Friday, April 17, 2015

Federal Staircase

All photographs in this post courtesy of Nate Clark and Darryn Petersen. 

Post below by Mike (Catherine's husband) 

Nate and Darryn are the craftsmen who have been helping us with many and varied historical restoration elements, and who have been providing much sage advice as we navigate the renovation. They sent some photographs from their workshop recently, where they are working on milling the pieces for our staircase restoration. The images are beautiful, and we thought we would share them.

The railing system that was in the house was in need of repair, was a wear element that was coated in multiple layers of lead paint, and also mismatched in style - between the elements that actually comprised the system, and also out of character with the house. It was clearly a replacement for the original system, possibly multiple times over. Its blocky, stout, robust lines were out of character with the elegance of the center hall, and the descending natural light that you experience as you climb.

For all of these reasons, though it is an investment, we decided to start over with the staircase, and restore it with a system typical of the Federal period. There are a few good examples in homes in the area that Nate and Darryn have worked on in the past, and after a site visit we saw the design and character that we'll love. 

Although the details are many and beautiful as you will see in the images to come, some of the key defining elements include a continuous handrail that runs over the top of all newels and balusters, a modest volute (ram's horn turn in the rail and tread) at the foot of the stairs, and a gooseneck at the top of the stairs which is used commonly in over-the-post railing systems.

Luckily, in the late 1800s there appears to have been a movement to document the architectural details of the past (at that time), resulting in a few resource books that restorationists like Nate and Darryn return to again and again for patterns to recreate the elements of the day. 

Three-dimensional elements such as the volute, the gooseneck, and the rail turn at the top of the stairs are not defined by any simple math, thus the ability to transfer the old patterns in scale to guide the milling of the new pieces is an essential element of restoration work such as this.  

The image above shows such an exercise, where the geometry of the volute has been meticulously transferred to a template to guide its construction.

Here are templates that define the bottom stair tread with attached volute, and the geometry of the handrail.

One of the first assembled elements - this is the volute portion of the bottom stair riser (turned on its side). Due to the varying angles and curves, over 30 pieces of individually milled wood were joined together to comprise the feature.

In the background is a full-scale drawing of elements of the railing system, while in the foreground a small piece of falsework defines the shape of the lower portion of the railing. The three-dimensional nature of the volute really shows here.

First cuts on the mahogany blocks that were used to shape the complex elements of the railing system. Most of these individual pieces started as solid 3-inch by 7-inch blocks of wood.

At the right of this image you can start to see the first signs of the rounded handrail profile emerging from the solid block.

The profile for the new handrail (at right) is modeled after a piece of historic handrail (at left) from the Federal period. The historic handrail comes with a story of course. Years ago, Nate was among a group of carpenters that the state historical society commissioned to dis-assemble and document elements of a group of homes in an abandoned 18th century island settlement. 

Here are some of the more complex elements of the railing system continuing to evolve.

Because of the compound angles and curves, only a portion of the initial shaping of the railing can actually be machined. The rest is hand-shaped in precise detail. In it we will truly see the 'hands' of the artisans that have built the staircase system for us.

Here is a detail on the handrail return at the top of the stairs. The gooseneck will lead from below to the left portion of this piece, while the handrail that runs along the upper landing will join with the right side of this piece. Only two newels are actually used in the system, which greatly enhances its elegance. One will be located directly below the left corner of this piece, and the other will be located in the center of the volute.

Elements of the handrail nearing completion.

The newels were hand-turned on a lathe, with an elegant balance of strength and beauty.

Other detailed elements that are being milled include face mouldings that will be installed on the exposed sides of the stair risers. Their pattern was transferred from an original detail on the side of the staircase in our house, and was one of the few hints of the original. The curved lines emulate those of the gooseneck and volute.

The stair treads have been hand-planed to provide a more aged character and color even though they are milled from new wood.

Between the renovation of our home in Oregon and our ongoing renovation of the Federal we have talked with and worked with many, many trades people, who have all been wonderful. However, our experience working with Nate and Darryn has been special because they are so uniquely talented, and are true artisans. 

Additionally, the breadth of their knowledge of historical architecture is vast, and they have helped us learn much about the fine details of our home. As we have broken into several walls during their work, they have helped us 'forensically' sort out how the home was pieced together over its 200-year existence.

Slowly but surely the home is being put back together. The installation of this beautiful railing and restoration of the staircase will mark a major milestone for us. We can't wait.



