I’ve been building stairs full-time for the last 16
years in high-end homes in the Boston and New York City areas.
Most of these stairways are complex, with curves and spirals.
But when it comes to straightforward stairs, I’ve
developed a technique that can easily be followed by any decent
site carpenter, even without access to a millwork shop. In this
article, I’ll walk you through the way I would go about
trimming out a fairly simple, but elegant, staircase made
entirely out of stock parts — something you might put in
a high-end spec house, for example.
Obviously, before trimming a staircase, you’ve got to
design and build the structural undercarriage. I use several
framing details that lead right into my trim-out technique (see
). If I’m not building the undercarriage, I try to get
the framers to incorporate the key features of my system.
Newels Are Key
step in trimming out a stairway is to set the newel posts. In
this article, I’ll be discussing turned newel posts with
a block at the top — where the handrails are cut to fit
between the starting and landing newels (post-to-post). Because
the newels bear the strain that goes on the rail, they need to
be locked in tight. I put the newel posts in first and fit all
the other trim to them.
Locating newel posts is a straightforward procedure that
works off the centerline of the handrail and balustrade.
Bottom newel. I like to
place the bottom newel on the second step, just above the
starter step. If you put the newel on the front of the bottom
tread, you end up with a very narrow stair. It looks like a
cattle chute and doesn’t feel very welcoming. Also, when
the newel is placed slightly up on the stairs, it’s much
easier to put your hand out and step on the first tread from
the side, so you actually turn as you begin going up. The
curved bullnose tread and starter step that I often use make
this common sideways approach comfortable.
To locate the bottom newel front to back, I set it where it
will catch the front overhang of the second tread, plus a
slight reveal. To find the side-to-side location, I work off
the centerline of the handrail ().
The rail centerline is determined by the width of the
balusters and by an arbitrary decision as to where the
balusters are placed. I think that balusters always look better
when their edges line up with the skirt board below. I also
prefer the first baluster on each tread to sit right on the
corner so that its front edge lines up with the riser below.
The balusters seem to grow more naturally out of the stairs
Where nosing meets
newel. Traditionally, the tread nosing dies into
the newel posts. For this to work out, the newel posts must be
wide enough to catch the nosing. To calculate the minimum newel
width, add half the baluster width to the tread overhang, plus
the reveal where the tread dies into the newel — then
double it. For a 1-1/4-inch baluster (minimum standard size), a
1-1/8-inch overhang, and a 1/8-inch reveal, you need at least a
3-3/4-inch newel. That’s bigger than most readily
available commercial newel posts, which may be 3 inches square
or even smaller.
If you use a wider 1-3/4-inch baluster, you’re going
to need at least a 4-1/4-inch newel post. Any other solution
will cause design problems. You’ll have to make a little
return on the nosing where it extends past the newel post, or
worse, put the centerline of the handrail in so far that you
create a weak newel attachment.
Cutting newels to
length. When laying out a newel post, I first
determine the best side and lightly mark it with an "F" for
"face." Next, I cut the newels to length at a dimension
determined by the handrail height and how far the newels extend
below the subtread (see ). I put the landing rails at a height
of 36 inches above the finish floor, and the rake rail at 32
inches above the tread noses.
Notching the bottom
newel. After a newel is cut to length, it’s
time to figure out how it will be notched. The bottom newel
needs a pocket notch that lets the tread of the first step
slide underneath while the newel face continues down over the
drywall. Newel posts are expensive, so the cuts for pocket
notches have to be figured carefully. Work your layout from the
centerline of the handrail and from the face of the subriser.
Remember, the notch dimensions are determined by the dimensions
of the baluster, drywall, face skirt, and reveal. When marking
the notch cut, make sure that it accurately accounts for the
riser height as well as the thickness of the stair tread and
finish flooring. I still scratch my head over these things,
even after building stairs for years. Drawing the whole
scenario out on the post and looking at it while holding the
post in position is essential to avoid costly mistakes.
Landing newel. The
landing newel is longer than the bottom newel because it
catches the landing rail at 36 inches above the finish floor
and then runs below the tread far enough to catch the face
skirt and scotia molding. All that said, a typical landing
newel would be cut about 55 inches down from the top of the
newel block. The newel will appear to extend down below the
landing and will need to be finished with a dropped finial. To
lay out the pocket notch, I follow the same rules as for the
bottom newel, except that I allow 37 inches above the finish
Before making these notch cuts, check the carriage and walls
for plumb. You may have to rough-cut the pocket notches, then
scribe the newels plumb to the plaster before making the final
Cutting pocket notches.
To cut the notches, use a circular saw set to the proper depth.
Before cutting, clamp the newel to a bench, because accuracy is
essential on the cuts where the newel meets a tread or drywall.
Finish the notch cuts little by little with a good, sharp
chisel. I use cheap, all-steel chisels, so I can hit them hard
3: The author completes the newel pocket
notches with a sharp chisel.
The steel in them is not bad, but you’ll need to take
the time to keep them sharp.
After the pocket notch is complete, drill for the screws. I
use a 1/2-inch counterbore and come back later to fill with
1/2-inch bungs that match the grain of the wood. I line up the
grain of the bungs, and pare them off smooth. If I’m
making the bungs in my shop, I’ll use a piece of scrap
wood from the newel to cut them. That’s especially
important with mahogany, because the color varies quite a bit,
and you can match the grain better if you use a bung cut from
the same piece.
I use a level to plumb the newels, then I fasten them into
the framing with 3-1/2- or 4-inch lag screws. I don’t
glue the newel to the framing because the lag screws are strong
enough. However, I always glue all the other abutting trim,
such as the risers and skirts, onto the newel so the joints
stay tight over time.