full-scale drawing.
|After the template is screwed to the bottom of the spiral, we always double-check that the shaper knives are locked down tight. In our shop, we make it a rule that you have to yell “TIGHT” before turning on the shaper.|
And before turning on the shaper, we always set a hold-down jig, to prevent an airborne catastrophe. Sure, our shop-made hold down may look strange, but it works. When running the spiral through the shaper, be careful to keep the knives away from the joint between the wreath and the spiral, otherwise the wood will “blow out” and ruin the joint.
Equally important, it’s best to keep the area around the joint fat, leaving the option of pushing some of the distortion of the wreath down into the spiral. Therefore, start in with a smooth cut forward of the joint by at least 3 in., keeping the shaper knives a good distance from the joint. Yes, that means more hand carving, but it’s better to carve a little more by hand than to ruin the entire piece!
Once the initial cut is made, follow the pattern all the way around until the knives exit the spiral. About three-quarters of the spiral can be “shaped” by a machine. The rest must be carved by hand.
• • •
Carving a complicated multi-dimensional shape is an act of confidence, and an act of faith: you have to be confident that you know what you’re doing, and you have to have faith in an image you can not see, at least with your eyes. That’s why I check the shape of the spiral and wreath block regularly, before and during the carving process.
Once the spiral is removed from the shaper template, and re-assembled to the wreath, I set both pieces on the plan view drawing and check the alignment with a Laser Bob. At that point, it’s easy to adjust the two pieces so that the wreath is perfectly plumb with the plan view drawing. And this isn’t the last time you’ll see me return to the plan view drawing. Whenever I need to get my bearings and sharpen my vision of the volute, returning to the plan view drawing always helps me “see” the final shape with more definition.
Sight Line Layout
To establish sight lines for carving, I begin on the bottom. With the wreath and spiral section connected, I bend a flexible batten around the outside of the wreath. I clamp one end of the batten so that it lies along the bottom line of the straight section and bend it around the wreath to the bottom of the spiral.
I want to be sure that the line of the batten is nice and fair, from the top of the wreath to the flat section of the volute. The best way to check that is by placing the volute back on the plan view drawing (see photo, left).
The outside line is fairly easy and relatively straightforward. The inside line is a little different. Again, the batten is clamped along the short straight section at the top of the wreath. But this time, the batten must be pushed down into the crotch of the spiral. On the inside, the line needs to drop much more quickly than it did on the outside, and it needs to level out by the time it gets to the spiral in order to create a flat and level spiral section.
Once the two bottom lines are drawn, the volute is turned upside down and put into a clamp for carving.
The two sides which are cut on the bandsaw already curve appropriately. What remains is to carve the top and bottom. If you recall from Jed’s description of drawing the volute, we intentionally add about three inches to the top of the wreath, making it much easier to transition to the straight rail. In other words, before carving the railing profile, it’s easier if the wreath is first carved into a nice fair twisting block. With a side angle grinder and a fairly aggressive carving disc, I can shape the bottom pretty quickly. First, I carve the bottom of the wreath at the upper joint to the straight rail, starting at the 3 in. mark.
Feel the wreath twist
Next, I rotate the volute in my vise, so I can “see” the curving twist of the wreath. Even without the inside and outside lines, I can see where the bottom of the wreath must be carved to connect with the flat spiral section. Once the bottom of the wreath is started, it is important that the lines and the surfaces look right as well as feel right. The feel of the twisting wreath is actually more important than following the drawn lines, after all, someone’s hand will follow the railing down the stair all the way to the crotch of the volute.
As the wreath twists, a slight amount of distortion occurs. This distortion must happen in order to make a square block appear to twist and bend around a curve. If I were to take a long rail-sized block of some flexible material and twist and bend it, it would begin to kink and fold; it wouldn’t flow. The trick is to make it look and feel like the long square block is bending and twisting without kinking or distorting. At this point we leave the realm of geometry and enter a more organic realm, which must be achieved through feel.
Using the lines to guide my eye, I carve the rest of the wreath bottom, but I also stop the grinder frequently and run my hand along the whole surface, feeling the flow. This is something I do throughout the entire carving process; usually with my eyes closed (although, I make sure no one is watching because that just doesn’t look right).
It is important to check the piece right side up, too, and see if the bottom flows nicely and appears relatively level.
Clean up with a spoke shave
When I’ve gotten the bottom to where I like it, I clean it up with a spokeshave.
