Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Staircase Saga, Part 2. Getting Started.

This a bit like the Star Wars movies saga. The first post I did on this Staircase Saga came midway through the story, and now we have gone back to the beginning with this, the second post!

Getting started.
First you need somewhere requiring a set of stairs. My customer has been doing a renovation on her lovely Art Deco double brick and tile home from the 1930s. This has involved extending out the back and going up - putting on a second storey. Hence the need for a staircase!  I have the plans, but plans are always theoretical. There is never the level of accuracy that you need for building a staircase in a defined and confined space. The architect has the basic idea on the plan, but my task is to convert the concept to reality, in conjunction with the customer's ideas and preferences.
A photo of part of the architects' building plan.
The concept. 
These stairs would start in the hallway with treads 1 & 2 leading to a set of winders (Winding treads go around a corner, radiating out from the corner newel posts, making them wedge shaped). Treads 3,4 & 5 would be winders taking the stairs around a 90 degree turn. Treads 6 and 7 would be straight, linking this first set of winders to a second set of winders. Winding treads 8, 9 & 10 would then take us through another 90 degree turn, with treads 7 and 8 taking us through an opening in the wall into the kitchen/dining room. At this point the second set of winders would connect to a long flight consisting of treads 11 through to 20 (where tread 20 is the top floor level). A compact laundry would be built  under the long flight, concealed behind doors, and a wall built above alongside the long flight. Thus there was no connection between the stairs and the kitchen/dining/laundry area. The whole staircase is therefore U-shaped, with one leg longer than the other. It would also be a challenge to build... and I love these kind of challenges.
The top and bottom floor plans in the pics above give further info about the proposed layout.

The stairs were to be built using Jarrah, using as much of the original materials as possible. As was the norm in Western Australia for over 150 years, all the construction timbers in the house were jarrah, with a little bit of Karri. Modern carpenters & builders do not like using old jarrah. They love treated pine and LVL as it is light, easy to work, consistent in dimensions, and nail guns offer little resistance. So while the original roof timbers were removed to make room for the second storey, they were not re-used. Treated (CCA) pine was used for wall and roof framing upstairs. The old jarrah rafters and other roof timbers, which had been seasoning in the original roof for over 80 years, would be used where possible for building the staircase and for other joinery tasks around the house. The old house being recycled into the new parts of the house. Nice.
Sections of the rafters (4"x2") and ridge pieces (7"x1") docked oversize ready to be dressed.
The 4"x2" rafters would be docked, dressed, glued up and machined to size to make the stair treads. Any wider boards,  like hanger beams, would be used to make riser boards. Great to be recycling the removed original roof timbers back into the house as part of the staircase.

Planning the staircase build.
Walls were being rearranged, but there was enough detail available to take some initial measurements.

1. The overall TOTAL RISE has to be established. That is, the total height of the staircase. The vertical distance from the lower floor level and the top floor level. This was measured as 3650mm. Divide this by 20 treads, and you get 182.5mm. This is known as the RISE. This will be the measurement from the top of every tread to the top of the next tread. At many times during the building of the stairs, it will be helpful to have a Riser Story Stick - a straight narrow stick long enough on which to accurately mark off and number the position of every tread along it's height. A very handy tool!

2. The GOING has to be established. The Going is the distance from the face of one riser to the face of the next. Add all these together and you have the Total Going. By measuring the space available, we want to see that the total distance divided by number of treads will fit into the space within certain geometric parameters. Somebody once worked out that it takes twice as much energy to step up than it does to step forward, and this is used in establishing the relationship between the rise and the going.
Under the Building Code of Australia, staircases are required to comply with the parameters and formula in the table below. Working all this out is more complex when there are winders, but I calculated that the Going on the straight treads would be 265mm. This fits within the Code. If it didn't fit the formula range, then the Going or the number of treads (the Rise) would need to be changed until the formula complies. Adding a 15mm nosing to each tread, the stair tread depth (front to back) on the straight treads would be 280mm.

