The Stairs From Hell

When Coors owned RiverBank in the 1970's and '80's, at some point someone decided to dismantle the staircase. We have no idea why they decided to, but they did it. When we started working here in 1997, we found the long gooseneck handrail lying in a back room, along with a pile of slats that had been pulled up and left together.

Not everything was still here. A newel post was missing, along with the curved parts of the handrail, which had been broken off and carried away. At three inches in diameter and round with a small flat spot at the bottom, the handrail was larger than any nineteenth-century railing I've ever seen, so it was going to be very difficult to replace.

original condition
The stairs in their original condition.

Shortly after we moved in, Jim Boice returned the newel post, which he had lifted when it was all but certain that the house was going to be bulldozed and he had figured no one would miss it. When he learned we were going to restore the house, he made sure the newel post came back home, and we put it back in place.

We moved upstairs in the fall of 2005. For five years we tramped up and down the worn-out stairs, holding on to a jury-rigged handrail. Finally, in the fall of 2010, it was time to start working on the stairs. We didn't want to destroy the beautiful wear patterns of the treads, so a heavy sander was out. Because 150 years ago they had been painted with casein paint, which doesn't react to chemical stripping, light hand sanders were really the only option.

original condition
Reverse view, from the top of the stairs
(note the paint on the steps)

One other important thing to know about old growth yellow pine is that it's like iron. Pine may be an historically soft wood, but old growth pine is dense, sappy, and stubbornly hard. It took a full year of sanding, off and on, tread by tread. Jack and I took turns, went over each tread time and time and time and time again, until the paint was gone and the stairs were clean. Of course we didn't work at it all the time, but for a few hours every week until it was done.

varnished steps
The treads fixed, but nothing else done.

For twelve years, we circled the problem of replicating the curved banister, larger than a standard handrail from the mid-nineteenth century. This year, Tom Thomas of Fineline Architectural Detailing took the remnants we had and made prototypes from them, prototypes from which he found a woodshop that replicated the missing pieces. We were thrilled when Tom installed them, and suddenly the negative and positive spaces took shape.


I took the existing slats and scraped them clean of cracked old paint, and scraped the ones that were still in place at the top of the stairs. I also scraped and sanded the newel posts and the existing original handrail, until everything was ready to put back into place. We had to have eight slats replicated, to replace the ones that were lost over the years.

half done

Then it was time to put the slats into place. Because the stairs were made by hand, we had to match the existing slats to their original places and toenail them back into the banister. It was like a jigsaw puzzle, with every match making the rest of the puzzle easier, until they were all in place.

half done half-installed

With the slats in place and the banister back up, all that remained was the painting. Unfortunately, over the years people had nailed or stapled carpet and I don't even want to guess what else to the risers. When they pulled it loose, they also pulled out chunks of wood, which had to be filled and sanded, along with all the cracked paint.


When we scraped down the handrail, we found the original paint color and were able to reproduce it. The newel posts, banister and trim are back to the original color. The slats, risers and woodwork are white, which is a bit of a cheat, because originally they were all faux-grained to look like walnut. Four days before Christmas, having done absolutely no preparation for the holiday--no decorating, no baking, no cards, nothing--I finished. More than a year in the making, twelve years in the planning, and it's all done.


done! done!

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