When I first read Norm’s article on skirt scribing, four thoughts immediately came to mind:
1) He and I both learned the technique from the same instructor, Don Zepp.
2) Norm’s explanation of the process was spot on.
3) I had a bunch of photos of a skirt board I had installed that I should share with others.
4) I felt exactly like Norm did: Don Zepp was absolutely the best instructor I’ve ever had the good fortune of learning from.
Most carpenters never even consider scribing a skirt board to a finished set of stairs. I mean, after all, it’d be foolish to think that you could make so many intricate cuts and expect to end up with a flawless fit.
The truth is that the process is quite simple, and it can be done without ever touching a tape measure…really.
As you’ll see, the photos I took 20 years ago match up almost perfectly with the illustrations in Norm’s article. I’ve included my comments and observations on the nuances involved with this scribing process below.
|After tacking the rough skirt board on top of the treads…|
|…you’ll notice that the lower edge of the skirt doesn’t touch the edge of each tread.|
It’s been my observation that no matter how fussy you are with the riser/tread layout and installation, there will always be some minor discrepancies along the flight. That’s why this scribing technique works so well—it accommodates any irregularities found in the final positioning of the treads and risers.
|I start by transferring the top height of the tread onto a 3/8 x 3/4 oak scribe stick that’s a couple of inches longer than the tread depth.|
|Then I carefully drill a pilot hole slightly smaller than the diameter of the brad, and drive a brad through the stick. I like to sharpen the brad point for a near razor-like scribe line.|
Next, I scribe the level lines onto the skirt board, starting on the finish floor, and working my way up the flight of stairs. It’s important to keep the stick plumb. I typically make one light pass to “set” the initial line, and then follow up with a couple more passes to really engrave the line in the skirt board.
|Making a thin, deep scribe line goes a long way towards preventing tear out when you start making the cuts. I darkened the scribes lines using a pencil to make them more visible in the photos.|
|When I’ve marked all the level (tread) scribe lines, I mark a reference line along the top edge of the skirt so I can reposition the skirt accurately—at precisely the same angle—when it’s time to scribe the risers.|
|After pulling the skirt off the wall, I cut the bottom of the skirt at the lowest scribe line, and tack it back up on the wall, using the reference line to position the skirt at the original angle.|
|Next, I remove the brad from my scribe stick, and I transfer the nosing length of the tread onto the scribe stick.|
|Then I drill another pilot hole at the mark, drive the brad through the stick at the new location, and start scribing the nosing edge and the riser faces onto the skirt board.|
After I’ve scribed the risers and nosings, I pull the skirt off the wall and I set it on some horses. Using a scrap piece of tread material, I connect the dots between the riser, nosing, and tread for the entire flight of stairs. When all the steps are marked out, I break out the saw…
|…and I carefully cut just to the scribe line.|
When the scribe lines are cut sharp and deep, and you’re careful not to cross the scribe line with the saw, there’s virtually no tear-out. I use a slight back-cut angle of about 4 to 5 degrees—this helps ensure a really tight fit when the skirt is driven into place. While the skirt is on the horses, I also cut the ends to match the baseboard at top and bottom.
|I set the skirt in place a few inches shy of its final position, and slide the skirt as far as I can into its final position to confirm all looks right.|
|Once I’m satisfied that it’s a good fit, I use a block to drive the skirt home for the final fit.|
If you’re attempting to scribe a skirt for the first time, here’s my best advice: get a piece of scrap that will cover two or three steps, run through the process I describe, and confirm you get a good fit. You’ll only need to practice it once—it really is that simple.
A word about craftsmanship…
Learning your craft in the world of trades is a unique proposition. Most of the learning takes place on the job site, with veteran tradespeople parsing out nuggets of wisdom and dazzling co-workers with an elegant approach that includes quality, ease, and speed.
I was fortunate to have attended a three-year, post-high school trade/tech school, the Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades. My three-year trade degree was in masonry, but while I was there, I was always keeping an eye on the carpentry shop. With Don Zepp at the helm, the building trade students at the school considered it the place to be.
After I graduated, I asked Don Zepp if I could sit in on his theory classes. Thankfully, he welcomed me. So in some ways, I double dipped my trade education. I’ve been fortunate to have spent time around some of the best tradespeople and craftsmen in the business.
The key to learning, regardless of the venue, is to always pay attention.
And keep in mind: while it’s true that you learn from your mistakes, in my experience, it’s way more productive to learn by observing the other guy’s mistakes.
• • •
In 1982, he and his wife, Bev, moved to Montrose, PA, where he continued to run his own construction business.
Carl started writing for the Journal of Light Construction in the late 80s, and is now a contributing editor at the magazine. In 1994, he became certified as a professional building designer member of the American Institute of Building Design, and in the same year he started WOODWEB.com with his business partner, Michael Poster.
Carl would like to give a tip of the hat to Todd Murdock for putting together the illustrations for Norm Yeager’s article—it’s uncanny how Todd’s illustrations mirror the photos Carl took 20 years ago.