The Building Code of Australia says:

Riser (R)Going (G)        Slope relationship
Stairs (other than spiral)190115355240          700550

3. As accurately as possible, I transferred the measurements of the space available onto a  2.4 x 1.2m (8'x4') sheet of MDF, to create a full scale drawing (birds eye view) of the bast of the stairs. The treads, nosings, newel post and stringer dimensions, etc, would all be drawn onto this sheet, to ensure that it all fits. By doing this very accurately, this drawing could be used in order to measure and cut component parts as the build was taking place. An important reference item, this drawing would be, throughout the build.
One of the drawing boards, planning the winder and newel post positions.
4. Another sheet of MDF was used as a drawing board to do a full scale drawing (side view) of the top section of the long straight flight. This would be used to resolve the matter of the top of the stairs and the way they would connect to the top floor joists and or the wall. Using a full scale drawing would allow the planning and construction matters to be resolved and the components to be cut ready for installation. The final top tread's nose position also needed  to be resolved, to ensure the staircase would not terminate too close to the bathroom wall/door on the top floor. Sorry, I don't have a good pic of this drawing.
Not the accurate drawing... this one I did roughly on the wall! Resolving the top dimensions... 
The top tread would be made 130mm wide, as this matches the width of the jarrah floorboards to be used on the top floor. The rough wall sketch above was part of my thinking in pictures. I often do that... The big drawing was where I planned the way the top of the bight flight would be supported and connected. Sorry, no pic.

5. Another drawing! Yes, another full scale drawing was done on another sheet of MDF, showing the relationship of the three lower newel posts to the wall through which the staircase would pass, and where the treads would come in relation to the two short stringers supporting treads 6, 7 & the nose of 8. This was all going to be very tricky, so careful planning would be required. A full scale drawing is sometimes the only way to figure this out and create components with housings and tenons which will fit together perfectly.
You can't beat an accurate full scale drawing to work things out.
With all that planning, involving lots of mathematics, drawing, head scratching, and general cogitating there shouldn't be anything which could get in the way of it all coming together perfectly, should there?

Interestingly, step 5 would not be able to happen until a whole lot of other building work took place first - including the hole being cut in the wall through which the staircase would pass. Only then would those critical measurements be checked and confirmed. Like many of these older houses, things are not normally square, plumb or level. Oh well, that's all part of the fun with these gigs...

OK. Time to stop talking and start building!  The first task would be to build and install the long top flight.

The build begins!
The stringers for the long top flight would have to be bought new, as there was none available or suitable in the salvage yards I'd checked out. I dug through the limited pile of pre-dressed 10"x 2" jarrah sticks at the timber yard, and fortunately was able to find two which were long enough and straight enough. The longest one of these was 4.5m (15 ft) long - only just long enough for the outer stringer. Gee they were heavy!
Serious money in these two boards. Now I'm committed!
With the sticks loaded on the ute, I drove straight to someone else's workshop with the machinery big enough for me to flatten, straighten and thickness the big stringers to the required dimensions. They wouldn't fit in my little workshop or over my 6" buzzer! It was also a two people job. Once the basic machining was done, the sticks were loaded back onto the ute and I took them home to start setting out the housings for the treads and risers.
The building of the staircase had begun...

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Building a staircase with winders.

I really enjoy building staircases. Yes, the finished product will be functional, very beautiful, and a feature in the house. However, it's the journey I enjoy the most - the process of getting to the end product. The stairs I'm currently building in a renovated 1930's Art Deco house are very tricky, complex, and really testing my skills. I like that!!
The "cornerstone" of the whole staircase is a trio of newel posts which take the stairs up and through an opening in the wall and provide the corner "hubs" for two sets of winders, connected by a pair of straight steps. Today I did the test fit for this complex trio. Tomorrow I get to glue and fit them in place.
Up through the hole in the wall. Cramps used to do the test fit. There's no room for error... 
The tulip motive in the balustrading is a copy from the original entry statement in the hallway from which the new stairs will ascend. Pictured below.
In the 1930's, some big velvet curtains may have hung from there. That's the rod along the base still.

This has been a very complex process to get to here, and its very satisfying to know I've got it right!! It has been made more challenging by the walls and floor being out of plumb, level or square. Having done the test fit, the parts were then sanded ready for assembly tomorrow.

More about the journey thus far will come in a later post.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The right amount of SET...

In line with my New Year's Resolution - for 2013 to be the year I become proficient in saw sharpening - I have been at it again. Filing and setting lots of saws, that is.

Using a saw set takes some concentration! You've gotta be careful to set every second tooth.
Putting set on the teeth means bending each alternate tooth outwards. When this is done from each side of the saw, each tooth points the opposite direction to it's neighbours. A Saw Set is a special tool like a form of pliers designed for applying set to the teeth, pictured above. Squeezing the handle pushes a pin which bends the tooth against an anvil. The angle of the bend is determined by the adjustable anvil. You dial in the tooth spacing (in Points Per Inch) on the anvil's dial and set every second tooth. You then turn the saw around and come down the other side to set the remaining alternate teeth.

