Working on Historic or listed building staircases.

Index.

  1. Before starting a project.
  2. Do I need listed building consent.
  3. Choosing a contractor.
  4. Inspecting and planning

1. Before starting a project.

Starting work or planning the restoration or preservation of an old staircase, may at first seem quite a daunting prospect.

With the correct information at hand, the process can become a lot easier to navigate. Here we will aim to give you an idea of what to look out for, from selecting Contractors and the materials to use to deciding on whether to preserve, restore or replace parts of the staircase.

When listed building consent is required there may be stipulations on how much you may be able to replace or restore.

As with any project, getting the processes in the correct order may save a lot of time and money.

2. Do I need listed building consent?

This should only be required if you are working on a building that has been registered as a listed building.

When this is the case it will be advisable to contact the local historic authority before commencing any work, the cost to correct anything that has been altered if discovered after the fact may be significant along with fines that may be imposed.

How much help you will get from English Heritage or the conservation authority for your area? This will depend on the person you are dealing with and their knowledge of staircase construction. The main thing is they will let you know the extent of the work you may or may not carry out.

The advantage is that they may be able to put you in touch with a local contractor that has the knowledge you require and also they may have a relationship with the conservationist, this may make approval a bit easier.

3. Choosing a contractor.

This is one of the most important stages, the correct contractor will have sympathy for the structure of the staircase, a good understanding of how the staircase has been constructed and an idea of what work is required to get the most satisfactory result with each of the components used in the construction of the stairs.

This is best done before any work on the staircase commences, dismantling the staircase by an untrained carpenter or joiner can cause irreversible damage.

Most of the older staircases have been structured in a way that allows all the serviceable parts to be accessed for removal or repair.

Many historic staircases have been made in such a way that maintenance is easily achievable, with most parts, apart from the structural staircase itself being able to be removed for repair or repaired in situ.

When working on timber staircases, a good staircase contractor will be aware of the following details.

  1. The handrail is bolted together in such a way that loose joints can be tightened without the need for metal cleats being screwed to the underside of the handrail.
  2. When the handrail is set on a metal core rail if some of the cast spindles are loose at the top, it is possible to unscrew and unbolt the handrail, this will allow you to lift it off and tighten the screws that are bolted through the core rail into the top of the cast spindles.
  3. The nosings on the ends of cut string treads are normally held on with cut nails, these can be removed and the spindle base can be fixed back in, tightening spindle bases that have become loose, these spindles are most likely held in with cut nails, allowing for them to be punched home a bit more to strengthen the joint. Read more here.

This is not to say this is all he should know but this will be a good indicator, I will explain these points farther down.

Depending on your staircase you may have stonemasons or metalworkers involved, I would still use a carpenter to remove the handrail if required.

4. The work involved.

From this stage on having a contractor or consultant onboard would be preferential, the following sections are an outline of the work that may need to be carried out.

5. Inspecting and planning.

Once you have a contractor on board it is time to survey the stairs and decide what you wish or are allowed for the outcome to be.

Inspection of the various parts will show the extent of work to be carried out, this will boil down to 3 main stages.

  1. Strip back, clean and redecorate
  2. Strip back and patch to make it structurally sound.
  3. Strip out and replace.

These will also have other facts which may determine which route you take, these may include:

  1. Cost to replace with “like for like” components.
  2. Cost and time of cleaning back or replacing.
  3. Identifying and material and the material availability, to match those parts that need replacing.
  4. The skill set and craftsmen available to replicate parts that need replacing.
  5. Historic interest: Although damaged are the components of enough historic interest to keep, rather than replace?

These are factors to be taken into consideration, e.g. with pine spindles, time wise, it may be better to replace them than to strip back years of paint just to paint them again.

6. Documenting the flight or flights.

This is worth doing, the more pictures and measurements taken will help throughout the project, especially if you are working away from the project and do not have everyday access to the flight, you may need some of this information when speaking to suppliers.

With modern day scanning equipment, it is possible to carry out 3d scans, this is particularly useful as the equipment takes a large number of pictures that will allow you to look at any component and to an extent its condition.

This will also allow you to confirm any dimensions once the original parts have been removed if you do not or have not taken the dimensions before the staircase has been dismantled.