The bottom of the rail is flat, even though it twists through the wreath. I check the flatness with a Shinto Saw Rasp and clean up any irregularities left by the spokeshave, then sand it out to a nice smooth surface.
|Once again, I set the volute on the plan-view drawing and check the shape before carving the top. With the bottom shaped into the finished twist, I’m able to scribe the top lines by following my fingers along the bottom edge.|
I don’t use a batten to describe the top of the rail. The top is carved much the same way as the bottom, except that for the top I stick closer to the scribed lines. Like the bottom of the wreath, I start at the top joint to the straight rail—that same 3-in. section, with the side grinder. If you watch the videos, you’ll notice that I never use any of the power tools without ear protection, eye protection, and a dust mask!
|Next, I reposition the volute in my vice and start from the lower flat section of the volute. It’s the same technique I used for carving the bottom of the wreath, so that the wreath is started from both known ends.|
With the ends established, I grind out the center of the wreath, following the scribe lines and the feel of the twist. It may seem that there isn’t enough wood at the joint between the wreath and the spiral, but the geometry of the drawing is always correct. All I have to do is reveal the shape that is inside the block of wood.
|I reposition the piece in my vise several times to find that shape, keeping the spiral flat, and rotating the piece around the eye of the spiral.|
Carve the Cove
At this point I can “see” the rail all the way through the wreath, so carving is simply a matter of removing anything that doesn’t look like a handrail. I say it’s a simple matter because I use a pragmatic, step-by-step process for laying out and carving the profile. The first step is laying out the bottom lines. I scribe the edge of the railing bead and take those lines along the bottom side of the wreath and spiral, to show how much stock to remove (see photo, left).
The same goes for the sides. But here I’m marking the “cove” of the handrail profile. You can see the job ahead by placing the die grinder against the straight rail.
For most handrails the cove is a 1-in. radius. Looking at the end of the wreath, I mark where the radius meets the side of the wreath and then scribe those lines down the outside of the wreath and the remaining parts of the flat spiral that still need to be carved—where the shaper finished.
Distort the Cove
If I could cut a section from any finished wreath, right in the middle of the twist, it wouldn’t look square; it wouldn’t match a slice taken off the straight rail; the inside of the rail would be a little shorter than the outside. That’s because, when I carve the top of the rail as it twists through the wreath, I lean the profile slightly to the inside. I’ve learned from experience that if I don’t distort the wreath slightly, the top will appear to be leaning or sliding slightly toward the outside. If I pinch the rail toward the inside, just a little, I can overcome that illusion. The best place to hide this distortion is in the “cove,” because it’s not measurable by eye—there are no crisp reveal lines in a cove shape the way there are in other details of the railing profile.
I use the pencil lines as guides, to see the depth and height of the stock that has to be removed and to gauge how much I need to distort the carving. If the height of the line is 1 1/4 in. from the bottom on the outside of the wreath, I make the inside 1 in. to 1 1/8 in. from the bottom, depending on how tight the twist is. By starting the distortion about 3 in. from the end of the wreath (the straight rail joint), and carrying it all the way to the end of the spiral, no one ever picks up on the slight variation, but this deliberate distortion is critical for making the rail look more natural.
Once those lines are drawn, I cut them in with a utility knife, which does two things: first, it helps prevent the wood from chipping out while carving, and second, it keeps the lines visible while working; otherwise, the graphite from the pencil rubs off or becomes covered with dust once I start carving.
A die grinder does the rough out
I do my best to position the piece in my vise so that I can see as much of the volute as possible, including the flat part of the spiral that has been profiled on the shaper, the outside of the wreath, and the straight-rail section. As I carve, I’m really connecting the dots—connecting the volute profile to the straight-rail profile, starting at the top of the wreath, where it’s easiest to see the straight-rail profile. I use an electric die-grinder with a 1-in. ball cutter to remove stock quickly.
I should mention here that I always wear ear and eye protection and a dust mask when operating power tools. You may notice, if you watch the videos, that I also have ear buds for my mp3 player. The ear buds are sound dampening and when worn with protective headphones, they block so much noise that I can keep the music at safe decibels and still rock out while working. I prefer mostly instrumental music like fusion, progressive rock, or jam band when I work—though, for this project, I was into Frank Zappa (Hot Rats and Joe’s Garage).
|I’m fairly aggressive with the die-grinder. This is not hobby carving. This is industrial strength wood removal. I crank up the tunes and get right to it, eating the wood away quickly.|
|When the 1-in. ball won’t reach all the way into the crotch of the spiral, where the profile closes in on itself…|
|…I switch to a 1/2-in. and then a 1/4-in. grinding ball. Once all the rough work is complete, I roll out my chisels.|
Razor-sharp chisels finish the job
One time, I was on a site fairing some rail pieces together. I had my chisels laid out on the stair when along comes this plumber. (It’s always a plumber, isn’t it? And they’re usually named Joe). Joe asks if my chisels are sharp.
“Yes” I said, “they are razor sharp. Don’t touch them, or you’ll get cut.” Of course the first thing Joe does is touch the business end of a wide gouge. “Hey, I’m bleedin’!” Joe yells, holding a finger with a 1/4-in.-deep gouge cut, bleeding like a spring creek. “I told you not to touch it!” I screamed at him. “Now look what you’re doing! Getting blood all over my stair!” Was the guy expecting sympathy?
For this rail profile, I use a 1-in. radius fishtail gouge and a #5 fishtail gouge. I’ve ground a back bevel on the concave side of each of these chisels so that I can hold the handle away from the work and carve convex shapes. These chisel profiles are for rounding over the top of the rail and the big bead on the side of the profile.