The reason for giving the teeth set is to increase the size of the kerf - the width of the wood material removed by the teeth. There are many variables here. There is a lot of science in saw construction, tooth geometry, and sharpening! However, as a general rule of thumb, a saw with no set will be inclined to jam in the wood. Too much set and the saw will easily wander all over the place and it is harder to do more accurate cuts (eg joint cutting). More set is needed with green softwoods, and less set is required for seasoned hardwoods.

Amongst the saws I have been sharpening recently, the dovetail saws need minimal set. This helps make very accurate cuts with it's very fine teeth. However I also had to sharpen the "tenon saws" (technically Sash saws) I use for kids and others in my workshops. I was preparing for another day in a school with about 110 kids, and 5 of the saws "needed a birthday". I'd noticed at the last gig that some of the saws were getting a bit dull. I remember when someone was cutting through a nail in the wood they were cutting. I heard it from across the room and went straight over. Too late! Anyway, I filed the saws sharper, but felt that not all of them required re-setting.
My two favourite saws, 14 inches long with very heavy brass backs. English made: BUCK.
Interestingly, while watching the kids at work, I noticed that my two favourite (freshly sharpened) saws were offering a little more resistance to the 5 year old kids than I like. They were good for me, as I have a nice straight relaxed sawing action. However for kids learning and sawing for the first time, it was clear that a tad more set would've been good!

Yep, it's all about the right amount of set for the array of variables on hand at the time!
Mmm ...the right amount of SET...  

Friday, June 7, 2013

Creative fun at Roseworth Primary School.

Today I was doing woodwork with around 110 kids at Roseworth Primary School, spread across 4 classes - mostly pre-primary and Year 3 kids. It was a great day.
Nice plane!
We were doing what I call "free creative play". I had 16 of my small two-vice benches there, each one with hammers, nails, pencils and pincers. I had 6 tenon saws (technically carcass saws) at the sawing station, freshly sharpened. There were two big bins of wood pieces for the kids to dig into, and they supplied the creative enthusiasm. After I did a spiel and demo about safe and effective tool use, it was over to them.
One flying pelican...
There was a steady stream of creations through the day, including aeroplanes, boats, bird houses, dolls furniture, birds and more.
Another nice plane.
For many of the kids, it was their first time handling tools. In these gigs, it's not unusual to find a few kids who spend almost their whole time at the sawing station. They didn't make anything, except a pile of sawdust and lots of small pieces of wood. We had a few of those characters today. Fantastic.
Sailing boat.
Even over a period of less than an hour, it is amazing how quickly the kids' newly acquired skills at hammering and sawing develop. Their confidence develops simultaneously. It is a wonderful thing to watch as it all unfolds. There was something for everyone to learn - including the teachers and parent helpers.
Great house!
Learning to use tools is an empowering experience. There needs to be more of it!  

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Toss that dovetail router jig!

Last night I was guest presenter at the North Metropolitan Triton Club.
I called my presentation: "Five Good Reasons to Chuck Away Your Dovetail Router Jig", where I went briefly through the history of the joint and different types of the joint. I followed this with a demo on hand cutting a Through Dovetail Joint. Then it was time for them all to have a go.

I had taken enough tools and timber for 20 people to be making their joints simultaneously. It was a lot of fun, with all the usual traps and pitfalls being experienced along the way, and lots of people being pleasantly surprised with what they achieved. For some it was the first time they'd ever cut a dovetail by hand ... for others it was the first time since they last did it at school half a century ago! A great night.
The Club meets in a high school woodworking classroom. Busy cutting dovetails by hand.
My demo worked well, despite the low light conditions! It's hard to see pencil lines on jarrah in low light. 

A nice contrast, jarrah and pine. Joint straight off the saw a tight fit, no trimming of joint required. 
While it is fun to tease "router-ophiles" about their screaming power tools, on a serious note I was suggesting the potential benefits to their woodworking skill development which the hand cutting of dovetails can offer. Accuracy in marking out and accurate tool use apply across all aspects of woodwork. Then there is the matter of personal satisfaction...
Yes, it was a fun night at the North Metropolitan Triton Club Inc...

Learn the pleasures of hand cutting dovetail joints.
For those people in Perth, Western Australia, I am offering a workshop for the public on Friday night, June 21 : "Unlock the Mystique of the Dovetail Joint". It'll be a lot of fun, and a chance to learn and have a go. Email me for more info if you would like to book in or know more about it.