Sippican Cottage

stair carpenter


A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

Not THE God. A God

Back in the day, when I was at least tangentially involved in constructing single family homes, a god would occasionally appear. Not THE god. But he was considered A god, nonetheless. The plasterers had left the building, the painters had at least primed every plastered surface, the electricians and plumbers wouldn’t return for weeks, as all their rough work was long since buried in the walls and floors. Carpenters were thick on the ground, or more accurately, on the subfloor. They’d hang doors in all the rough openings, and bustle back and forth to huge stacks of wood trim to run doorframes and baseboards and all that jazz. And then the god would appear.

The god, in this case, was the carpenter who could build a staircase. He was still considered a carpenter, it’s true, but he was usually an entirely different animal than the finish carpenters, and egad, the rough framers. The regular finish carpenters oftentimes resented him. He got paid more than they did. He carried fewer tools in his truck, and more in his head than they did. The regular carpenters all felt that they could put in the stairs, but this jamoke got all the stair work, and the extra dough. They were usually wrong about their own level of stairbuilding skill. They could do it, sure, if you wanted to rip it out and start over when the customer or the building inspector got a look at it. Stairs be hard.

That was back in Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, and Connecticut, where and when such things mattered. I’m in Maine now. And I can testify, without fear of contradiction, that no one who lives in Maine, or who has ever lived in Maine, has any idea how to build a flight of stairs.

Stairs have rules. Bigtime. Unlike many of the rules that govern construction, they’re pretty smart. It’s too easy to reopen a fontanel on a staircase to futz around with them while you’re building them. In Maine, everybody futzes around, and always has. I’ll boil down the rules to a bare minimum for you:

  • All the risers have to be the same height
  • The risers can’t be too tall
  • The risers can’t be too short
  • The treads have to be deep enough
  • The treads can’t be too deep
  • The treads can’t overhang too much
  • The stairs have to be wide enough
  • There should be a landing at the top and bottom
  • The open side of the stairs needs a balustrade
  • You need a sturdy railing that can be easily grasped

Those are general rules. The specific rules have dimensions included, which can vary depending on where the stairs are located, and who will be using them. But for the most part, they’re immutable.

If you can find me a staircase in Maine that ticks all those boxes, I’ll eat it. You certainly can’t find one in my house, and the stairs leading down to the laundry room were extreme offenders.

  • No two risers were the same height. Some varied by over an inch
  • The only thing the risers had in common was they were all too tall
  • Except for the riser at the bottom landing, which was too short
  • The treads weren’t deep enough to capture more than 1/2 of my foot
  • Except for the winders, who were too wide on one side, and too “nothing” on the inside edge
  • The treads don’t have any overhang. The stairs are like the side of a ziggurat
  • The stairs were almost wide enough, until you built some tree forts on the outside wall to hold all your Beefaroni cans, you ma(i)niacs.
  • There’s a door at the top of the stairs where the landing goes. The bottom landing may be there, but it’s pitch dark down there, so how would I know?
  • The stairs don’t have an open side, unless you count the winder stairs, where you find yourself immediately in midair about 2/3 of the way down
  • The railing is a short flimsy stick screwed to the wrong side of the stairs, because you’ve built a tree fort on the outside wall, remember?

I’m telling you, this is nothing special in Maine. I’ve been in million dollar houses here and the stairs were just as bad. And while legacy staircases are pretty awful, I see lots of stuff like this now, in newly built and recently renovated houses:


I can’t help but assume that some raccoon-eyed skank on a cable teevee home show is now advising everyone to make everything even worse by removing any sort of railing because open plan.

A quick perusal of the Maine real estate listings will turn up dozens of newly renovated houses with their balustrades and railings removed like this. Not all of them place additional twee trip hazards on the bottom step, but I assume they’ll get around to it eventually, when the Hobby Lobby opens up. It doesn’t much matter what the style of the dwelling is, either. A relative of ours went shopping for a brand new house, and found one that cost over half a mil, completely designed and decorated in the current bland, moderne, roomba-navigable style, and it had a ladder to reach the only bedroom.

So this is not ‘nam, this is stairs, there are rules. We can’t tear down our house and start over, and I can’t rejigger all the house framing to put in a new stairs. We’re going to make these stairs better. Better enough not to increase the death benefit on our insurance policies, anyway.

[To be continued]

8 Responses

  1. I bless the people/designers who built our current house (1999), which is a sorta ranch-style 1-story with a partially-finished basement. The put in a set of stairs to the basement in which the risers are uniform and the right height, the treads are uniform and the right depth, and the entire thing is right around 40″ wide. It’s got 5 steps to the first landing, a 90° turn (with, miracle of miracles, a light directly overhead) and then 9 more steps to the bottom landing (which curiously doesn’t have a light), which gives us a very nice 40″ wide by 4-foot long space in which to catch your breath before going into the basement’s very short hallway. Moving furniture, boxes, and stuff for the “root cellar” (it’s not, but we use it that way) is a snap.

    The cat likes to race me up the stairs and it’s wide enough that so far he hasn’t tripped me yet; he’ll keep trying.

    The bedrooms are on the first floor and having the laundry in a specific cubby on the first floor is really nice. So far I’ve only replaced the dryer, and managed to put it in (and haul the old one out) by myself.

    We had two sets of stairs in our 1901 farmhouse, and you couldn’t get standard washers and dryers down the bigger set of them without having to pick the appliances up over the railings in the mudroom and then dropping them vertically to the bottom landing, since the first landing was ‘way too small to get them past. T’other set of stairs was about 2 feet wide with head-knocking space above it and mostly used by the cat to get to his pan. We replaced the washing machine once and the dryers twice in the time we lived there, and each time I chortled as I paid for the “delivery, installation and removal” fee since it meant I didn’t have to try to find a friend (who wouldn’t be one for long) to help me get those things in and out of there.

    1. Hi Blackwing- Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I see you have a murder/suicide cat at your house, too. It’s a common breed. We bought one too. Likes to sleep with her paws pulled in on the second step down on the main staircase. It culls the weak visitors, which is nice.

  2. I wish I had read this eighteen years ago before I allowed the general contractor (a.k.a the brother-in-law) to hire the guy that was going to install the ridiculously expensive staircase from the factory.
    An engineer from the prefab staircase company had been out and measured and planned and handed me a quote in five figures. A month later the truck delivered the precut pieces.

    I don’t have time to do justice to the drama here, I’ve got to get ready to go out to dinner with my girlfriend. But as I sit here and gaze down at the six inch scar on my right knee that staircase was responsible for, I think back to the day, years after we moved into the house, and found the box the carpenter responsible for putting the staircase together had hid those pieces of the oak railing that he couldn’t figure out how to fit.
    Hmmm, knee hurts, it must be going to rain.

      1. I still have them around here somewhere, beautiful pieces of oak. (Sob…)

        I still have and use those pieces you made, back in the day, the “grazing shelf” (I think you called it) . I was going to order some chairs when you packed up that part of your life.

  3. Way back in the 20th Century when we were house hunting, my prescient wife insisted “One story, no stairs.” We fudged a little with the house we bought; two steps down to the pantry, two steps further down to the garage. BUT, the house has a double door entry and double sliding glass doors to the rear patio. Great for moving stuff like mattresses, refrigerators, washers, dryers, or pianos. The only flaw is the four too-deep steps up to the patio, not a lot of fun for schlepping a table saw.

  4. Hi Mike:

    I have a suggestion: why don’t you break out that table saw and replace those 4 patio stairs with stairs that are better designed and built ! 🙂

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