  1. The stairs are going to be lovely--and very special. I look forward to seeing them finished!

  2. That was so fascinating to read! It is amazing to see the building process and the artistry. It makes one appreciate how demanding fine carpentry was before the days of power tools. (Although, of course, much is handcrafted in your staircase.) Thanks for sharing, Mike, and I look forward to seeing it installed in your home.

  3. Wonderful craftsmanship! It is going to beautiful and hold such meaning once completed.

  4. Reminds me a lot of the work of master craftsman Thomas Day. He was famous for not only his furniture but also his architectural woodwork in many antebellum homes in North Carolina and Virginia. His newels are exceptionally unique and striking.

  5. Hey Mike,
    What an incredible and interesting post. I love love love the wood work and the detail in these amazing intricate and truly inspiring details. I grew up watching my dad, his brothers and my grandfather carve details in wood as they made chairs and tables and shelving. My grandfather used to make adirondack chairs more beautiful than I had ever seen so I can totally appreciate the gift of a true carpenter and the beauty of authentic carpentry.
    Love this post and I can't wait to see the finished staircase and your finished home. Great post Mike!
    Can't wait to show Rob, he will love reading this.

  6. Thank you Mike, you're right, the images ARE beautiful, and you are as poetic with words as Catherine is. I don't know if I'm looking at the golden mean in pic #1, but something about the drawing sure reminds me of being in the ever-assuring/no-arguments/ultimate-calm presence of physics. Imagining big and little hands wearing down that railing in the years ahead...



  7. Wow! This is fascinating and I can't wait to see it all put together! You must be so excited to be a part of this process.

  8. Thank you so much for writing about this! What a lovely story, the railing will be a crown jewel in your house.

  9. So, so beautiful and it is wonderful seeing a house restored to its former glory rather than stripped, tiled and a million spotlights added.

  10. One word for that craftsmanship...Wow!! Can't wait to see them installed.

  11. What beautiful craftmanship. I can't wait either!


  12. Almost makes you want to cry. : - ) So, much time, thought, love, and of course money put into this house. It is going to be amazing! I'm so glad you're sharing it.

  13. My heart started to flutter a bit as I read this...this is the stuff that restoration dreams are made of. I am looking so forward to seeing it in place in your home.

  14. Beautiful! I love and appreciate fine woods! And exquisite trim Work! Sheila

  15. Such craftsmanship. I really admire people who are so passionate about their work. The details of your staircase are wonderful. So many would overlook something like a staircase in a house, but not those of us who appreciate the historic and artistic qualities of such a gorgeous architectural feature. You are fortunate to have access to such wonderful craftsmen. And you house is lucky to have owners who put so much thought and effort into its restoration. Can't wait to see the final results. Thanks for this very informative and well written post, Mike.

  16. That was really interesting! Thank you for sharing it! xoxo

  17. I truly enjoy and appreciate the attention to detail you both show in all you do. Your staircase reminds me greatly of one of our previous homes. It was a large brick home from the 1920's. There was a Juliet balcony that was particularly lovely. So glad you shared details on the new railings. Best wishes on your new, old house!

  18. We restored an 1865 Limestone Greek Revival home and I know how much detail goes into accurate restorations. I can't wait to see the beautiful hand crafted staircase. Your restoration will ensure your "new" Old House will stand for generations. Lovely!!!

  19. Wow! I can't wait to see the total renovation of this house. Filling it with 2 lively children and family life will be the icing on the cake. :)

  20. A beautiful authentic addition that will encourage the house that built you.
    What a treasure you are giving your family.

    Looking so forward to its beauty in its finished state.


  21. This is one restoration I'm sure you'll be glad you did. Skilled craftsmen just amaze me! We are restoring a 134 year old plantation home in Georgia and it bewilders us everyday when we discover something new in the walls that was covered up or when something was obviously taken out. I'm really enjoying watching the work on this house, just as I did on your other farmhouse.

  22. this is quite interesting. I was clueless at what went into creating something like this. those guys are true artists. can't wait to see the finished product. linda r (phila burbs)

  23. Thanks, Mike, for sharing this intricate millwork with us. I can't wait to see the finished product.

  24. The architecture nerd in me gets so excited about details like these! How wonderful that you're able to restore the staircase and that you found an artisan with the talent to do so. Looking forward to seeing it in your home!

  25. It's going to be perfect and it makes me so very happy that you are doing this :)

  26. Really fascinating. I am so enjoying following along with this restoration, thank you so much for detailing so much of the work.

  27. so beautiful. what a fascinating process!

  28. Such gorgeous workmanship! I love that Mike did a post for you- hi Mike! This was a great read. Dan will love it. xxoj.


Thank you for leaving your thoughts. Kind regards, Catherine

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