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Cut string staircase, is it the work of the devil?

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Geoff_S

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Long story short. We have a cut string staircase in our house. It is in need of repair. The spindles are all very loose and the banister rail and spindles wobble a bit. Also, all the nosing on the treads have been stuck on and are shrinking/moving. It's all just very tired.

Now, I could give it a go and my idea is to replace all the treads with new oak treads properly rounded on the edges. As for the string and risers, I could veneer in matching oak, or paint in a contrasting white. Then I have to refit the spindles in such a way as they don't wobble anymore and then refit the bannister rail.

Then again, although I know how to do stuff with wood, I think this is all beyond me. So, the solution is to get a professional in.

Well, I've invited 4 companies in, they arrive, talk the talk and never get back to me. The 5th company was a bit more forthcoming. After all the waffle, there was a sharp intake of breathe and then the statement "mind you, it's a cut string staircase, and that's a problem".

No explanation of why it's a problem, just that they would think about it and get back to me. Oh yes, and a provisional quote of £15,000 + VAT.

They did get back to me to let me know that they were still talking about it, and also, the £15,000 estimate was probably a "bit optimistic".

Needless to say, they also have never come back.

Can someone help me here please? It looks like I might just have to do this myself, I don't want to, and even less so because there is some problem it seems that even the professionals don't want to do it.

What am I missing here?

IMG_1662.jpeg
 

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williams1185

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looking at the staircase the cut string is only on the handrail side that means the treads and risers are fitted to the face as you look at it . The other string wall side the treads and risers are housed in and at the least wedged from the underside so to remove the treads you would have to completely disassemble the whole staircase top to bottom and need access to underneath to remove wedges and also separate the riser from the tread it would be easier to have a new staircase made its not an easy job at all . The best that you can do is pull the carpet and repair the nosings and refix the loose balustrades and handrail maybe not the answer you want but a lot cheaper than a replacement . Ian
 

sunnybob

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I think the biggest problem will be removing that banister safely :shock:
And I have no idea how to do the work :roll: ,
but I can see how many hours labour its going to take.
 

HOJ

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Get hold of a book called Modern Practical Stairbuilding by George Ellis, for instance: Modern Practical Stairbuilding
nothing modern about it as it was first printed in 1930, it will help you understand the mechanics involved in a project like this, and hopefully give you the confidence to tackle it yourself, I would forget the idea of replacing the treads, which will involve a lot of destructive work, Is the property listed? as you may have to tread carefully...
 

Jacob

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Geoff_S":1b088mj2 said:
....
What am I missing here?

What you are missing is that you have a top class staircase built at a time when joinery was at its most sophisticated and highly skilled. Hardly anybody could do it nowadays - which is why they haven't come back! Good thing too - they know they'd probably wreck the whole job.
I'd be extremely cautious with your repairs - you could very easily destroy the character of the whole thing. The basic rule of restoration is to do absolutely as little as necessary - once it's gone you would never get it back.
 

thick_mike

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That’s a beautiful staircase.

Based on no knowledge whatsoever, I agree with repairing what is needed rather than wholesale replacement of treads.

Whatever you choose to do, it would be great if you could take some photos of the woodwork and the problems that lurk beneath.
 

Woody2Shoes

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Jacob":3f1ou7uz said:
Geoff_S":3f1ou7uz said:
....
What am I missing here?

What you are missing is that you have a top class staircase built at a time when joinery was at its most sophisticated and highly skilled. Hardly anybody could do it nowadays - which is why they haven't come back! Good thing too - they know they'd probably wreck the whole job.
I'd be extremely cautious with your repairs - you could very easily destroy the character of the whole thing. The basic rule of restoration is to do absolutely as little as necessary - once it's gone you would never get it back.
+1 - I think that Jacob's hit the nail on the head. It's a veryu handsome staircase, and if this were mine, a "light touch" would be all it would get. I think that a certain amount of movement in a structure like this is inevitable.
 

