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.


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