Tag Archives: banister

Pushing Through with the Banister

A quick note: It’s been an exhausting couple of weeks. I should have published this about 2 weeks ago on April 8. I present it to you now as if I had.

It’s been a tedious month. We left off with the banister and the paneling below looking more or less like this.


The sequence was burn paint off, sand, wood filler, sand, prime, then see everything I missed (and the grain that the primer raised), wood filler again, sand again, prime again, rinse, repeat.  And because I was getting so fed up with this job, I did what any sane person would do and squeezed in the upstairs banister. I was going to focus on the downstairs part and let this go till later. But the job was so bad I thought getting it all done now made more sense.


So the dirty part was going on upstairs while my OCD got free reign downstairs.

wood filler.jpg

This work might seem pretty sedate compared to Phase 1, but I’ve also done it on top of working out 5 times a week and cooking myself heaps of meat and vegetables so I stop wanting bread. You see, I’m 30 now and to my great horror, my waistline has grown enough that for the first time in my adult life I’m wearing a pants size that American stores keep in stock.

And today I have a couple dear old high school friends coming for dinner, which was a bit of a problem because I was still working on the banister yesterday and I haven’t done a lick of house cleaning in a month. I just let the place look like this, plus a continuous accumulation of dust and clutter.


And so, my parents came down yesterday. My dad and I got another round of priming done and my mom cleaned the house. Maybe I should be ashamed that I let that happen but it was her way of helping. So where are we now? Well, just about all of it is primed (except for some difficult spots where the 2 banisters overlap). In this critical corner, there is no sign left of the hatchet job someone did moving the basement stairway door. The paneling has its sticking in place and the sticking matches the door perfectly. The only thing missing is the little piece of ogee trim under the cap above the door. With a compound miter cut that the Irishman said was not easy to do.


Upstairs I have a little bit more priming to do and then, sadly, there is more sanding to do there. And there are 8 balusters missing from around the volute downstairs, but I don’t want to install those until everything else is painted. Seriously, I don’t know how anyone would fit their hand in there except that they did a really terrible job painting this.



But anyways, I’m ready for a break again. And the house is spotless, so keeping it that way for a while would be a nice thing to do instead of messy, tedious projects.

Or, maybe not. On the morning of the 8th, a few hours before my company’s supposed to show up, there’s a crazy person cutting high density fiberboard on my sidewalk! Can you guess why?




Progress and Increasingly Delicate Sensibilities

My dad came today and we got the lower part of the stairway wall primed!


Old house purists: before you bite my head off for painting my woodwork, the first floor interior is a Colonial Revival style remodel from the 1930’s and had always been painted. But getting it back to this point seemed insurmountable. Especially these scrolly things under the stair nosings. There was so much paint glooped up onto them that I used 3 different types of chemical stripper, then burned it off with a heat gun, and finally gave up and used sandpaper. I then primed it, which exposed more flaws, so I sanded it all again and primed it a second time. It looks pretty good now!


There are still imperfections to fix, including all the little nail holes in the paneling. But the paneling all needs to be sanded as the paint raises the grain of the plywood it’s made out of.

Once this is done, there’s another round of it upstairs. I didn’t do it all at once because (1) there is only so much prep I can stand to do in one go and (2) I wanted to get the downstairs painted before reinstalling the top 2 stair nosings, and then I have to close up the unfinished underside of the upstairs box newel.IMG_0724.JPG

And I’ll be replacing the 8 bottom balusters in the second phase after getting everything painted that they’ll block. (No, not restoring. It’s not worth the trouble for paint grade pine.)


But my sensibilities are getting delicate. I can no longer handle this bit of unpainted trim on the ceiling that was supposed to happen later with the upstairs banister. It’s now getting moved up into this phase.


What is happening to me that this is bothering me? Remember when I was sleeping in the kitchen? That was totally fine.


And then this project is about to collide with the Phase 2 kitchen cabinet fronts thanks to another flaw my delicate sensibilities can’t handle. The casings around the big opening between the living room and kitchen is just tacked up so it can be notched into the cabinet fronts later. But this is affecting the living room now because I’ve decided that the little strip of molding on the left side of the door opening is too skinny.


You see, I opened the wall, but emphatically wanted it to look like the wall was still there, just with a big doorway in it. I think that completely open rowhouses can feel relentlessly long and narrow and liked the proportions of this room as it was at the beginning. And right now this skinny rip of trim doesn’t feel like enough to hold up the corner of the room. It feels more like an outside corner than a wall. It will also balance better with the window on the other side.


