At the center of a recent home remodeling project in Burlington Ontario was a standalone staircase with twin banisters and a flared base. The hourglass-shaped red oak stairs filled the room and must have looked marvelous when all that wood was polished. A flared staircase is notable for its wide bottom step and how it appears so inviting. It comes with a built-in sense of flow that adds grace to anyone ascending or descending between floors. It was a central attraction in the old house and stood alone in a vestibule just inside the front door. Both handrails had swirling volutes top and bottom and the wooden steps were not carpeted. Unfortunately for this old and creaky escalier, Eastview’s new vision of things called for a sleeker stairway with better handrails.
Hardwood stairs are complex and each flight is composed of at least three dozen smaller pieces of wood. Stairs are made of treads and risers. Treads are the flat pieces and the risers are the vertical kick plates behind them. Underneath the assembly are the stringers which are saw-tooth pieces of wood that support the stairsteps from the bottom. Municipal building codes require this flight of stairs have between twelve to fifteen steps as it scales a vertical height of eleven feet.
The photos show how the old staircase was removed and a new flight built in its place. The present homeowner has young children and pets and so the square newel posts will be handy for erecting gates and other temporary barriers. Statistically, the stairs are the second most dangerous spot in any home (behind the kitchen) and for children and pets, the stairs actually top-the-list. With this in mind, Eastview’s design team paid special attention to the handrails, newel posts, bannister and spindles which all combine to make-up the balustrades.
What Causes Wooden Staircases to Squeak?
The original staircase had a wicked creak which made it impossible for anyone to move quietly between floors. Loud squeaks are typical of old wooden stairs. With so many parts and pieces fastened together in so many places, any subsequent shrinkage or expansion can make space for noisy rubbing. Each time an adult uses the stairs, their weight and the resulting vibrations cause the wooden treads to wear against the risers and pull against the fasteners which bind it all together. As the years go by, the old boards become more and more musical.
How can homeowners stop the squeak? Stopping a squeak is difficult. Eastview Homes uses generous amounts of carpenters’ glue in addition to the requisite nails and screws to unify the many part and pieces in one organism. To correct an existing creak requires disassembling and refastening pieces and it’s hit & miss with a fair chance of things being worse than before you started.
Handrails Evidence our Finishing Carpenter’s Experience
Canada’s national building code states that stairway handrails must be continuously graspable, which means the user shouldn’t have to release the handrail to continue to the next flight of stairs. The graspable portion of a handrail should allow a person to comfortably grab hold by allowing their fingers and thumb to curl under part of the handrail or have a recess that’s sufficiently wide and deep to accommodate their fingers. The code stipulates a two-inch minimum clearance between the wall and handrail. If the wall surface is textured then there should be two and 3/8’s inches clearance.
Residential stairways require a handrail be placed every 2200mm (87 inches) which means extra-wide stairs might requires an intermediate rail as you often see in public libraries, court houses, and town halls. The code states that no user should ever find themselves more than 825mm (32 inches) from a handrail. Vertically speaking, a handrail must be between 865mm and 1070mm (34 and 42 inches) above the nosing (the front lip) on the step below. Our National Building Code (NBC) permits the top ‘bannister’ or a guard (42″ minimum height) may also serve as a handrail, but for stairways with greater than 30″ drop, both a guard (42″ minimum) and a handrail (34″ to 38″) are required.
Final Steps in Making Stairs
The room wasn’t big enough to bring in pre-fabricated stairs, and so this staircase was built by hand, on site, by Eastview’s finishing carpenters. The newel posts were custom ordered along with the iron spindles which are called balusters in the industry. Ontario railing code dictates that balusters must be no more than 4” apart. Once we determined how many we needed, we did a separate calculation to determine how far apart to make them so that all spokes were evenly spaced. Then the wooden timbers and railing were stained to match the new hardwood flooring.