M&T Shop Building: The Stairs


This week, we got the stairs to the second floor designed, built, and installed. Even though we’re not yet finished with the flooring, we decided to prioritize stair construction because during the week after next Jim McConnell will be using this place as a guest house. Jim will be with us for the better part of a week sharing ideas, discussing the vision for the magazine, and making shavings.

The stairs were designed around three boards from our vintage sheathing supply. Because the maximum length we could get out of this material was 12’ 1”, we spent the better part of a day figuring and refiguring the best solution for this space. The factors we considered included minimal footprint, maximum space away from the wall to allow for a workbench close by, headroom, steepness, and aesthetics. Although many period buildings have incredibly steep stairs, we ultimately chose a rise and run only slightly steeper than the average modern sprawl. Once our numbers were determined, we mocked-up sample steps to get a feel for it. Word to the wise – projects like this tend to inspire unsolicited expertise on social media platforms. If you don’t want to be criticized for every conceivable facet of a project, we don’t recommend sharing your progress.

Our open stair design is based on several historic shops that use simple housed treads. Mike’s friend, Peter, came over one morning to lend a hand chopping out the dadoes, planing treads, and fitting the staircase into position. Peter’s experience building wooden boats came in handy – it’s always fun working alongside other craftsmen to see their way of doing things.

Although probably not necessary, we through-tenoned the middle tread into the two outer stringers and wedged them to lock the stairs together. This made the whole assembly rock solid. The orientation of the wedges was discussed but we ultimately oriented them perpendicular to the floor for aesthetic reasons rather than perfectly across the grain (at an extreme diagonal to the floor). Everything survived just fine when we drove the wedges.

To overcome our stringer length constraint, we built a platform as the first step on which the stairs rest. It may look a bit unusual but we speculated that we could always turn it into a beer cooler with a hinged lid to redeem its utility.

Before the end of the day yesterday, the stairs were raised into final position, all the treads were custom fit into their dadoes, and the “wrought” nails were driven. The stairs are rock solid, comfortable to use, and are visually befitting of the space.

We can finally put the aluminum ladder away.

- Joshua