So, I’ll be yanking off that that piece of casing that had been ripped down, pulling off everything that had been tacked in place on the kitchen side, facing the cabinets, installing a new wooden board over the old one to make the doorway like an inch narrower, and putting up a new, heftier rip of trim on the living room side. Luckily, this isn’t the expensive special order casing, though I will, sigh, be needing more of that later, too.

So, does this sound like a good idea to you, or do you think I need to be medicated? My thoroughly practical dad flinched, but then took a second look and said, “You know it really will look better if you come out about one and a quarter and cover up the side of the refrigerator.”

Digging Into the History of the Stairway

Since there’s nothing new to talk about with what I’m doing right now and I got quite a few comments about my banister, I thought it’d be a good time go in depth with its history.

People might say it’s original and unique. It is neither of these things. Remember, someone remodeled my living room in the 1930’s. Before this time, I think the house had a parlor, a dining room, a vestibule, and a hall. I could be wrong about some of this but I had proof that the outside corner of the wall separating the living room from the vestibule once had a wall attached to it that divided the room width wise and made a hallway. See how wide the casing was next to the vestibule door? That was because they never plastered over where the wall was!

Living room, front

Living room, front

There are also dowels in the brick wall, indicating that there may once have been a decorative plaster arch dividing the living room length wise. That setup is common on South Philly. But these two ghosts of previous interior treatments contradict each other. That makes me wonder if the unbroken living room ceiling I have now could be the third version of the room (and the one I put back in). But anyways, if I’m right about all this, all the houses on my street may once have had walls around their staircases. Either that or the stairs turned sideways near the bottom and let out into the dining room.

I also found a ghost of the original railing upstairs. Under the oak flooring in the hall, the original pine floors have holes for the original balusters drilled into them. I can only see these two. This is interesting because my upstairs and downstairs banisters don’t match perfectly and I wondered at first if the upstairs one might have been original to the house.


So you believe it’s not original, but why do I say it’s not unique? It looks a lot like the one in my parents’ 1951 Colonial, but that’s not what I meant.


Plus mine is nicer than theirs. The biggest difference (besides that cool carved flower) is that mine has a compound curve. Whereas my parents’ railing has a segment for the vertical curve and a volute segment that is totally flat, mine has a piece that puts the vertical and horizontal curves together in the same spot. It’s still 3 pieces of wood with little seams, but it’s much more graceful that way. Like a roller coaster.


But what of the flower? You’ve never seen anything like it before, have you? That’s what I said when I bought the house, but since then I have been in 3 other Philadelphia rowhouses with the exact same one! One right on my block, one 3 blocks west, and once clear across town in Kensington. The only explanation that makes sense to me is that these railings were all made of off the shelf components. Maybe unique to Philadelphia, but not within it. Renovation contractors in the depths of the Depression must have been putting them into middle class homes all over the city.


Planning the stairway… to the end!

This is exciting because although I’ve been thinking about the end of this project (meaning the whole house) for a long time, there’s been too much left for me to be able to write out every step to anything. But now I’m starting to get there! So here’s the deal, I plan to have all the floors in the house (except the tile in the bathroom of course) sanded and refinished, professionally, all at the same time. This means finishing this and that messy job and then preparing to empty the house and turn it over to strangers for the second time. But certain things I’m doing with the stairs get kinda mixed up, so let me know if I’m not sequencing this right.

My stairway is a pretty common traditional/Colonial style that I think dates to a major remodel in the 1930’s. They’re built with true 1-inch thick oak and have these nosings that wrap around the ends of the treads. I plan to take them all down and number, de-nail, and strip them. And that wasn’t my pating job!


Why? Because the balusters are mortised into the treads and with the nosings off, they can be knocked out and sanding the treads should be easy for the finishers. And cheap for me. You can also see how close the last baluster was to the box newel at the top of the stairs. I got it out to make stripping and painting easier.


The bottom step that flares out for the scrolly railing thing (bill and keys shelf) just had the balusters nailed down to it so I took them all off. Most of these are just square baluster stock and the same size so I cut them in half to get them out. But now the step should be easy to finish. And yes, you do see thick puddles of polyurethane on there.


I won’t even think about replacing the balusters at the bottom until the floors are done. But the one that I took out up top I think needs to go in after the floor finishers sand but before they finish the steps. I’ll probably also need to paint the newel first since I don’t want to have to push my paint brush through narrow gaps. But the rest of the balusters are getting painted after because the floor finishers will probably damage the paint job anyway. It may be their job to put that one baluster back in and reinstall the nosings. Also, the cove molding under the stair treads is gone, victim to another previous owner’s wall to wall carpet installation. I need to replace it with new read oak, which may not be perfect but I don’t think it’ll be obvious.

Oh. And with how well the banister is looking with all the paint stripped off, I couldn’t stand the sight of the baseboards anymore. So now they look like this.


