Tag Archives: narrow stairs

Queen For A Day

This reminded my mom of that terrible old show where women would tell their tale of woe and the one with the saddest story would win stuff. Can you guess why? It’s not because my life is impressively sad.


No, it has something to do with my washer and dryer. And the big priority was getting something that fits. Remember how narrow my stairwell is? (It’s not this dirty anymore.)


The only place to go for this is a Mom and Pop South Philly appliance store. Somewhere under that siding is a Victorian building, but we’ll rant about that kind of thing later.


Usually in my family buying appliances is complicated, but not here. They told me that I can get the fancy Speed Queen top load washer with the digital controls or the plain one with a knob that was $100 cheaper. And my mom said that’s what they gave to the women on the show.

They also told me that the the breakdown guy was going on vacation and so I got them delivered the very next day! Eep, so weird to go fast! And what do I mean by the breakdown guy? The one who does this.


I guess that very expensive paneled wall was worth it now.


And then was what may have been a reality TV level tale of woe. The new plumber had some staffing issues and backed out of coming a couple times this week. So when he finally showed up yesterday it was super exciting. I may be done with Phase 1 contractors now!


And you remember what my basement used to look like? Here, I’ll remind you.


After the stuff went away only the dirt remained. I used 15 gallons of water. First tried scrubbing normally but it wasn’t working. The procedure that did work was pour water out from the bucket, scrub, vacuum up, repeat. Most of it needed to be done 3 times. Behind the boiler was worse. The floor at the bottom right in this photo used to be black and now it’s clean enough that you can see where the paint is peeling! Yay!


And this little halfassed shelf I built above the shut off valves – I’m getting too happy over little things. And using the gas line as a clothes bar is totally fine, right?


So there we are! The house is 100% functional! My roommate had to use a laundromat once (and got a discount on the rent accordingly) and then was so out of her clothes I did her laundry – 3 loads between the 2 of us. But this too was exciting.


And then some more odds and ends – I had 4 mystery bins in the basement. Going through them made the house messy all over again. I took a lot of random crap and then when my grandmother went to assisted living I got better crap. This one was the most ridiculous – mostly scrap metal. But I found corner braces and 12 pair of scissors, pulled out the flatware to sell, and put out the rest for scrap. My roommate donated some furniture to Habitat and I sent some more stuff off with them.


And I finally unpacked the china! Because every civilized home needs a celery and salt dish set. I’ll eventually paint this cabinet blue and stand plates up in the back.


And the roomie and I came out of Aldi with a 2 foot long receipt. And with this I think it’s a fully functional house!





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.

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?

Paneling the Panel, The Fun Part of My Stairway Upgrade

I thought my first post of 2015 should be something about planning ahead, but the truth is that with 10 (mostly small) pieces of Sheetrock left to hang, I’m not at a clean stopping point and don’t really feel like writing that.

And the other truth is that I just sketched what the paneling is gonna look like and I WANT IT RIGHT NOW!

stairway paneling
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A removable Panel for My Basement Stairs

Let’s start with a look at my stairs from the archives, when they still looked like something.



10 inches narrower than code requires, but attractive and well built. This stairway is not original to the house; I think it was installed in a 1930’s remodel of the first floor. That triangular wall under the stairs looks right the way it is, but it encroaches on the basement stairwell, as if it wasn’t too narrow before.
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Let’s talk tile!

I’ve been waiting a really long time to say that! But I’m going to wait one more paragraph because I also want to talk about the washing machine. My stairs are really, really narrow, particularly heading down to the basement because the foundation walls are rubble stone and much thicker than the brick that was used above grade. At this bottleneck, I measured about 22 inches. That’s not a typo. I could widen it to 25 by tearing out the wall separating the stairwell from the living room but it looks like if I want a standard size washer and dryer down there, I will need to either grind out part of the stone wall or cut out part of the living room floor – it sticks out beyond a joist, so I could do this. That doesn’t mean I want to. So, I may have to go with 24 inch European appliances.

On the bright side, my dad is smart. He suggested that since there isn’t much holding the stairs in, we’ll just disconnect them, put them aside, and hoist the washer and dryer down with ropes, so at least I’ll save the cost of having them dismantled in my living room and reassembled in the basement. I also want to see if I can do anything creative with the wall framing to get a teeny bit more width in there. I will never gain the extra 14 inches code requires, but I hope I can pick up something.

Now on to the bathroom! First, a reminder. I moved it about 8 feet toward the front of the house and sacrificed one of the house’s 3 original bedrooms. In exchange, I got 3 usable closets (on top of the one original closet that I kept and will use for linens because it’s shallow), larger (but still small) back bedroom, and a pretty generously sized bathroom with 2 sinks and a large window that is across the room from the tub. Here’s a floor plan and photo of the tile:

second floor existing and proposed

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