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Stair building combines precision carpentry with tricky math, so even experienced builders find it challenging. But as this extensively illustrated book demonstrates, any builder who can measure the distance between two floors can plan and build a stunning set of stairs. By clearly laying out the geometry, planning, and construction involved, author Andy Engel takes the reader from a simple structure built of framing lumber to a set of stairs fit for a king. From building and installing railings to using off-the-shelf stair parts, Building Stairs lays out the process clearly and completely.
  • Written by a pro
  • Accurate and reliable
  • Easy to navigate
  • Covers railings and newels
  • Includes outdoor stairs
About the author
Andy Engel built his first stair in 1985 and has since worked as a carpenter, homebuilder, writer, and building consultant. Formerly an editor at Taunton's Fine Homebuilding magazine, he lives in Connecticut with his wife and two sons.
Additional Information
Cover 191
Publication Year 2007
Other Formats 070929, 070742
Isbn 978-1-60085-716-4
Author Andy Engel
Pages 256
Format eBook (PDF)
Toc Introduction

1 Stairbuilding Basics
Follow the Code
Measuring for Stairs
Planning a Stair

2 Building a Basic Stair
The Framing Square
Build On-Site or in the Shop?
Laying Out the Stair
Framing the Landing
Laying Out the Stringers
Installing the Stringers
Installing Treads and Risers
Building the Support Wall

3 Finishing Rough Stairs
Fitting the Skirtboards
Notching the Inner Skirtboard
Fitting the Risers and Treads
Attaching the Treads and Risers
Making Returned Treads

4 Building Housed-Stringer Stairs
The Hows and Whys of Housed Stringers
Router-Cut Housed Stringers
Laying Out the Stringers
Mortising the Stringers
Cutting the Treads and Risers
Assembling the Parts
Installing the Stair

5 Building a Combination Stair
Measuring and Planning
Laying Out the Stringers
Installing the Treads and Risers
Installing the Stair

6 Adding a Bullnose Step
Designing the Bullnose
Making the Tread
Making a Half-Round Riser
Preparing the Riser for Bending
Bending the Riser
Attaching the Bullnose

7 Winders
Winders and the Code
Winder Stringers
Laying Out the Winder Stair
Laying Out the Stringers
Making the Winder Treads
Making the Stringers
Building the Stair

8 Post-to-Post Railings
Planning Out the Balustrade
Locating the Starting Newel
Marking and Notching the Treads
Laying Out the Newel
Cutting and Fitting the Newel
Balusters and Railings
Installing Wall Rails

9 Over-the-Post Railings
Start with a Full-Scale Drawing
Cutting a Volute
Tenoning the Newel
Goosenecks and Quarter-Turns
Joining Easings to Rails
Attaching the Newels
Fitting the Rail
Installing Balusters

10 Making Newels and Rails
An Arts and Crafts Newel
A Victorian-Style Newel
Making Custom Handrails

11 Building Outdoor Stairs
Measuring for the Stair
Laying Out and Cutting the Stringers
Treads and Risers
Details for Balustrades
Outdoor Newels
Appendix A: Tools
Routers and Router Bits
Layout Tools
Rail Joining
Hand Tools
Power Hand Tools and Jigs
Shop Made Tools

Appendix B: Codes
The NVent/Permalynx System
Watts Radiant Clinch Clamp


Stairs are at once utilitarian and beautiful. Building them and their railings is both the height of the carpenter's craft and a mundane combination of basic carpentry and seventh-grade math. Any trim carpenter, and most owner-builders, already possess the basic woodworking tools and skills. And anybody who can add, subtract, multiply, and divide, as well as sketch a project on graph paper, has the necessary ciphering tools.

If you've read this far, most likely you've got the tools and have completed seventh grade. What's left is the question of inclination. Stairs require careful craftsmanship, but they aren't art. They're craft. David Pye, in The Art and Nature of Workmanship, defines workmanship of risk and workmanship of certainty. Artists undertake workmanship of risk. If Michaelangelo twitched on his final chisel stroke, he might have whacked David's nose clean off. Craftsmen rely on workmanship of certainty. When it really counts, they use aids such as jigs to make, for example, straight and square cuts. Stairbuilding is almost all workmanship of certainty.

That said, stairs do separate the carpenters from the hackers. Even the most rustic basement stairs built from framing lumber must be sturdy and consistent in tread (the parts you walk on) width and riser (the vertical space between treads) height. When a carpenter builds a wall or a roof, he can be off by a surprising amount--inches sometimes--and the homeowner might never know. Stairs aren't like that. Discrepancies as small as 1⁄4 in. become at worst a trip hazard, and at best an annoyance. Sound exacting? It is, but by employing tools of workmanship of certainty such as a tablesaw and a rip fence, staying within such tolerances barely merits a second thought.

Moving out of the basement and into the foyer, stairs and their railings, or balustrades, can assume an almost sculptural quality as the dominant element of a home's entry. Formal stairs are as much like furniture as anything a carpenter does. But furniture makers ply their craft on a bench in a shop where perfection is possible. The stairbuilder's work must seamlessly fit inside the usually imperfect world of homebuilding. The furniture maker's fit and finish, which formal stairs seem to demand, keep a lot of carpenters from even trying to build them. Here's the thing, though--stairbuilding is just another way to apply carpentry skills. Although I usually build some types of stairs in the shop, that's out of convenience, not necessity. I've built every type on-site as well.

Like any trade, stairbuilding can seem impossibly complex. And when learning, one's own assumptions can get in the way. Stairbuilding, more than any other aspect of carpentry I've learned, requires an open mind and an occasional leap of faith. I once had an apprentice who was stymied by the idea of running a diagonal structure across the plumb and level world of homebuilding. He just couldn't understand how to measure and plan that theoretical line in space where the stringer would rise between two floors. It rocked his world when I told him that I don't measure that diagonal. I look at the vertical rise, and from that I figure the number and height of the risers. I look at the horizontal distance the stair is to traverse and figure the width and number of treads from that. It took days before he got comfortable with the fact that what he'd assumed for years as being a key to the mystery of stairbuilding was incidental and largely an impediment to his learning.

In this book, I'll explain the basics of stair geometry and planning so that you can build stairs to fit any opening you encounter. You'll learn to build the most basic stairs by notching framing lumber for the stringers and screwing down rough treads. From there, it's a small leap to routing mortises in the stringers and building stairs whose assembled parts look as if they were cast in a mold.

The second part of this book is about railings. In 1985, when I first started in stair work, railings scared me. Much like my apprentice, that diagonal line through space overwhelmed my thinking. In a way, though, railings are easier than stairs. That rail should end up parallel to the existing stair, and all you need to do for that to happen is set its posts the same height off the stairs. And those curved parts that look as if they grew off the end of the railing? They're off-the-shelf parts that you join to the rail with a bolt. The secret to making them look seamless is sandpaper and elbow grease.

If you can measure the distance between two floors of a house and divide that number by 7 or 8, you can plan out a set of stairs. If you're competent with a router and a circular saw, you can cut a stringer. Can you read a level and operate a drill and a miter saw? You can learn to install a railing. You probably already possess most of the skills needed to build stairs. What this book will do is fill in a few gaps and show you how to apply some pretty basic carpentry in a way that can yield stunning results.

Taunton's For Pros By Pros: Building Stairs (eBook)

  • by Andy Engel
  • eBook (PDF)
  • Product Code: TP-FHB62077736
Availability: In Stock
Today's Price: $17.96
List Price: $24.95
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