Anyways, I haven’t actually brought a floor finisher in to look at my job yet, so if my ideas here are off base, I’d be glad to know now.

The Balusters are Heating Up

I had high hopes about all the progress that would happen when I switched to the paint stripper that burns skin. The post about it was to be called Toxic Love. You’ve probably already gathered that I was unimpressed. I’d put it on, have a beer (very important) while the paint alligatored. And then scrape off just one layer, leaving the next one down more ghastly and blistered than the last. It looked like it would take a solid 5 coats to get this off.


So I got even moodier than I was last week. Saturday morning, while the stripper was doing its work, I went to the corner café (because beer before noon is simply not done) and ran into an old friend who I haven’t seen in at least 5 years even though she happens to have moved like a block away from me. But it gets better. Her partner loaned me his heat gun.

And I had written off the heat gun before (partially because my dad’s broke and I didn’t want to buy another one) but it works AMAZINGLY. Usually pulls off all the paint. Down to bare wood. Sometimes a foot of it in one scrape! The removed paint stays hard and solid and not dusty. Also kind of fun, when I stripped the box newel at the top of the stairs, a little sap bled out of the wood. Amazing how new it looks as I’m pretty sure it’s 80 years old. Also, you can see that the Shop Vac took over the railing’s role as interim towel bar now.


This changed things. In a big way. Then even better, on Sunday a friend came to help me because he thinks paint removal is fun. So now the upstairs railing is essentially complete! (A few hard spots where the two railings overlap are still goopy.)

And the stripping is marching down the stairs. Does it look better yet?


And here it is an hour and 15 minutes later.


I think you can see in that last photo how much thinner the balusters look without the paint. Even when I knew it had to come off I didn’t appreciate just how bad this paint job was. And now I can see that the balusters are a weensy bit crooked. But I guess that’s as it should be. So before the paint-wax-goop look is gone forever, here’s one more look.


Now, I should admit that I scorched the wood a bit. The heat gun worked really well on plain square paint grade pine posts, but if you have trim that deserves to be stained, this could be dangerous. And it would be hard to get it off anything with curved details in it. We’ll see how the newel at the bottom goes. It looks like at this rate I’ll be stripping the handrail itself (to stain) before long!

Out of Denial and Into the Stairwell

Now that the spraying operations are winding down, I can turn to one of the last things I’ve sort of ignored for the last two years: the bannister. It’s pretty and old, but a little worse for wear. I was imagining for a while that I could strip the handrail alone (which will be easy because there is varnish under the paint) and leave the balusters in as found condition. I guess I never took a good look at them. Probably because I didn’t want to. They look more like candles than millwork grade wood.


Ack. That’s definitely a little more abuse than anyone could ever call character. What to do about it? I really wanted to make this an easy job. And oil based paint on wood with no varnish under it is not easy to strip. Plus, going to all that trouble just to repaint seems unrewarding. My first thought was that the top layer of latex paint is so thick, I could probably sand the runs off of it without going through to anything that contains lead. (Note: This is called cutting corners and is not a lead safe practice.) But (luckily for my health) the candle wax faux finish started peeling off in sheets. Like Saran wrap.


And so I got busy picking at it. This quickly became addictive.


But not really. Because the cure for this “addiction” was to keep doing it. And I realized that this approach wasn’t working so well. Sometimes big, satisfying sheets came off. Other times they didn’t. I went to the Home Depot to get a spray bottle of latex paint remover. This didn’t turn out to be the magic bullet I hoped for. It’s really made to take spills and overspray off of things, not to strip full coats of paint. And plus, the oil based paint underneath still wasn’t wonderful looking. I asked around for advice. My dad proposed using the belt sander. This is a terrible idea. But I was tempted. My co-pay on having the lead chelated out of my blood might still be cheaper than having the railing restored professionally. My mom chimed in with a little much needed moral support: “Lorraine and David were stripping theirs but they only got through 3 posts and then they gave up.” Thanks Mom, I feel so much better now. Then I asked the Irishman. He said dismantle it and number all the posts and run them through a planer. Nope. Nope. Nope.

And so Sunday morning I bit the bullet and got to work. No I didn’t. I went to a brunch potluck and whined about the job ahead of me to a bunch of people. Then I got back and on went the SoyGel.


I didn’t bother with Saran wrap because I thought it would be brutal to get it tight around every spindle. Instead, I just let it do its thing for a couple hours and sat Indian style – and remember, my hallway is narrow and I can barely fit doing this. Well, it’s clearly going to need another coat of SoyGel, but at least the square posts are starting to emerge.


So, do you think I’ll be a stripper forever, or are you optimistic that soon I’ll move on to more respectable work?