I was fortunate that the first great carpenter I worked for was a master stair builder. He didn’t build stairs all the time, but when he did, he built them the old fashioned way with a lot of the old details.
We would rout the housed skirtboards, make all the wedges, tongue and groove the treads to the risers, install mitered returns for the stair tread nosings (mitered both ends, no CNC curved profiles or sanded ends), and even install little cove return pieces under each tread where the cove molding returns into the stringer on the open skirtboard.
I learned a lot from working with him. One specific detail I learned was how to fit and install a housed newel post. Just like a housed skirtboard is routed to accept the treads and risers, the housed newel is cut to fit around the treads and risers—you cut the profile of the tread nosings, risers, and skirts into the side of the newel post. The end result, when properly fit, is a post that is truly locked into the staircase. A few fasteners are still required, but not as many or as large as what you would otherwise need.
There are a couple things to note about this installation: First, it does work best with larger newels. The one in this stair measures 4″ square. It also works best with solid wood: I don’t think I would attempt it with any composite or MDF newel. But I make my own box newels, and they are always lock mitered out of solid 5/4 stock.
Layout the balusters
Let me say a few words about layout. Most carpentry projects, if not all carpentry projects, come down to good planning, good layout, and patience. It’s not always easy to do, and sometimes you don’t feel like you have the time to take an additional step—you just want to “get something done.” Sometimes you don’t have enough information from the architect or homeowner either. But when you’re building stairs, you cannot skip steps, especially this one. Let me say that again: you cannot skip this step. The patience and focus I’ve learned from disciplining myself to take the time to lay everything out carefully, especially when building stairs, has been invaluable in all the other work I do.
Careful layout always begins with the balusters. Once that’s established, and you have determined the spacing between balusters, you can layout the newel so that the distance between the newel and first baluster is equal to the baluster spacing—or as close as possible.
The next step is to find the centerline of the balusters. I usually line up the edge of the baluster with the glue line between the tread and the nosing return.
This will also line up the edge of the balusters with the outside edge of the skirtboard. This centerline will also be the centerline of the handrail and newel post.
A tight fit to the floor
With that information penciled on the treads, I draw the footprint of the newel post directly onto the main starting tread. Next, I align the newel post with that layout.
Then I plumb the post.
Once plumb, I mark where the newel intersects any other treads or nosings.
|I use a combination square or straightedge to transfer and mark those lines.
At this point, there are two critical parts: One is that the post must be square to the line of the skirtboard/handrail; two is that the bottom of the newel must be fit tightly to the floor—any slope to the floor directly under the newel must be accounted for. For example, if the newel is sitting on a crooked floorboard, and you scribe the newel and then slide it into its final position, you might end up with a gap between your newel and flooring.
|Once everything is laid out and marked on the stairs, and any issues with the fit to the floor are figured out…
|…I transfer the top and bottom lines of all of the nosings to the newel.
This is the time to adjust for the floor. If the floor rises as the newel slides into position, adjust these lines down; if the floor falls, adjust the lines up. Always double check that the post is still plumb and square.
Cutting the newel
With the centerline marked on the newel…
|…I measure and locate the outer edge of each nosing.
|Then I measure and mark the skirtboards using my scribes.
I drill a 1/2″-deep hole where the nosing will eventually sit, using a 1 1/16″-diameter Forstner bit that matches the nosing profile and tread thickness. I never drill all the way through—depending on the location, a through-hole could weaken the newel post unnecessarily.
With the nosing profiles drilled out and everything marked, I start slicing and dicing.
|I make the cuts for the tread quickly with a miter saw…
|…and I finish with a jigsaw or handsaw.
I use a circular saw, tracksaw, or jigsaw to cut the skirtboard lines. I like to bevel the cuts a couple of degrees so that the leading edge hits. If I need to take a little more off, I can use a block plane to fine tune the fit instead of going back outside to the saw.
|In this photograph, I’m using a jigsaw because the circular saw seemed a bit precarious and there was no place to lay the track for the tracksaw.
Before sliding the post into position, I trim off the stair nosings that will be hidden under the newel post.
Don’t cut to the original newel post lines or there won’t be any tread nosing left to catch the post. I make a second mark 3/8″ over, and cut that line. Remember: the hole I drilled into the post is only 1/2″ deep. The 1/8″ difference between what I left on the tread and the depth of the hole will allow enough room for error without sacrificing the strength of the attachment.
The stair nosings
One other thing to consider is the cove moldings under the tread. I usually leave them off and install them after the newel post is installed, because it’s easier and faster. Who knows why, but I forgot to do that this time! With the post in position, I can mark the coves and chop them out with a sharp chisel.
|Sliding the post into position is the moment of truth! I know it’s a good fit when a couple whacks with a rubber mallet are all that’s needed to help the newel find its home sitting plumb and solid.
|A few strategically placed screws are usually enough to pull everything together solidly. Be sure to continuously check the post with the level as the screws are driven so it doesn’t get pulled out of plumb.
The final step is installing the balusters, handrail, and newel cap. There are three parts to this step: the handrail, the subrail (or fillet), which fits into a shallow dado milled into the bottom of the handrail, and the balusters. First I attach the subrail to the handrail with a few small brads. This way I can cut them at the same time, to ensure an exact fit. Then, using a digital level placed along the plane of the stair nosings, I get an exact reading on the pitch of the stairs. This number is also the angle of the cut at the newel post, because the newel is always installed plumb and square. This number is close to, but not necessarily the exact angle of, the cut at the plaster, which is most likely lumpy, out of square, and out of plumb. Now it is just a matter of a few trips back and forth between the stair and miter saw to adjust the cut at the plaster until everything fits nicely.
With the rail fit to the wall and supported at the finished elevation, it is easy to mark and cut all of the balusters to length. Remember the angle from the digital level that provided the angle to cut the handrail? Well that’s the same cut for the tops of the balusters.
After all of the balusters are cut to length, I place them in position one at a time and mark their locations on the subrail.
The subrail, removed from the handrail, is fastened through the top into the balusters with 1 1/4″-screws.
I then install the new cap and clean up. Done!
Not counting set up and breakdown of tools, this post installation took about two hours, including the time I spent photographing (I wish I had a helper that day!). Of course, the balusters, rail, cap, and clean up were an additional five hours of installation work. Although more challenging, in my experience it takes about the same amount of time for me to fit a post this way as it does to chop the nosings off completely. And like coping base and crown, this scribed joint provides a little more forgiveness. I also like this method because it gives me an opportunity to really practice the craft.