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Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Evolution and Improvement of [his] Staircase Construction
(Or "The Story of Doug Learning to use Common Sense!)

Hello folks!

One of the major reasons I wanted to blog in the first place is that I wanted to pass along what I am learning  to others.  I've gained much from others who have done that, and I wanted to pass along what I discover and encourage others to take the plunge into the Miniature world. (Who knew building miniatures could be so rewarding!)

I promised a "series" of posts on the process of building a staircase from scratch, and this is the second of that series.  In this entry, you get to see where I started, and some of what I ended up learning in the process of building the staircases I have built.

Rear view of the Grand Staircase

With this post, I wanted to show you the progression in learning that I went through to improve the final outcome on each staircase.   I hope that by letting folks see the "behind the scenes" decisions I have had to make, it will embolden someone to take a chance on themselves!

So on we go to it!

The Grand Staircase 

This was the first of the staircases I built from scratch.  I've already posted a number of pictures of that staircase...I am sure you are tired of seeing it!  So I won't post another...If you did miss that can link to a photo of where that is right now by clicking on the "series of posts" link at the top of this post. 

For this staircase, I used hickory boards that I built up to create the base, and the same hickory boards to create the tread and riser basic forms.  

What I learned in that process was to pay attention to the grain of the woods I used!  The grain of the hickory was beautiful, but it was out of scale with the while I had a beautiful piece of was not going to work for the Steampunk Chateau!   So to improve the piece, I had to find some 5/32 inch mahogany boards and apply that to compensate for the scale differences.   What is more, adding a layer of wood to the riser made the stair look out of scale, so I had to find much thinner wood tape to apply to the riser in order to finish off the stair properly.  At the time (still in the learning process!) I didn't know where to source the mahogany wood tape, and Lowe's didn't have any, so I bought birch wood tape, and had to stain it all with red mahogany stain!

Light bulb moment?  Use a wood that has a grain and size that is in scale at the beginning if you don't want to have to have to overlay everything with another kind of wood!   I don't actually mind the extra work to overlay things as you will see, but it was still one of those "Duh!" moments for me!

The Victorian Staircase

Second Floor Victorian Staircase

For the 2nd floor Victorian Staircase that I built, I decided to go ahead and use the rest of my hickory boards to build that staircase, since I didn't want them to go to waste, and I already had the thin mahogany boards that I needed to overlay everything.  In many ways, this staircase was easier to build, since it was a straight shot to the next floor and therefore there were no curves to negotiate.  

 Light bulb moment?   I did however, learn a thing or two with this build as well.  On the first staircase, and on this one, I used 5/32 inch thick board for the stair treads.    I got to looking at the scale, and realized that the proportion between the tread and the rest of the stair was incorrect...and decided to sand each board down to a 3/32 inch thickness, which turns out to be proportionate.  But I learned  (duh!) that sanding the thickness of a board down to a particular thickness is at best a trial, and at worst, nearly impossible without the proper tools.  This staircase has some uneven thicknesses in the treads, which is not terribly noticeable, until you put it up against the 3rd and 4th sets...which I'll share in a moment. I learned by doing something right too though!  That birch wood strip that I had to go get to recover from my first light bulb moment came in extremely handy!  The "secret" to smooth curves like those on the bottom two steps isn't just great cutting and sanding...yes, that is a part of it...but that wood strip is what finished it off!  It bends nicely into a wonderful curve that looks very natural.  On all the wood strip I used, I actually used Arlene's Tacky Glue rather than trying to iron the wood on with the glue provided on the wood is just easier, and the results were great.  
The Circular Staircase (s)
The matching pair of Circular Staircases

For this set of staircases, I applied some of my lessons learned, and thought it would be much simpler!  And in some ways it was...I used 3/32 inch lumber for the treads, and again employed that wonderful wood tape for the graceful curves.  But I had a different set of problems! Light bulb moment?   I originally set out to cut out each step the same way I had for the first two staircases.  But I have already mentioned in an earlier post that this did not work well.  I learned that in order to cut small, curved pieces (you cannot run those through the table saw!) you must cut those directly out of the large piece of wood to be able to negotiate the shapes...Otherwise those curves get in the way as you try to move the scroll saw over the lines...the tool is too wide to keep from running into the clamps and the table you have your pieces clamped must keep them away from that table to give yourself room to negotiate the curves!My way of solving that problem was to use the original Foam Core Mock Up (the second of the name!  The first was a complete disaster!) as the base for the circular stair.  Because of the very small curves in some portions of that pattern, I thought it would be easier.  After all, when I am completed with the stair, none of the Foam Core will show, AND it would be supported by the wood that surrounds it. This worked beautifully (so far anyway), as the wood tape and 3/32 inch treatment I gave it completely covers the Foam Core, and will do so for the sides and bottom as well.  The only "side effect" of that is that there is a decided "tilt" as you go up the stairs that will have to be corrected by applying the wood casing on the bottom and sides of the stair correctly.  However, Foam Core is easily molded...and I felt that the results were beautiful.  The stair will be very graceful once that minor consequence is dealt with. I also made another change as I negotiated my way through the process of building these staircases.  I had noticed that the finish on both the first and second staircases was very glossy, and in real life is beautiful, but the camera bounces back the light, and so any pictures I took ended up with a fairly significant glare.

I wanted to try a satin gloss finish, and so used that on this set of staircases, and am happy with the result...It is a different, much softer finish, and suits the style of the staircase finish work I plan to create. 

I would not recommend one over the other at this point...both finishes gave very nice, but different results.  I hope that this trip through my learning process has been valuable for some of you.  I imagine for many of you most of the above is somewhat primitive knowledge, but I know that there are many out there too who will learn from my is for you I post this entry!  I hope it saves you time and money!
Good Luck on all your building ventures!  Until next time.

Doug S


  1. Hello Doug,
    I wish I would have had a post like this before I worked on my own staircases. It felt like such a huge project to tackle! Your explanations are clear and terrific. thank you for sharing so much important and useful information. I know many of us out here appreciate it.
    Big hug,

  2. Thanks Giac! I know that one of the more important goals I have for this blog is to share my woes as well as my triumphs... I love the folks who do that in their is from mistakes we learn the most!


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