Sippican Cottage



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

Schroedinger’s Bevel Square, and Other Discontents

Well, we’re back at it, trying to fix the stairs that lead down to our potential laundry room. I was gratified to discover that I wasn’t a complete spaz. I’ve been tripping on those stairs for years, and I was tripping on them for a reason. The risers only had a passing acquaintance to each other, instead of being a uniform height.

Starting from the bottom of the stairs, the first riser was short about 1-1/2″. Someone had installed an additional layer of very thick flooring back in the day, and the stairs weren’t modified to conform to the new baseline height. That’s a pretty common occurrence in old houses. The next two winder (pie-shaped) treads were sitting on risers of varying dimensions, somewhere between wrong and pole-vault height. They must have taken a stab at the dimensions back when they built it, but were flummoxed by the winding layout. The rest of the risers were off by a 1/4″ here, 1/2″ there, until the top step which was another pole-vault height. The kitchen floor must have been installed last, and the stair builder forgot to incorporate it into his calculations. That’s also a common problem. When you’re cutting stringers for your stairs, the first and last notches are usually different than all the rest. You have to take finished floor heights into account.

So the risers on our old cellar stairs are all over the place, and the treads are too shallow, and there’s no nosing. This began to knit itself into an opportunity. Instead of ripping out the existing stair, why not build a new one on top of the old one?

Since the first step is too low, and the last step too high, adding a 3/4″ thick tread on top of the existing treads would fix both problems. I could add shims under the new treads to make up for all the risers that were too high. I simply had to find the shortest riser, and make all the others conform to it. I was going to contact the bar owner from yesterday’s essay, and ask him for advice on how to nail a tread over another tread, but I didn’t want to wake him. How hard could it be?

But the treads are still not deep enough. So what? I’ll put on new treads that are 1-1/4″ deeper, and round over the nose. After I shim them and attach them to the existing treads, I’ll add a new riser that sits on top of the new tread, and helps hold it in place. We can put a little molding under the nosing. That molding will cover any gaps left from shimming the treads to make the riser height uniform. Now the treads will all be at least 9-1/4″ deep. Not great, but much better. More than half of my foot will land on it for a change.

Hardwood stair treads are expensive if you buy them as blanks. We’ll make do with lumberyard pine. We made blanks and the spare heir varnished them. Like this:

The big one in the foreground is a blank for one of the winder stairs. They taper down to almost nothing on the inside, but are more than twice the depth of the other treads on the outside edge.

You start at the bottom, fit the tread, sit the new riser on top of the new tread, plop the next tread on top of that, and make your way up the stair. The molding under the nosing will cover any gap between the riser and the next tread. I had to shim the treads on the second two winding treads a lot, but the stairs ended up more or less uniform.

In installed wall stringers before the treads. you can see them on either side of the stairwell. Once they’re in place, you have to fit the treads in between them. How do?

You can’t just cut them all the same length. The walls bellow in and out. Hell, you really can’t even cut the ends off square. You have to fit the ends to the stringers. Here’s how you do it.

First, you spend four hours looking for your bevel square.  The first hour is spent in fruitless frisking of all your toolboxes and workshop drawers. The second and third hours are taken up with interrogating your children, of course. “By all that is right and holy, try to remember where you put the bevel square. Please oh god please remember what you did with it last time.” Then you give up and search around again in the same places you looked three hours before, hoping that your bevel square was involved in some kind of quantum entanglement and might re-appear at any moment. Then you perform multiple sessions of thought experiments in the Schroedinger’s Bevel Square vein. Maybe it’s both there and not there, you muse, and then swear. Swearing doesn’t help you find your bevel square, but it doesn’t hurt, either, and feels better than plain musing.

Then you finally give up and go upstairs with a hangdog expression on your face and you and your wife go to the Aubuchon and buy another bevel square. When you return home you go to throw the bag and receipt away and you see the old bevel square stuck between the trash bin and the shelf. This is why I have seven bevel squares. Well, I think I do. They’re around here somewhere.

So you use the bevel square to measure the angle between the wall stringer and the riser. It’s usually something like 92 or 89 degrees or something, but I haven’t been able to find my protractor since 6th grade, so there’s no way I’m measuring that. No need to, anyway. You just lay the bevel’s stock (the thick wooden or plastic part) square on the back of the tread blank, and mark the line where the tongue (the metal blade) rests. Then you lay the blank on the sliding miter saw and adjust the angle until the blade is aligned with the mark, and one side of the blank will fit against one wall properly. Now what?

If you try to measure inside dimensions like this, you’ll fail. I know, I’ve failed at it, long and hard, many times. It’s hard to get interior measurement correct with a tape measure. It’s easier with a wooden folding carpenter’s rule, but your children lost that fifteen years ago. Besides, the other side isn’t square either, so a single measurement won’t be enough. You have to measure fore and aft and connect the marks and cut that. Here’s how the old-timers did it: Pinch sticks.

There’s a lot of “satisfied hammer owners” on YouTube. That’s what I call (well, Kliban calls) folks who spend more time arranging their tools than using them. That makes it hard to find anyone doing things quick and dirty. There are umpteen guys using $30,000-worth of stationary tools to make elaborate “pinch rods” with brass fittings and mahogany parts, but really, it’s just two sticks from the scrap pile. Just cut a long stick in half at a 45-degree angle, and slide them past each other until the beveled tips hit what you’re measuring, and pinch them with your fingers. You don’t even need the clamp used by the nice fellow in the video who’s dressed to rob a train.

[To be continued. Thanks for reading and commenting, and recommending Sippican Cottage to your interfriends, and buying my book, and hitting my tip jar. It’s greatly appreciated]

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