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.
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 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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: