I’m a stair builder in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. My specialty is one-of-a-kind stairs, which I build in my millwork shop and then transport to the site for installation. This approach reduces travel expenses and greatly extends my working range. It also ensures that I get a professional-grade spray-booth finish that’s much nicer than I could ever apply on site. In late 2007 I received a call about replacing a curved staircase damaged in a fire. At first I wasn’t sure I wanted to look at the project; fire-repair work is messy, and I was concerned that the homeowners would want me to work within an existing footprint that was too small for a comfortable code-compliant stair.

I needn’t have worried. The house turned out to be a total gut job, stripped to bare framing and primed white to seal in the smoke damage. And the owners were great customers — instead of telling me what they wanted, they asked what I envisioned in the space. The house was perfect for a design I had been thinking about: wood treads projecting...

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