My bathroom renovation is the last major project above the first floor, so with but a few cosmetic things to take care of therein before I can call it done (and before I show it finished), I’m resigned to finally rebuilding my front staircase. There’s no other large items to move up the stairs, and thanks to Wyatt “Bo” Childs, I now have some gorgeous reclaimed Southern yellow pine out of which to make the two bottom stair treads; I’ve no excuses remaining for leaving the staircase balustrade-less.
So I’ve been delving back into my books about period staircases…even though I don’t really need to know how to actually build a staircase (which is good, because there is quite a bit of math involved). The steps themselves are in fine structural condition, and it’s quite obvious from the back stairs and the remaining original handrail and spindles in the second-floor hall as to how the thing should go back together. I even have a good idea of what the moulding that caps the closed string should look like, thanks to a neighbor’s almost identical (but less remuddled) house. And I know how to swing a hammer. But darned if I can find anything written about the method used in my house to affix the balusters – even though it seems to be a fairly common arrangement.
Maybe there’s nothing written about it because it’s too obvious to need instruction? The balusters are housed in a wide groove on the underside of the handrail, and are simply nailed in to the handrail at the top and into the close stringer at the bottom. In between them on the underside of the handrail are simple rectangular pieces of wood nailed in place to fill the void in the groove between the balusters. At the bottom, there are faceted pieces of wood nailed between the balusters, directly to the closed stringer. A wide piece of moulding (I believe that’s called facia) is applied on both sides to hide the butt joints of the balusters and little pieces between (and to cover the rough surface of the stringer).
I’m not all that concerned about doing it (except for getting the balusters turned), but it’s bugging me that I can’t find the proper name for some of the parts – notably, the little faceted pieces. But George Ellis’ “Modern Practical Stairbuilding & Handrailing” is no help, nor is “A Treatise on Stairbuilding & Handrailing” by W & A Mowat. And while Peter Nicholson is credited with devising a mathematical system for designing/building stairways and handrails, he doesn’t get into affixing the balusters (and my house is 100 years younger than “Mechanic’s Companion” – the method used here may have come after him.)
I also have several late-20th-century books on staircases – but they have nothing on traditional approaches (and a lot on using construction adhesives).
So if there are any experts on historic staircase building who are reading this, do you know what the little spacer blocks are called? And can you point me toward a book or other resource that discusses this construction method? If not, I suppose continuing my search for relevant reading material will do nicely as procrastination.
An extensive search of my woodworking library revealed only one reference to the parts in question. In the Popular Mechanics publication “Mr.FIX-IT Complete Book of Home Repairs and Improvements”, 1949 USA”, page 56, John Modroch states –
“Square balusters, made to fit in grooved rails, are held in position by means of spacers, or fillet strips, which are inserted between the balusters.” No-one else deemed the parts worthy of a mention!
Fillet strips is, in fact, bringing up some Google results. Thanks! (Now to find a late 19th-century/early 20th-century book that discusses this type of construction…because I can never have enough books!)
Found a website with pics of what the author calls “Fillets” being installed. Scroll down to where you see him installing balusters. It’s a few pics after that.
You may have already explored “Work – the Illustrated Weekly Journal for Mechanics” online at toolsforwoodworking.com? Number 164 dated May 7, 1892 includes an article by George F Child titled “The Art of Staircasing”. (I was disappointed to find I don’t have that “Work” volume but I do have others as a result of a lifetime subscription to the theory that one can never have too many books…..).
whoops….forgot to mention that it’s page 121!
I have only heard them referred to as ‘fillets’ so that’s the term I use. When I did on the site seemed to know what I meant. Or at least pretended to.
Thanks for the update. I’m always interested in this kind of thing.
It’s interesting to see what was left out of old texts. They seldom say anything about sharpening, for instance. I’d guess that your fillet strips were just assumed to be common knowledge, and not worth writing about.
I’m also curious about regional differences in construction methods.
Are you working on your spindle turning skills?
I am by no means an expert on stair construction or parts naming, I have dabbled in stair work around the house. My go to guys are bairdbrothers.com. They are located in Canfield, Ohio. They make and supply all sorts of stair components and finish moldings. (It’s a pretty cool place.) But for me, they have been very helpful in answering all of my stupid questions. They have never let me down. You might want to touch base with them.
I’m not sure how well you know him, I’m assuming you do based on your PW experience, but maybe Ron Herman could answer your question.
Also, a call to the North Bennet Street School, specifically the Preservation Carpentry department, might yield some answers. Do you have any contacts at the school that could point you to someone in that department?
I can almost guarantee you that Master Carpenter and home restoration expert, Tom Silva, of This Old House, can answer all of your questions.
The Naming of Parts is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a part must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES
My 1947 reprint of the 1923 Audel’s Carpenter’s Handbooks don’t address these peices at all. Matter of fact, they don’t even show up in any of the illustrations. I was shocked. SHOCKED, I say!
I know! If you can’t find it in Auden, does it really exist?!
If it was England they’d have some name like: bibbets, or floobjabbets, or donkey nails.
“Dictionary of Architecture and Construction” page 327; ‘Fillet 1. A molding consisting of a narrow flat band….2….3. In stair construction, a thin narrow strip of wood which fits into the groove of the stair shoe or subrail between balusters.’
Fine Homebuilding – “Building Floors Walls and Stairs” page 21; ‘Fillet-A thin strip that fills the plowed (grooved) space between balusters in a handrail, sub-rail or shoe rail.’
My grandfathers 1923 Audel’s “Carpenters and builders Guide #4” page 1272; ‘fillet.- A band nailed to the face of a front string below the curve and extending the width of a tread.’ The diagram on page 1316 shows the balusters with dovetail tenons fit into mortises of the ends of the tread, concealed by the stair nosing trim continuing around the end of the tread.
Couldn’t find anything in “Radford’s Cyclopedia of Construction”.
There is a fine woodworking article on Stair building. It was reprinted in a collection titled Fine Woodworking on Woodshop Specialties. It showed the baluster dovetailed into the stair tread and covered up with a strip nailed into the end of the tread. Amazon has copies available.
Thanks! That’s how the balusters were attached at my last house; this staircase has a “closed string” (aka “close string”) — the steps are housed on both ends, so the dovetail technique won’t work here.
The link I include below is to the website of a stair parts manufacturer in Australia. The exploded illustration about three screens down the page lables it a “fill mould”.
Perhaps Freddie Roman could be of assistance? It seems he’s as much into historic home restoration as furniture restoration these days. He’s been quite helpful to me in the past. Mostly about blending colors and color theory when trying to make new wood blend with old.
If I recall correctly, Don McConnell used to be a stairway builder in Ohio before joining Old Street.
I did not know that! I’ll have to give him a call just to make sure I know what I’m doing 🙂 (now that I have the proper name for the parts!)
Being a french carpenter and staircase maker, we call this “industrial crappy way of balusters setting”!! I don’ think you’ll find anything old on that way of setting balusters, it came with industrialisation of the craft.