Detail the spiral
If my chisels match the exact profiles of the handrail elements, the volute can be carved to within sanding range fairly quickly and easily. There is one problem spot, however: inside the crotch of the spiral (see photo, below). The handrail profile should look like it flows all the way down the wreath and around the spiral to meet itself. The problem is what to do with that intersection, inside the crotch.
Ugly machine-made volutes are made without defining that spiral intersection, without a definite crotch, so a shaper or CNC cutter can cut the profile easily. Ugly machine-made volutes don’t join the rail, they swell out of the rail like a tumor. Beautiful, traditional, custom volutes scroll from the spiral into the rail—the rail should seem to scroll out of the spiral. This means there must be a sharp joint at the crotch where the two meet, similar to a miter joint. I make sure to carve a nice sharp miter on the bottom of the spiral for just that reason.
Some guys don’t spend too much time on this detail because it is what I call a heart attack view: The only way anyone notices this view is if they have a heart attack and fall down. The last thing they’d see, looking up toward heaven, would be my carved miter joint. I spend the extra 10 minutes making this joint nice because I want that fellow’s last words to be: “Nice job carving that spiral…ach…”
We make a high-end product and we are paid for it—of course not nearly enough, but it is these details that make it “high end,”not just the price. It is always worth spending a few extra minutes to make the piece “right” from every angle.
Carving the top of the volute
The top of the spiral at the crotch is a special and different situation. The traditional way to carve this detail is with a nice clean intersection carved to a miter—a mirror image of the bottom. That solution is time-honored and perfectly acceptable, but not for me. I like to thumb my nose once more at the machine-mades by making the top of the spiral sculptural.
First, I mark where the center of the newel post would be if it came all the way through the spiral.
Then I extend the line that would be the miter into a slowly tightening scroll that creates the eye of the volute.
Once the line looks right, and the rail gets steadily smaller as it gets toward the center, I can then carve it as if it were a very long miter.
I want the finished rail to look like it grows and scrolls out of the center of the newel post.
Once I’ve ground and carved the wreath and spiral, it is time to sand them out. I start with 36 grit garnet paper. Most of the work has been done with my carving tools, so it is a matter of sanding off the tool marks. Occasionally I have to refine the shape with my chisels. Mostly, I listen to loud music and just sand the hell out of it. After sanding with 36 grit paper, I take it to 50 grit, then stop until the bead is finished.
Add the bead last
Now it’s time to glue the wreath and spiral together permanently. First, I check the assembled pieces over the plan view drawing one last time to make sure that everything still lines up over layout. I make any last minute adjustments, then mark lines across the joint so that I can line it up precisely after applying the glue.
Once the pieces are glued and tite-jointed together, I plug the tite-joint holes with 7/8-in. bungs. After the glue dries, the bungs are pared off, and the whole assembly is sanded with 80 grit sand paper.
At this point, the volute is complete except for the bead at the bottom of the profile. For this last detail I make a special bead scratcher out of spring steel or cabinet scraper stock. To make this tool I grind the steel until it has the shape of the bead referenced off the bottom of the rail. The scratcher must be sharp at the top of the bead and must be shaped so that it only scrapes the bead and not the side or bottom of the rail.
The scraper has two beads ground into it so that I can cut into grain from either direction. When the shape is right, I spark off the scraper to raise a slight bur. It is called a “scratch bead” because I literally scratch it into the surface of the rail. Starting lightly, I carefully scratch and scrape the bead into the rail deeper and deeper until the shape is just right.
In very little time, I scrape the bead on the volute all the way up past the wreath to where it joins the straight rail. This section is left unshaped until after the installation. Once all the railing is installed, I fair the rail joint, and then the bead, for a nice, smooth transition. For now, all shop carving and scraping are finished; the piece can be sanded from 80 grit to 180 grit. After installation the finishers can continue sanding as much as they’d like.
So that’s how I do what I do. It doesn’t really take long from start to finish—maybe two and a half days, which, in the scheme of things, is a small difference in cost, especially when you compare the huge difference in quality between a hand-carved furniture-quality volute and a machine-made fast-food volute. A fine home deserves nothing less.
If you find yourself wanting to try this at home, my suggestion is: “DON’T!”
If you still want to try this, let me suggest the bucket trick: find a bucket and fill it with ice and water. Think about carving a rail and then stick your head in the bucket!
If that doesn’t work, then read this article carefully a few times, sharpen your tools until you scan shave with them, pick out some rockin’ music, and have at it. Become one with the wood (you will wear, eat, and breathe wood dust before it’s all over!) and your tools (they may also enter your body if you are not careful).
Or better yet, just call me. That’s what I do… I’m a woodcarver!
• • •
Please don’t try anything you see in THISisCarpentry, or anywhere else for that matter, unless you’re completely certain that you can do it safely.
• • •
Mike Kennedy lives in the rural town of Foster, RI with his wife and their two teenage offspring. When not carving handrail, he enjoys art, sculpture, and playing music on his own handmade guitars. He also enjoys gardening, bow hunting, horseback riding, and generally running around in the forest. Mike Kennedy: Woodworker, Sculptor, Luthier, Musician, Wildman.