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.
I also like the grain on the spiral section to line up with the crotch, where the inside of the level rail joins the spiral section. This strategy also makes carving that inside joint easier later.
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;|
I also square the two lines of the rail from the side view pattern across the upper end joint. ( See “Layout the ellipses” in “Drawing a Volute,” and this video)
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
I keep my chisels razor sharp. I test them by shaving the hair on my forearm…if they can’t shave me clean, with no razor burn, then they must be sharpened.
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.
Hats off to a true old school craftsman. LOVE that a CNC machine can’t touch this. HAHAHA!
Think CNC will ever go 3-D? Can’t be that far off.
Keep on pickin and grinnin wildman! ROWR!
Thanks Mike, that’s cool.
There are CNC controlled 5 axis routers that are capable of “carving” wreaths and descending volutes, however, they are a long way from the detail that humans can achieve…especially with the more complicated rail profiles. Some day soon, it may be possible to program the rail distortion and some of the sculptural elements but much of what makes a really nice volute is done with the “eye” and the ” feel”. Maybe when the computers get artificial intelligence….
Glad you liked it Eli. ; )
When I was studying the tangent handrail system I cut my wreathe with a coping saw, but I was trying to visualize cutting the wreathe with a band saw. Do you always cut the wreathe with a band saw at the pitch of the stairs stairs instead of the pitch of the plank?
I don’t always cut the wreath at a pitch. It depends on the situation and the size of the wreath. Early on I would sometimes set my blank on a pitch block and a plan view of the rail on a pitch block on top of the blank so that the blank was at the pitch of the stair and the plan view was level.I would then saw along the plan view. A crude but effective way of sawing the sides. That doesn’t work in every situation, it is dangerous and it wastes too much wood. I now use a tangent method to lay out the wreaths. Often the wreaths are layed out with a sort of a sliding mold method (the “sliding” is done in virtual space on autocad and printed out as a pattern). They are then sawn out lying flat on the band saw table and 4 sides of the twist are carved.
Thanks for the link. Very interesting. I love the paper models!
Hi nice volute …. but unless you were somehow trying to prove you are a better woodworker than every one else … you did it wrong. you need to find a staircasing pro in your region and get them to show you how it is done conventionally. It’s not that I have anything against showing off extream “mad” woodworking skills. (if that was the point , you win) but they cost time which is either costing your client or costing you your profits.
Hey there Karl,
The method I used in my article IS the conventional method and has been for many hundreds of years. The only thing I do that is “un-conventional” is use the power tools (side angle grinder and die grinder) to carve faster and make it more affordable.
It will be difficult to find a “staircasing pro” in my region who doesn’t respect my work or who I haven’t at some time carved parts for. If you know of someone in my area, that you could recommend, who could “show me how it’s done” I would be glad to talk to them as I am always open to learning new methods.
As far as costs and profitability are concerned, I believe my wreath and volute are competitively valued for what they are. If you read my article, you know that I work in high end homes. I don’t build track or low income housing. If that was our market then I would agree with you ie… make it as cheap as possible. Consider that the handrail is the single largest piece of furniture in the house. Now let me pose a question: Would you fill a mansion with Wall-Mart furniture because that’s the cheapest you can find? Think our clients would accept that? Think again. Quite often one single piece of furniture or a chandelier in the typical house I work in costs more than the entire stair..including hand carved hand rail. That wreath and volute took two days to carve…not bad for a showcase piece of fine furniture.
My hope is that through venues like “This is Carpentry” We can all learn ways of taking the quality of our work up a notch and yes maybe make more profit at the same time.
As for “mad” or “Extreme” skills…Why do you think they call me Wildman?
So Karl, aim high, go for quality first and work real hard.
Mike didn’t do anything wrong. That’s a pretty heady indictment to make of someone who specializes in replicating historic work: Northroad Stair is the preferred stair builder for discriminating high-end architects, builders, and customers in the Boston area. I suspect, since you think he did “did it wrong,” you don’t know a lot about stair work. And you must not be familiar with the fees generated by this quality of work.
Believe me, as a finish carpenter who for more than 25 years installed moldings, doors, and hardware, often in expensive ‘tract’ homes and high-end custom homes, I’ve learned more in the last five years about real woodworking from custom stair guys than I ever learned as an ‘installer.’
That’s why TiC publishes articles like Jed’s, Mike’s and soon by Jim Baldwin. Even though most of us will never carve a wreath, we can pick up valuable and applicable lessons from the techniques these craftsmen use–from drawings to power tools to hand tools.
Keep your mind open and you’ll learn more, too!
I have to agree with you in every way. I worked for Kearns- Wilcheck In Memphis Tnn. where we made very high end architectural wood products. The saying in the shop was, if you had to ask how much something cost you were refered to a big box store. Mikes work in every way is high end and surpasses some of the best work I have seen even at a very high end shop Like Kearn-Wilchek.
As a stair pro with 30 years experience I definitely rely on Mike, Jed and a few others to provide very high quality correct rail fittings. I consider wreath rail making a sub specialty of the specialized work of stair building. North Road is one of the few stair shops I know of that can make all the necessary parts of a stair and rail in their own shop including some wild spindle turnings with decorative carvings.
I think you should restate that tractment!!
Wow! That is impressive, after that everything else looks easy.
Thanks. Nothing is really easy. It’s all hard at some point.
I don’t believe the bucket of ice will be necessary, but I appreciate the offer. I had to fill in some slow time with a job at a local stair parts manufacturer and saw first hand how the “fast food” variety parts are churned out, and while I truly admire the craft of this unique type of carving, the vision of multiple sharp implements protruding from body parts will probably keep me from attempting it in the near future. Now, I think I’ll put some Dead on the shop stereo and get back to the walnut desk I’m working on. Keep on!
Never underestimate your own skills. You’d be surprised how transferable they are. You can make a walnut desk? You can make anything out of wood.
Hey Newman, I kept telling Sam Maloof the same thing about his rocking chairs. Completely done wrong! (Thank god he didn’t listen to me).
You make the craft of carving a volute look surprisingly easy, yet with my limited experience in carving and woodworking I know this not to be true. You are a true craftsman and artist! I wish I could study and practice carving from a gifted man like you. Thank you for showing us how it used to be and should be done, IMHO!
PS: Frank Zappa ROCKS!
The carving part is easier than it looks. The math for the lay out is harder. I’m sure you could do it if you read the article carefully and take your time. I think there are many people out there who have the skills to do this and don’t know they do or just lack confidence. Aim high!
I love hearing about what other people are listening to as they work! I poled audiences at some workshops that I did. About 50% needed music to work and 50% needed quiet to work. Interesting eh?
What are you listening to?
May I make a few comments?
Great article and continuation of Jeds’ volute drawing piece, I wouldn’t change a thing except for a bit of your terminology and perhaps a minor point or two.
1: Volutes don’t have “crotches” and the idea of someone running their hand down my “wreath twist” to the crotch of my volute, is probably not the best way to describe a beautiful piece of woodwork. (and “no” you didn’t put it quite like that but you know what I mean). A geometrically correct volute (such as yours) will have “a spiral line convergence” or a “convergence of the inner and outer whorls” to its’ apex or eye (I guess I just don’t like the “C” word).
2: I can appreciate how you’ve continued your carved spiral line on the top of the volute to a small scroll but might argue that that seems a bit incorrect.. The volute handrail of the stair should always appear to spiral down and roll up on itself but not continue to diminish or reduce in size to that of a garden snail. An “eye” about the diameter of the rail width should be a considered a minimum. Volutes also featured a button, rosette or finial where your scroll now ends. Carved volute caps should also match traditional miter caps which are often part of the same balustrade.