MrTeroo

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That's a gorgeous piece of craftsmanship you have right there in your home.

Wish it was mine.

This might give you some idea of what is involved, although it isn't anywhere close to the complexity of yours.

https://youtu.be/8OSwC0hZPJ0
 

SammyQ

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On mine, there was a sneaky wedge above the rail, where the rail entered the wall at the very top, with the bottom of the rail resting on a naked brick face. It was only visible after chipping away a little plaster, but ramming the wedge back home tightened up the rail magically.
A 'shark's mouth' spanner was originally used to tighten the circular nuts** inside their holes underneath the rail. If you don't have one (I didn't) a good quality straight screwdriver and light mallet can rotate them back into tension. Again, this made a whopping difference to the stability of the rail.
[** A threaded, circular nut with grooves sawed or cast into the circumference at approx 60 degree spacing].
Refastening the vertical spindles: I found mine cross-nailed at the bottom, but the wood shrinkage (central heating) had loosened them. Nail extraction (it CAN be done!) and re-fixing is a bear, but do-able. Renailing them (and applying stopper) was a right pig, as the section of whole wood is small, but nothing a competent DIYer couldn't tackle. Take a look or carry out exploratory surgery on a spindle in a not-too-visible place, at the top, near the landing wall?
No detail visible in your photos, but the spindles tops are either cross nailed again, or held in by nailed blocks between the spindles. No great shakes to consolidate. Packers between blocks can help. So can glue...heresy??

Overall, I found just a little work, consolidating very few components, made a quite disproportionate difference to rigidity.

One spindle bottom was beyond decent repair and I simply cross-halved a new base from timber elsewhere in the house (same age/dryness) in and screwed the thing back together. The countersunk holes and joint lines I filled with stopper and one sanding/painting exercise later, no visible sign of repair!!

I am no C&G, time-served craftsman, but just someone whose budget could not stretch to professional help. I carried out these repairs 30 years ago and they have stood the test of time. And three hefty teenagers...

Sam
 

Geoff_S

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Thanks for all the nice comments. Perhaps I am a bit too close to it, have been for 24 years now, and maybe I'll pick up on the general theme of "leave it be".

It's just frustrating to get 5 specialist staircase companies in that are just time wasters. They get your expectations up with all their glossy literature and then just don't possess the skills to back it up. I had actually sent that photo to all of them prior to them turning up!

SammyQ, yes the spindles are all cross nailed top & bottom. They are rebated into the treads but flush to the rail. I think that is where most of the instability lies.
 

SammyQ

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"SammyQ, yes the spindles are all cross nailed top & bottom. They are rebated into the treads but flush to the rail. I think that is where most of the instability lies.
"

Ah! The bottoms go below the tread surface? And are 'side-nailed' into the tread? Prise off the edging, re-nail, replace edging, prep, prime, paint.
Spindle tops are a complete testicle pain...you CAN surreptitiously screw through a 'rear' (i.e. longer) spindle face, into the hand rail, but it may require a contortionist's skills to line up the drill bit. I'm north of 200lbs and 6' in pre-decimal units...I needed a good, dark, red directly into the vein after I did mine. A "Long Series" bit helps enormously. DAMHIKT.
Failing that, cut 'slips' - of similar timber to the rail - to go between each spindle. if you meticulously measure and copy face angles, this - and a smidgen of good glue - are an easier fix and almost invisible as they are on the underside. You can fair them in with a block plane quite easily and thus match the handrail curves. Tedious, but eminently doable. Tip: protect the stair carpet. I didn't...stuff sticks like faeces to a blanket? In spades. Matrimonial strife. To the nth degree :( .
 

thick_mike

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Trying to visualise the drilling at the top of the spindles. This might be heresy, but is it something a kreg pocket hole jig could help with?
 

