New Newel

My weekend project was installing a new starting newel post. And yes, I picked the nicest, sunniest weekend since last summer to do it.

What's a newel post, you ask? And why did I need a new one? Newel posts are the main posts at the top and bottom of a run of stairs that the railing connects to 1. The starting newel is usually bigger than the post at the top of the stairs, especially in old houses. And this is why I needed a new one.

The newel post at the top of the staircase is original to my 120+ year old house. It's 4 inches square, and custom turned with nice detail. See photo (taken last year while I was installing new oak flooring):
The starting newel, however, was not original to the house. Perhaps the original broke, but I'm inclined to think that some previous owner replaced it so they could install a curved bottom step. Anyway, the following is what the wimpy little newel looked like when we bought the house (note the wallpaper and carpet, which are now gone as the renovation of the stairs and hall moves along).
This awful thing was 3" square, and devoid of any interesting detail, which means it was noticeably smaller than the 2nd floor post. My wife said she never noticed it, but I couldn't see anything but this abomination. So I found a wood shop in Canada that would make custom turnings based on photos and measurements.  I took a bunch of photos of the 2nd floor post with a tape measure next to it, and had a 6-inch square starting newel made to match. That was just over a year ago, and it had been sitting in my basement since then, taunting me. Here it is, upstairs and waiting to begin its life securing the railing of my staircase.

Finally, a few weekends ago on a dreary day, I said to hell with it and cut out the skinny piece of junk and ripped out the bottom stair. Then -- as projects in a house with kids so often do -- it sat that way, with a temporary board as a step, for two weeks until I could get to it again. On Saturday, I started prepping for installing the post, and by midday Sunday, this is what it looked like.

This, needless to say, was a royal pain in the ass. Retrofitting anything like this is difficult, and it was complicated by the very tight spaces caused by the radiator. Note the big hole under the stair -- cut in the ceiling of the basement stairwell to provide easier access -- and the rectangular hole in the flooring to the left, which I cut so that I could feed part of the newel down through it to be bolted to the floor joists below... or so I thought.

Newels installed like this, spanning two steps, need to be notched to fit over the riser and stringer (see diagram below). If you look at the tread on the second step, you'll see a notch I cut in it as well. Imagine a 6" square block of wood with a 3" x 3" notch cut out of it, resting on the second step. Confusing? You'll see what I mean in a minute.

My circular saw has only a 2 3/8" cutting depth, so getting the notch cut was another royal pain. After I got the initial cuts made and realized I had no way of finishing them (none of my hand saws were long enough) my wife saved me by suggesting that I use a drill to take out enough material to get most of the block out. It worked, and I cleaned the rest of the notch out with a wood chisel.

Back to the whole passing part of the post through the floor thing... turns out I miscalculated when I ordered the post, and the post wasn't long enough to go all the way through. So it only goes about 3/4" below the surface of the oak flooring. Oh well.

Surprise of surprises, the damn thing fit on the first try. I didn't need to make any additional adjustments. The post was plumb, it lined up with the cut I made in the railing, and the notch fit perfectly. Three lag screws in the base, one from the railing into the top of the post to connect them, a few brackets and wood screws in the base for extra stability, and voila! (and please excuse the stairs... I said the whole thing is a work-in-progress)
Staining and finishing it is going to be a pain, especially because of the tight space behind the radiator. I'll sand the finish off the railing and the other post and try to get a consistent stain across old and new. I may have to resort to a paint or shellac or something though, because the new post is pine and all the old wood is oak, and thus will take stain differently. And of course I need to rebuild the bottom step. I haven't yet decided whether to make a rounded one, or a squared one. I'm leaning toward rounded, so that will be another fun project, that I'll get to... next week? Next year? I hope my wife doesn't read this...

1. If you're interested in what all the parts of a staircase are, see the following diagram:


Lynne said...

I share your newel post enthusiasm.

I noticed our newel posts right away when we first entered our house. They're 5 1/4 inches square with 7" flattened pyramid-like caps. I think they're considered craftsman style and I love them.

If I got a vote, I'd go with the rounded bottom step (nice design repetition of the round in the posts).

C. August said...

Yeah, it will be much more involved, but I agree. After working to exhaustion for two days, I had decided to just build a square step. But now that I look again at photos I have collected for reference, I think the rounded will be much nicer.

To create the curved riser (vertical board under a tread) you have to cut vertical grooves in the back of the board, every 1/4 inch or so, that go nearly to the front face of the board so the board can bend. If you look top down on the board, it looks like a comb.

Anyway, I have a table saw, so it shouldn't be too difficult, and it will be fun.

Earl said...

Great job on a complicated task!

C. August said...

Thanks, Earl. And thanks for stopping by.

Jenn Casey said...

I'm all impressed with your handy-manliness! Well done!

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