3: Your suggested “distortion” of the handrail cross-section as it spirals into the cap is a good idea but could be alleviated by extending the length of the inner spiral line. Instead of trying to bring the rail from level to rake in a very short 90 degrees, extent it to say 120 degrees or perhaps two wreaths totaling 180 degrees or more. This way you’ll have enough room to make a graceful and geometrically correct descent without any forced distortions.
4: Before you label me “some know it all” I should admit that a simple shaping template as per your article would have spared me a very serious injury some years ago (ouch!)
So over all still, “two thumbs up” (and lucky for me) on your very informative and inspiring article.
I guess you are right about the terminology. I kind of like the idea of someone running their hand down my wreath twist to the crotch..but that is my twisted sense of humor (I like listening to Frank Zappa after all). “Spiral line convergence” sounds better…next time..
I have to disagree with you on point number two. There is no correct or incorrect, should or shouldn’t. What that scroll “should ” do is spiral smoothly down as far as I choose for it to go. If it were a historical reproduction, then I would end it much like you suggest with an “eye” the width of the handrail for a button or finial and even wider for a rail cap and a nice neat carved miter. This rail called for neither. So I like to spiral right down to “snail” size. I like the rail to seem to spiral right out of the newel. It’s an artistic judgement call and I’m making it. There is, however, historical precedent for just such a detail. I have left the apprentice stage long ago and if I am ever going to be considered a master some day (after many more years, lots of hard work and much personal and professional growth) It won’t be because i only did what others before me but because I added my touch; own voice to the choir.
Again, I have to agree with you on point number three. The longer the wreath, the less the distortion( although, all wreaths have some distortion). Sometimes I take the rail to level all the way into the volute so that the “inner spiral convergence” is higher than level of the volute and dropping to level way beyond the convergence. The rail profile folds over itself until level and then miters or spirals all the way to snail size as I see fit. A really dramatic, sculptural look with certain profiles and impossible to be duplicated by a machine.
Are you a “know it all”? Not in my opinion. I think of you as someone with knowledge of the subject who I could learn something from and also as a peer who just might be able to learn from me as well.
Thanks for the suggestions and correspondence.
What a fabulous article! Well written and illustrated.
I will NEVER attempt anything like this, but I’ve loved re-reading this article.
I’ve heard it said that the dividing line between genius and madness is hairline thin. Others more knowledgeable than I may pontificate on the nuances of the way things are done, but for me, I feel humbled in the presence of greatness!
Keep up the good work Mike
Do you mind if I show this to my wife?
Great job, Mike! Wonderful! I’ve spent many hours bending handrails winders and spiral stairs. These kinds of pieces have pushed my skills to the limit. I’m fortunate to live in an area of Colorado that has supported this kind of work. Nevertheless, my last opportunity to carve a volute was three years ago. Got some nice pictures of it though!
As far as music in the shop’s concerned, I do my best detailed work to Mozart, but I like Metallica for the repetitive stuff like pushing boards through machines.
Keep up the good work!
I love it! From Mozart to Metallica! I’d love to check out your music collection!
I’d also love to see a pic of your volute.
Thanks for reading my article.
Thanks a lot for sharing this Mike. Super cool
My pleasure Josh.
A very good article. Without TIC this subject matter would never have been given an audience and now we have 2 handrail guys discussing the finer details.
Keep up the good work,
Mike, can I come to work for you and Jed? Awesome stuff, man.
Thanks! Come by any time…long time no see!
Where was this article when I needed it? I had to carve a wreath from a descending rail on a 12″ radius into the level plane a couple of years ago. I used the tangent methods described in a stairbuilder’s book that I had, but it lacked diagrams or decent pictures. I am pleased to see that for the most part I did it right. One tool I used which i did not see here was a 1″ Makita belt sander…one of the most important tools in stairbuilding in my mind. Using the paper templates is what makes it work. What made my project even more difficult was the amount of detail on the railing. I think the architect came up with it just to make my life harder, on the bright side, it was all out of Ponderosa Pine, which was nice to carve, but sort of tricky to bend. Do you carve all your rails, or do you use laminated bending rails?
I have, on occasion, used a laminated rail for a long constant pitch. I have also carved twisted wreath blanks (long and with out a lot of twist) and run them on a shaper. I use the big tools whenever I can. Still end up carving quite a bit.
I love the 1″ belt sander. It is a very handy tool for stairbuilders.
P.S. Architects can make you crazy
I can make one of those on my CNC in half an hour, fair play to you guys keeping up the tradition. There is no problem making this on a 5 axis CNC with the correct tooling.
I’d love to see how you do it….I think that would make a great article.
I’d would be VERY interested in publishing an article on how you make a volute with a CNC machine. Please contact me!
Thank you for showing me some of your tricks. I ‘kind of’ understand the math and principles in tangential handrail shaping but was intimidated by carving on the giant block needed to make a multidimensional piece. I would never have thought of using angle and die grinders to remove the bulk of the wood. I just finished my first custom fitting and had a blast. I have been building stairs for a long time and I finally feel like I am almost a real ‘stair guy’. Again, thank you for your willingness to share your knowledge with us mere trim carpenters. You rock!
Welcome to The Stairclub For Men! I would love to see a picture of the fitting you carved….can you post it?
I finally finished the handrail system and have pictures but I don’t know how to post them. I could e-mail them to you if you would like. Again, thank for sharing your expertise.
hi. Firstly i’d just like to say how much I enjoyed the videos on drawing and cutting the scroll and volutes, due to these I have been able to hand cut and shape a small piece of rail return. There are still just a few things I am still unsure of which you will be able to help me with if you will. The first is if hand moulding a piece with a scratch stock on say a scroll, how would you overcome the difficulty of moulding the tight innermost of the scroll? Secondly when setting out the scroll how do you determine the size of shrink back in relation to the size (width) of the handrail? Also could you possibly recommend some books that I may use as reference to wich I may hone my skills. Thank you so much for your time and I hope we may dialogue in the future
Glad you found my article useful. I usually make the profile of my scratch stock very thin if it is going to fit inside a tight volute. They are made out of spring steel and are very sturdy. Also, because you scratch with it, you are not trying to remove a lot of wood so you’re not really stressing the tool that badly.
As for the scroll on top of the volute… I don’t always make them scroll down all the way like the one in the article. Many times I make it look like a curving miter which is very common. This volute required something more decorative so I chose to continue the miter all the way down into a snail sized scroll. The way I layed it out was the old fashioned way…I drew it by eye and carved it till it looked right to me. I hope that helps.
Here is a book I like about stair building and tangent handrails: A Simplified Guide to Custom Stairbuilding and Tangent Handrailing – by George R. di Cristina
Good luck Sam …post some pics of your work : )
Fantastic article Mike!
Thank you for your contribution.
May your music always be loud and vibrant.
Wish you were on my doorstep as I have a job for you here in SA.
I have been asked to make a smart handrail and knowing what I know after 30 years in the furniture and restoration business, right now I am off to find the bucket and ice.
I find it heartening that there is still a place in the world for work like this. Thanks for the article!
Trick is to keep your fingers
I will have to carve four spirals (11” 2X and 14” 2X) in some huge pieces of birch for the posts at the bottom of a beautiful stair.
Hand carving is not a problem, but I am new to power carving,
I have a Dremel and Flex shaft for small pieces, but birch ??
What kind of tool should I use ?
Dewalt 3.8 amp die grinder with 1 inch and 1/2 inch KutZall carving burr, could this be a good combo ?
Just discovered TiC, priceless.
Beautiful job. I know this is a little off the subject, but love the custom look and I’m going to have a house built soon. Would love to know if you could do a custom railing with a custom show piece at bottom of a stairwell.
Please let me know, much appreciated. Thanks!
I would love to Lanette,
visit my website http://www.mikekennedycarving.com or shoot me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org
I hope to talk to you soon…Mike.