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Stair-Building Tools - Continued

LOCATING BALUSTERS

We laid out the balusters two per tread, and transferred those marks to the bottom of the handrail using L.J. Smith's Telescoping Baluster Marking Tool. This is a cool tool ($140). You first set the depth-adjusting screw at the bottom to match the desired depth of the hole for the baluster — how far the baluster will penetrate into the bottom of the rail. Next — if you aren't using the company's Bore Buster drilling jig — you adjust the centering gauge for half the thickness of the rail, which automatically positions the layout marks in the center of the handrail. (If you're using the Bore Buster, you should make marks on the outside edge of the handrail, which you then transfer with a square and pencil to the side of the rail — whichever side is easiest to view with the Bore Buster mounted on the railing.)

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Now you adjust the length of the telescoping pole so that it fits snugly between the tread and the railing. Two spirit levels, located at the top of the pole, help plumb the tool in both directions; however, only one is really necessary — the one parallel with the railing. Once the tool is plumb, you simply pull down the spring-loaded plunger and release it, and the point on the plunger leaves a perfect mark on the bottom of the railing.

The tool also accurately measures the length of each baluster, including the depth of the mortise.

BALUSTER JIG

The L.J. Smith Bore Buster speeds up the process of drilling the baluster holes on the underside of the handrail. It clamps to most railing profiles and can be set at any angle from 0 to 60 degrees. The bit fits into a spring-loaded bushing and swings on an adjustable scale.

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You start by clamping the jig firmly to the handrail. A spirit vial on the angle scale makes it easy to adjust the angle of the drill bit to ensure that all holes are perfectly centered and plumb. Once the Bore Buster is adjusted properly, you slide the jig to each mark, then bore all the holes in the railing. L.J. Smith includes three cutting bits in its Bore Buster kit: 5/8 inch, 3/4 inch, and 1 inch, for different-size balusters. (If you're smart, you'll pop the railing off and drill it while it's clamped upside down to the treads, instead of drilling upside down, the way we did!)

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L.J. Smith has really thought of everything with the Bore Buster kit. The combination of Smith's tapping drill bit, self-centering baluster-boring guide, double-threaded bolts, and bolt drivers makes for a fast installation and a seriously strong balustrade. The tapping bit (Dowel-Fast Tap) is used to drill and tap each baluster location on the treads. After cutting the balusters to length, we drilled a matching hole in the center of each piece using the Centaur (a self-centering drill guide), then threaded in Smith's dowel screws using the Dowel-Runner, a socketlike driver that accepts a threaded bolt. After removing the handrail from the newel posts, we threaded each baluster into the holes on the treads, then carefully reinstalled the handrail over the balusters and bolted the rail into the newel posts.

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FINISHING TOUCHES

Even though railing and fittings are made to match, minor carving and sanding is still necessary for flush joinery. We used Collins Tool Company's Bunny Plane set (29) ($149, 888/838-8988, www.collinstool.com to initially shave and carve the stair fittings. The set comes with two tools: one for flat areas and one for concave profiles. These planes aren't just for detailing handrails, though. They're also great for fitting crown splices, detailing trim, and tackling countless other finish carpentry chores.

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To sand out and finish all the stair-part joinery, we used a conforming sanding block from Klingspor ($30, 800/228-0000, www.woodworkingshop.com). It works in much the same way as those scribe-transfer tools you see in woodworking catalogs. Ultra-thin plates on the bottom of the sanding block conform to any profile and are locked in place with a turnkey. The sandpaper is attached with a hook-and-loop system. We found that the tool works best if you lock in the profile, attach the sandpaper to one side, loosely press the block and paper onto the profile, and then attach the paper to the other side.

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Gary Katz and Daniel Parishare finish carpenters in Southern California. Gary moderates the Finish Carpentry Forum at jlconline.com and is the author of Finish Carpentry. Jed Dixon owns Northroad Stairs in Foster, R.I.