Trevanion

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What scares most "big" companies is the handrailing, It's very time consuming and skilled work to do curved handrails. Your handrailing is quite unique as it has very few segments at 6 pieces, I think it would take me 12 pieces to make that handrailing economically. I can't see properly from the photo but it looks like a stained beech rather than some more expensive exotic/darker timber. It wouldn't be too complex to re-do the handrail in 12 pieces of Oak if you're an experienced woodworker and fancy spending the time doing it, you could even buy the straight lengths from stairpartsdirect.co.uk and just buy the raw material to make the turns, a few hours with a couple of chisels, gouges, and sandpaper and you'll have done it.

I must admit the design of those spindles is quite horrendous (In my opinion :wink:) probably looked nice back in the 1920s but you never see anything like that these days. It's usually either glass, steel or square wood spindles that are fitted these days although Alnick twist, stopped chamfer or York spindles are still quite popular choices. I don't tend to mortice my spindles into the treads as it's very time-consuming so I rather make little caps that are 10mm wider than the spindle all around, about 20mm tall with a 45-degree chamfer (Or moulding) on them which are morticed to accept the spindles. This way the caps can be screwed wherever on the tread to suit levels and measures.

Treads are one of your bigger issues mostly down to where do you stop? Do you tear them all out including the landings and replace the lot? Do you tear just the treads out and leave the carpeted landings? It's really one of those jobs you don't know what you're getting yourself into one you've started doing it. It could be dead easy and just pop off the treads and risers and put new ones down but It could also be an absolute nightmare job. If you do tear out the treads and risers you're probably going to have to tear of the side facing too which hides the joins and replace with oak, thats IF it's built like that.

I would also personally remove the Newel post and replace it with a new oak one perhaps one step back to accommodate a D-end first step and a bullnose second step.

As HOJ said, George Ellis' book on Stairbuilding and Handrailing is an excellent insight into how these were built in the early 1900s which will give you some hints, I would also recommend George diCrisina's book "A Simplified Guide to Custom Stairbuilding and Tangent Handrailing" It's a more modern book from the late '90s which is also jam packed with very good plain to understand information and illustrations.

Whatever way you look at one of these jobs it's a lot of work, you've just got to decide if it's worth the time and money to make it more modern and solid.
 

SammyQ

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Kreg jig might work, depends on spindle spacing. Might were as tight together as a duck's rear end**...endless knocked knuckles and the drill kicking same against the spindles...

Sam

** ' cos if it wasn't, the duck would fill with water and sink?
 

deema

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The nosings on an open stair are normally ‘stuck’ on, they look to have been done properly. The reason is to have a return of straight grain on the end of the tread rather than end grain which would look unsightly. The best work would have the nosing moulded on the tread and cut to receive a mitred return.
Depending on when the stairs where made the nosings are probably pinned and glued with animal glue. Over time the glue will have failed and that’s why they are coming away. To remove the only difficulty will be whether the nosings are housed within the side string. If it is housed and it’s animal glue it should still be possible to do. Warm spatulas inserted into the glue line will melt the glue.

The handrail is far more challenging. That’s a hand made continuous handrail. Very highly skilled job to make and initially install initially. The spindles will be morticed into the treads and may also be morticed into the rail. The rail itself will either be held together with handrail bolts or more likely morticed together. Looking at how it’s splitting I think it’s morticed with animal glue.

If you do disassemble, mark carefully the position and orientation of each spindle. Also take a datum line and mark each post so you know the exact height of each. When reinstalling, if the height or orientation of any spindle is different the handrail will not go back properly.
 

sunnybob

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If you look at this proposition from the view point of the "reputable" companies, then they are actually good tradesmen by not replying to you.

A cowboy outfit would take the work, screw it up, and go bust before you could sue them.

Your companies know they are not skilled enough to do the work. But no company will willingly admit they cant do something (it would harm their reputation), so by just not replying they are only risking a small moan about office staff if someone asks you about them, rather than a complete blasting for screwing things up.
 

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