When the staircase is to be replaced it is worth keeping sections of all the different components, this will allow you to supply the company making the new parts some of these sections allowing them to create accurate replicas of the original parts.

parts that are particularly worth keeping sections of are the: Treads, risers, scotia molds, tread brackets if fitted, both wall and well strings, wall string capping, etc.

Wood spindles and metal balusters.
Wood spindles and metal balusters.

7. fixing the treads.

The best and easiest way to work on the treads is to remove the plaster soffit on the underside of the staircase, many historic staircases will have been closed in with laths and fibrous plaster. to gain access to the underside of the treads these will need to be pulled down, the plaster will normally break away from the laths by gently tapping with a hammer, the laths may break but they will more than likely break when being removed, even if the plaster comes away clean.

With the laths and plaster removed you will be able to get to the wedges that hold the treads and risers in place, any of these that have come loose, you will be able to remove re glue and hammer back home.

Try not to damage or remove any of the lath supports but if you do have to, take more photo’s to be able to replace them, unless you have a competent contractor.

The risers will normally run down the back of the treads and be either nailed or screwed into the backs of the treads, these can be checked to confirm they are still hold tight.

The glue blocks at the front of the tread and the top of the riser are worth checking, these are normally glued into place but may have pins in them, to hold them in place while the glue sets. Check for any loose blocks, remove, reglue or replace and glue back into place.

The tread support plates cut nailed to the carriage sides and tied into the treads with glue blocks.
Tread support plates.

8. Working on the staircase.

So now you have everything documented and a contractor or competent person in place to do the work, the work begins.

Stripping back old paint will help with the work to be done, you will be able to see fixings that you may need to get to and also show any other parts that will need looking at that you did not see before the work started.

Any additional damage you find should be documented again.

when possible find somewhere safe to store any parts that are removed for later reinstatement.

9. Removing the return nosings.

The return nosing that runs back along the end of a cut string staircase is traditionally help into place with cut nails, on some staircases that have been repaired since the advent of electric screwdrivers you may find screws instead.

The end of the tread will be cut flush with the stringer and unless it is a very well or recently decorated staircase the joint between the return nosing and the end of the tread will be evident from above by a crack between the two.

Initially, it is worth gently putting a chisel between the two and seeing if the nosing moves, as they are normally held on with cut nail, there may be some movement before the cut nails tighten up; due to their shape, a bit more leverage and they should break loose.

When there is no movement, check the face of the nosing for signs of pellets or filler, this will be obvious by a round patch rather than a small oblong one as left by cut nails. Scraping the edge of the tread with a cabinet scrapper may help show where the fixings are.

When it looks as though they are screwed in, then remove either the filler or the pellet and the screw to release the nosing.

When it looks as though the nosings are held on with nails, then levering them off is the best way, It may be possible to remove the scotia molding from under the nosing, then put the chisel up between the tread and nosing from the underside so as not to damage the top surface of the tread.

Be aware that on some of the earlier staircases, the scotia and return nosing may have been molded as one, in which case trying to lever from the underside of the nosing may damage the scotia section of the nosing.

The nosings being replaced after being cut off.
staircase nosing being replaced.

10. Tightening the spindles.

Once the return nosings have been removed, it will be evident as to how the spindles have been fitted.

There are three main ways:

1, Dovetailed.

2, Nailed.

3, Screwed.

When dovetailed, the usual problem is the timber has shrunk back, to fix this, wedges may be knocked in alongside the dovetail.

When nailed, the usual method was cut nails, these normally just need punching home to tighten them up.

Screws were mainly used on cast balusters, normally just tightening them up works but it may be necessary to replace them with bigger screws or to plug the holes with some matchsticks or timber packers of some sort.

11. Tightening the handrail joints.

The handrail joints are bolted through the ends of each piece, the bolts are accessible from the underside of the handrail, these will be hidden by plugs, the plugs will be either round or oblong. The oblong bolts will hold a square nut that holds the bolt steady at one end, the round plug that is normally about 19mm in diameter, inside this hole, there will be a round nut with slots around it, undoing this will allow you to clean the joint re glue the ends of the handrail and re tighten the bolt.

when the handrail is on a core rail, you will need to release the handrail from the core rail to get to the bolts, the bolt hole will not be plugged when on a core rail.

