The Rail World

David hired me to repair a stair rail that had pulled out of the wall during a furniture move. His tenant had patched two of the holes where the brackets attached to the drywall, and it fell to me to finish the job.

Stair rails take a lot of abuse. People lean on them, knock into them, and pull and push as if they could carry the weight of the world. They can’t. Like everything else in the house, a stair rail is only as strong as what it’s attached to. For the best chance of withstanding abuse, the rail has to be anchored in the structural wall behind it.

So I was relieved when I cut out the remaining two rectangles of drywall and found solid wood behind both of them. (Normally I could use a jab saw to cut out drywall, but in this case the wood prevented me from jabbing through, so I made several passes with a utility knife pushing hard.) I measured my openings, cut new drywall slightly too big, sanded the new pieces down until they just fit, and secured them to the studs with drywall screws. Then I applied spackle, waited a day, sanded, and repeated the process.

When the wall was smooth, it was time to reinstall the rail. (I didn’t paint because David plans to repaint the entire wall sometime soon.) The top end of the rail returns into the wall, and that connection dictated its height. David helped me hold the rail up so I could mark the bracket locations; it took a couple tries to get it right. Then I drilled holes for the toggle bolts we’d use to distribute load where the bracket didn’t quite line up with the stud. Finally, I changed my drill bit to Phillips head, and with David holding the rail steady again I buried the screws.


David reattaches a stair rail bracket to the wall.


Clear for Landing

Mark’s new house is comfortable, compact, and beautifully finished… but his builders made a couple of mistakes. First, the basement stairs weren’t built to code. A support column squeezes the basement stair landing too close to the top of the stairs, forcing risers about 8 ½ inches high when code limits them to 7 ½ inches. Second, the landing for the upper stairs is sagging due to inadequate support.


Part of the landing support for the upper stairs pokes out over the basement stairs.

The obvious solution to the first issue is to move the support column – it needs to slide about 15 inches to make room for the basement stairs. So, let’s think like an engineer: what are the consequences of moving the column? One consequence is that the column no longer supports the end of the collector beam; it leaves a cantilever. An unintentional cantilever is never good, but 15 inches isn’t that big of a deal when the beam itself is 12 inches deep. We agreed to lag a stringer to a nearby LVL, reducing the load on the cantilever.

Another consequence is that the column no longer stands on a concrete footing but is supported by the slab directly. I went through a checklist to see if I was OK with that move. Slab construction? On grade. Soil underneath? Extremely dense glacial till, no risk of consolidation. Loads above? Just the first floor itself; the exterior walls are the only loadbearing walls in Mark’s whole house. I concluded the slab might be more susceptible to cracking, but structurally it could support the moved column just fine.


The offending support column is in the foreground just right of the insulation. It needs to move 15 inches to the right.

The second issue took a little more investigation. The exposed bit of landing support provided a big clue, and so did a nearby first floor joist that deviated from the pattern. My diagnosis was this: the upper stairs were built too narrow at first, and when they were widened an extra piece of landing was tacked on, resulting in another of those pesky cantilevers. I recommended Mark rebuild the landing as a single frame. He could do the job while the basement stairs were out, supporting the upper stairs temporarily from the basement floor.


In with the new stairs. Out with nearly every wall in the house.

The stairs came prefab and arrived early Tuesday morning. They have gorgeous oak treads, which we immediately covered with plywood scraps to protect them. The first five treads have bullnose corners, presenting a finished flange to the kitchen and living room; the remaining treads are narrower to fit between two walls.

Hans took charge of building those slanted walls. The east wall is particularly complicated as it frames around what will become a storage nook at the top of the basement stairs. Everyone agreed to keep the stairs open to the living room as high as possible, meaning that nook has a sloping ceiling. Plenty of funny angles to figure out.

Hans builds the wacky stair-wall nook.

Hans builds the wacky stair-wall nook.

Not to be left out, Mark volunteered to seal the treads with a polyurethane coating. He started last night, when Bob and Suze were out of town and wouldn’t have to live with the vapors. (They put up with serious inconveniences as it is, living in this house while it gets remodeled top to bottom.) First I helped Mark staple some plastic sheeting to the ceiling above to catch any drips from the roof. He removed the plywood tread covers, cleaned up debris, and applied paint thinner to remove some accidental scuff marks. Then he proceeded to paint on the first coat.

Mark brushes polyurethane onto the new steps.

Mark brushes polyurethane onto the new steps.

The north wall of the living room is half gone, as is the first-floor bathroom wall. We salvaged lots of nice-looking barnboard from the walls, and we’ll reuse some of it as a germane alternative to drywall. (I tried not to split any pieces as I pried them off.) D.D. gets the award for making the most trips out to our dumpster. Bob had it delivered a week ago and it’s already overflowing.