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Moving on Up(stairs)

This is one I have been putting off for quite a long time. The stairs to the second floor at Harrop House are about 100 years old and a little bit steep by today’s standards. If I were to completely replace them with new I would have to bring them up to current code, which would prevent them for fitting in the allocated space and kinda mess with our floor plan. If we keep the stairs, and “repair” them they can be grandfathered during the inspection and won’t have to be rebuilt to take up the extra 4 ft of space that we don’t have for them.

For over a year the old (and almost falling down) stairs have been left in place while the plan to reclaim them  has been simmering somewhere in the back of my brain. With the framing complete, and the windows and doors in place, it would be really nice to be able to get up and down stairs without risking life and limb. This week I finally tackled the project.

It began with first gingerly removing the pieces of the old stairs one by one for reclamation. Once disassembled, pieces were numbered and set aside. First order of construction was to cut some new stringers to reinforce the support for the stairs. The old ones are made of brittle cedar, and were in pretty bad shape. One side of the steps had only half an inch of support holding them up.

I cut new stringers from some solid 2×10 Fir, and attached them to 2×12 Fir solid skirting boards for sturdy support (our beautiful fir comes custom cut from the Harrop-Proctor Community co-op mill conveniently located about 90 seconds away, practically in our backyard). The added solid skirts allowed us to widen the stair hallway by 4 inches while still using the same stair treads. Old wall coverings also encroached on the treads by about an inch on each side, in combination we were able to widen the stairway by about 6 inches from 3 feet to 42 inches.  A much more luxurious ascension experience.

The old riser boards were also made from cedar, and were dry and cracked. Many of them broke on disassembly, a lost cause.  New ones were cut from 1×8 planed spruce from the lumber yard,  a really nice quality wood for the price.  They will be painted white along with the skirting boards. The old treads will be resurfaced and oiled to remain a natural wood finish.

The treads were a chore.  They had a hundred years worth of brown paint ground into them, and were filled with nails, tacks and staples from a century of carpet runner attachments.  It took about 2 hours to de-nail the 13 treads.  Then they were run through an old set of blades on the thickness planer to remove the paint and flatten, and finally sanded to remove the last remnants of the ugly brown colour.

The last thing to do was put the refinished treads back in place.  For this I whipped up a “stair jig” to accurately trim the treads for a perfect fit.  The jig is made from three pieces of wood in a wide “H” shape. The two ends have a pivot so that they can be pushed out to the edge of the stairs, locked in place and traced onto the tread. If the stingers & walls are not perfectly square (they’re not), slight angle cuts can be made on the tread to match the walls perfectly. Most of mine needed about 1/2 a degree on one end the other to get a beautiful snug fit. I actually used the jig to cut the risers too.

I love the idea of reclaiming and reusing some of the oldest parts of the house.  This salvage was a bit forced in order to grandfather the stairway, and was quite a bit of work compared to just building some new plywood stairs. I think the old treads will be a bit of a gem and bring some original character and charm the the house.

And with the last tread, we have completed another major step (groan) on our renovation journey.


  1. Stephen Kring Stephen Kring

    Andrew- As a descendant of the Harrop family (a grandson of Winnifred Elmes) I’ve climbed those old stairs hundreds of time. I used to love the creak of each old step, and the landing part way up. There was no sneaking in late at night :). You are doing a great job on the old house and I am enjoying following your progress. I hope to see the final product one day.

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