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Stair-Building Tools - Continued

Once all the treads, risers, and newel posts were installed, we started piecing together the handrail. For all of this work, we used an assortment of tools and templates — and, believe me, stair building requires a lot of them.

The over-the-post fittings we used on this stair were from the Conect-A-Kit system from L.J. Smith (L.J. Smith Stair Systems, 740/269-2221, www.ljsmith.net). If you're a beginner at building balustrades, like we were, these fittings make stair building easy because the tops pop off on all the level fittings, and the bottoms pop off on the easings. With the top off, you use a standard socket set to drive the connecting lag screws.

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We also had a lot of standard railing connections to make. To lay out the rail-bolt holes, we followed the advice in L.J. Smith's catalog and made templates for everything. A plastic template made it easy to locate the center of each 1-inch hole in the bottom of the railing and rail drops. For the 3/8-inch holes in the ends of the railing sections, we cut a thin slice of railing and drilled a 1/8-inch hole at the centerline and used that as a template. We used a 1-inch Forstner bit and a 3/8-inch paddle bit to bore the holes.

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RAIL CONNECTION TOOLS

L.J. Smith's Bore Buster Plus kit ($500) comes with a variety of tools that make balustrade installation easy for any experienced trim carpenter, even if your experience doesn't include stair work. To assemble the rail, we used the Rail Bolt Installer. This handy little wrench has a 1/2-inch socket on one end for tightening the hex-head lag screws that are the primary fastener for the L.J. Smith system. A nut welded to the center of the wrench works great for tightening 5/16-inch rail bolts, which are the industry standard for rail assembly and are also used on several connections in the L.J. Smith system. The wrench is also gauged for locating pilot holes on handrails and rail drops, so rail-bolt connections are easy to align — a fact I didn't realize until later, after I'd made my templates!

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We actually discovered another wrench for tightening rail bolts that we liked even better. Universal Building Systems' ingenious device, the Rail Bolt Wrench ($8, 800/200-6770, www.stairfasteners.com) is made from heavier steel, and has a magnetic stud on the handle designed to hold the nut while you thread it on the bolt. A common rubber band wraps around both the nut and a pin in the center of the handle. By simply pulling on the rubber band, you can spin the nut onto the bolt. I had a tough enough time just seeing inside that 1-inch hole. I couldn't imagine threading on a nut without that wrench.

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MAKING A PITCH BLOCK

In addition to the special pop-top fittings, we also used a few standard easings on this staircase. To make the necessary cuts on the easings, we turned to the tried-and-true pitch block, on Jed Dixon's advice. A pitch block is a deceptively simple device, and easy to make: One leg equals the height of the tread (the rise), and the other leg equals the width of the tread (the run). The resulting angle — the rake — allows you to find the tangent points where the railing parts meet.

First, we positioned the pitch block with the rake against the railing (that's the angle of the stair, which is also the angle at which the railing runs up the stairs), and marked the tangent point on the bottom of the railing.. Then we turned the pitch block around and traced the angle of the rake across the railing profile.

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We used a shortened pitch block at the miter saw to help secure the railing at the correct angle. A couple of Quick-Grip clamps and a spacer cut to fit between the bottom of the railing and the miter-saw fence made the operation a lot more precise. Jed warned us to first dry-fit all the pieces and then, to make a perfect fit before final assembly, shave a little off the railing, not the easing. It's a lot easier to cut a piece of straight railing than a curved easing. As it turned out, almost all the pieces fit perfectly the first time — no doubt the result of good advice, patience, and clamps and jigs.

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