Friday, March 28, 2008

The Stairway from Hell

Our old staircase was a blight in an otherwise wonderful living room. Let’s face it, we were ashamed. People would invariably come into our house, and their crest-fallen face would hone in on our staircase, and they’d exclaim, “Ugh, what are you going to do with THAT?”

They were right of course, the old staircase was an eyesore:

Everyone’s first question: why don’t you just repaint it? Then the next question was equally impractical: why don’t you re-build it?

Nearly every baluster was broken, the steps had been sanded into oblivion, the stringers had separated where the stair turned 90º, and initially, in our optimistic view to restore things to order and out of sheer respect for “the old way”, we thought we’d rebuild it exactly as it was.

And then we thought things over. We couldn’t fit a king-sized bed upstairs, (which we needed, of course, to accommodate the DOG sleeping with us), a sofa barely fits upstairs, and basically, the over-all dimensions were kind of Lilliputian in scale. People were smaller 150 years ago. We’re no giants, but really…the stair need super-sizing to bring it up to par.

In the general scheme of our renovation, the staircase was the absolute LAST thing we wanted to do. We still need to renovate the upstairs, (we’re living in uninsulated knotty pine purgatory), and this would mean lots of trips up and down with what we’ve torn out, plus all the building material we need to bring up. Doing this with a pristine staircase is just too impractical. But when we happened on a hand-worker who was able to make a staircase to our exacting specifications, we deviated from our schedule and gave the green light. Big Mistake. Actually, we wanted him to repair our barn, but since it was November and winter was nipping at our heels, we thought it best to put the plans for the barn off until spring. Being suckers, when he told us stairs were his specialty and the fact he was desperate for work, we gave the go-ahead.

It was the end of November, and we were assured the whole fiasco would last about 2 to 3 weeks. Perfect, just in time for Christmas, I thought. I already had visions of pine garlands decking our fine new stair, our new pride and joy being shown off to Christmas revelers.

Alas, nothing ever goes to plan, and from experience, we know that every best time estimate can be doubled, if not tripled in length of time until completion. But, this time we reckoned, we were dealing with a pro, a master craftsman, an enthusiastic worker who came to us like manna from heaven.

We ordered oak for the steps, used our reclaimed Eastern fir for the stringers, and ordered 30 custom-turned balusters made of ash. Our worker became more and more sporadic, and weeks turned into months…

But alas, when we went into the workshop, we were mollified. The steps were wonderful, the design of the stringers was curvaceous and elegant, the balusters veritable works of art. We could hardly wait for the installation.

At the beginning of March, the day to tear down the old stair and re-build the wall was finally here. Eric and the stair-builder demolished the old stairs, tore out the bead-board that was our inside finishing, and proceeded to remove the pine boards that form the guts of our very uninsulated outside wall. Essentially (and this is where I laugh when people suggest “it just needs some paint”), the inside walls of our house are comprised of pine boards, about 1” thick, nailed vertically onto the main structure of the house with hand-forged nails.

After 150 years or so, the wood has shrunken so much you can literally pull the square nails out without effort. I didn’t mention insulation, did I? That’s because there is no insulation! Eric painstakingly removed all the old pine boards, replaced those that were rotten, placing one layer of heavy-duty tar-paper behind them.

He then re-installed the boards with screws and washers, and build a 2”x3” stud wall that was insulated with Roxul Flexibatt and covered with a vapour barrier called Ayr-Foil:

On top of this came the fire-code Gyproc, and we now have us a finished wall.

The only thing missing is the stair.

In the meanwhile, our two tough boy cats, Bobby (below) and Howard, high-tailed it outside, and spent their time looking longingly into the house through a variety of windows, in the hopes the stairs have magically rebuilt themselves.

Our ancient cat Schatzie is pushing 20, and she spent the entire time sleeping within 20 feet of power tools and wrecking bars, completely oblivious to the commotions around her. We spend a total of 3 nights climbing the ladder to sleep upstairs, and the old hag was the only cat who climbed the ladder. Mind you, the moment she discovered the stair was missing, it was as though a little light bulb went off above her head. It was as though she was saying, “damn, where’d the stair go? How am I gonna get my treats?” When I showed her the ladder, up she went. The old girl is fearless. (Her mother’s not, so I promptly slung her over my shoulder and carried her back down, where she spent the next 2 days sleeping on the sofa, opening an eye from time to time to watch the show.)

When the bottom stringer was placed against the wall, we could envision the stair as almost complete:

But we have a problem, and it’s starting to dawn on Mr. Stair-builder: he messed up a measurement. His calculations were bang-on; he should have had 19.85 cm between each step:

It seems when he started to build the stringers, he measured 18.85 cm between each step (remember Norm Abram’s advice: measure twice, cut once?). Now, you’re saying, 1 cm, that’s like…a fraction of an inch, right? And you’re right of course, but when you multiply 1 centimetre over 14 steps, you’re off by 14 centimetres.

So, our new stair is on blocks, and we’re not, um…very pleased. In fact, we’re near tears:

We’re scratching our heads, trying valiantly to find a solution, but alas, there’s no salvaging the hard work. There’s not enough room to properly add a step or build a landing. The run of the stair is totally wrong. Not only that, the 4th stair up is 10 cm higher than it should be because of the measuring error, meaning anyone over 6' needs to duck under the beam. One of our friends put it best: you’ll break a hip when you’re older. And, of course, she’s totally right.

Naturally, being the lyrical deviant I am, Pat Benatar's song "Heartbreaker" came to mind, sung with the following lyrics:

You're a hip-breaker, time-waster,
money-taker, don't you mess around with me,

Despite the best of intentions, not everything turns out like you’ve planned. Some things you have to live with and other things just need to be re-done.

But we’re not finished yet! We’ve been VERY patient over the past few months, dealing with a moody yet methodical worker. Eric was willing to absorb the cost of the wood: we’d need new stringers and new oak posts, as well as the banister. The actual steps could be re-used and so could the balusters, however, everything else needed to be re-built. We were willing to house our worker (hell, I was already feeding him 3 squares a day and doing his laundry), until the staircase was re-built, alas, his head-space "wasn’t there" and he was "too disappointed" to tackle the project again.

So. We have a beautiful staircase. It’s just built for the wrong house.

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