Stairway

I became a carpenter by way of theatre. It’s a weird style of carpentry relative to what you end up using in residential situations, but it served as a good foundation. I worked briefly doing “real” carpentry for a contractor, and did lots of small jobs and projects around these subjects, but re-doing the basement stairs of our 100-year old house was a challenge.

Sadly, I didn’t take a ‘before’ photo of the old stairs, but they were a mess. I did measure them though, with the idea that emulating their basic form would make sense since they were originally custom-built for this space.

I’ll be the first to admit — especially after this escapade — that I don’t know what the “right” way to build stairs in a steep angle/narrow opening like a basement entrance is. I never got that far in my training with Yoda.

I looked around a lot at stores initially while I was scoping out the project for stair stringers. The only pre-made things I found at box stores around here were short wood zig-zaggy things for decks, and eventually some steel box tubing things. I actually bought at first a set of steel stringers and steps, because it seemed to fit the overall stringer length I thought I needed. But when I got them home it was like…. uh, no.

There are a lot of angles at play here, and getting them sorted out without a specific logical framework to peg them into didn’t quite come together. I tried just copying the 8" rise, 8" run of the old stairs, but with my stringers being these flat 2"x10"s instead of the cut-out zig-zag stringers.

But that didn’t work out. I made some tests, and ended up with these divergent lines where my stairs wanted to be in 3D space, versus where the stringers actually were in real life.

Maybe this will help if you visualize it:

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…”

Real life, of course, has to ultimately win out in carpentry. It’s why carpenters end up hard-headed. It is not a theoretical exploration of possibilities. You have to actually build something — or bring the materials back to the store, which I did on the first go round.

Anyway, my all-wood system eventually worked out with help from a friend. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you the calculation we did to figure it out. Basically I started with what I knew was right: the dit of my diagonal stringers into the space.

So you start with a known good value. You have your ideal, of course, always in mind. But from your known good value, you build up, you attach onto, applying (hopefully) values abstracted out of your ideal.

I looked at a number of carpentry staircase planning calculator sites where you could input your desired dimensions and it would spit out drawings with measurements for you. It was helpful in some ways in conceptualizing, but the execution in actual space was still a different story, even knowing what some website said I should do

Eventually, as you can see it all worked out. The run is shorter than I wanted, but it actually fits about as well for the space as I think is practicable. I need to add a handrail and smooth out the noses on the stairs, and probably stain them, but they are solid and have a really good feel. Way less scary than what used to be there, which was all cracked, crooked, and broken in sections.

I also took this rebuild opportunity to widen the mouth of the stairs going down from the kitchen. I cut off with a sawzall about 6 inches of wood on the left side. It was tough for me to squeeze my shoulders through the opening before but now it’s breathable and you can more easily pass downstairs carrying stuff into (or out of) storage.

Total project cost:

  • Pretty cheap, since it’s just wood and screws. I spent about a hundred dollars Canadian, though that included a bunch of cuts I had them do at the store for convenience (which i had to re-do later).

Total time:

  • With demolition, two weekend days, one of them a half day. I’ll probably need to put another half-day in tomorrow to clean up and finish the area off suitably.

Project difficulty:

  • High intermediate to advanced, depending on the space restrictions you’re dealing with. This is way beyond a novice carpenter and was a challenge for me to get right with about 6 years experience. Replacing something in an already-built structure and space is always much more difficult than new construction in an open area.