12. Replacing the handrail and spindles.

Sometimes when the handrail and spindles are damaged beyond repair or sections have been removed, it may be necessary to replace these parts,

When doing this, it is normally permitted and sometimes necessary to ignore current legislation and replace the old parts with new parts to match what would have existed originally, this may include spacing the spindle too far apart or having the handrail below height.

This will be required for the spindles and handrail to flow correctly and to keep the original look of the staircase.

13. Tightening the metal core rail.

There are two main methods for fixing the core rail to the balisters or panels:

1, Countersunk machine screws.

2, Pins or dowels, peened over.


1, Countersunk machine screws.

When the core rail has been fitted with machine screws, these will normally have a countersunk Allen key or hex head.

These may be tightened back down to the balusters, this is usually enough to stiffen the balustrade back to its original strength.

2, Pins or dowels, peened over.

When peened over, it may be necessary to clamp the core rail down to the top of the baluster, in order to hold it tight while the pin is peened back down.

The pins do not normally require any heat to soften them but on occasions, it may be beneficial.

14. Tightening the newel post.

Cast newel post.

Cast iron newel posts will generally have a threaded bar screwed into the base of the post, this is drilled down through the end of the tread and bolted from under the floorboards.

When possible, remove one of the adjacent floorboards and reach under the newel post and tighten the bolt back down with a spanner, another option is to go in from the ceiling below if there is one, one other option is to release or remove the handrail and spin the post, this may or may not work depending on how the nut on the underside is held in place.

Timber newel post.

Timber newels may be fitted to the ends of the strings or down onto the surface of a feature tread.

When fitted to the end of a stringer it may be possible to add a dowel or two through the newel post base and the tenon.

When fitted over a tread there is a chance that the newel is mounted onto a dowel that has been drilled down into the tread, by releasing the handrail you may be able to spin or wobble the post off of the dowel, reglue and replace it.

15. Cooper built drums.

The cooper built drums are fairly robust and should not require any repair work, if they do move, it is unlikely that you will be able to pull the curves back together, the best way to deal with these is to apply ply straps around the back of the drum under the treads.

this may require taking down the bearers, laths and plaster on the underside of the drum section of the stairs.

Ply may then be wrapped around the drum to help prevent any further movement in the drum.

16. Feature tread ends.

On some staircases, the feature end to the first tread has been removed if the original floorboards are still in place and accessible there may be telltale signs that will give you a good indication of how the tread was originally finished.

There may be signs of holes in the floorboards where the newel post was bolted down or even a good outline of the entire end of the tread where the floor has been polished around the feature end.

When this is not readily available and you live in terraced houses, try and have a look at one of the neighbouring houses, there is a very good chance they will have their tread still in place and you will be able to copy that.

17. Lath and plaster.

The method of using laths and fibrous plaster has now been replaced with EML “Expanding Metal Laths” or a wire mesh that will bend around the different curves and then bonded and skimmed. Timber laths are still readily available but you may have to hunt for a plasterer that will work with the fibrous plaster.

The laths are pieces of timber about 3/4″ or 19mm By 1/4″ or 6mm. These laths are pinned to timber cross members and they span from one stringer to the other, following the flow of the bottom of the stringers and drums around the corners, they have a small gap between each lath, that will allow the plaster to pass through and give it something to hang on to.

As with the carpenter or joiner, this is a rapidly disappearing skill set and will be worth having a look at some of their previous work of a similar nature e.g. 3-dimensional curved work, before hiring.

18. Polishing.

The preparation of any timber that is going to be polished is ideally best left to the French polisher, they will be able to strip back any paints of polishes that have been previously applied and will do the least amount of damage to the underlying timber.

This is especially true on the handrail if you wish to keep it, a good polisher can do a “refresh and revive” that will get your handrail back to a good overall condition, some of the history, such as deeper scratches and dents may still be showing but that is why you want to restore the staircase rather than replace it.

When polishing the handrail the corners are likely to go darker than the straight sections of the handrail, this is due the the end grain coming through and the lawn effect, you will be able to look at it from one direction and it will appear light while it will look darker if you look for the other end of the same section.

The rule of thumb for polishing the handrail is to get the colour constant from the main entrance level; as this is the view that your guests are most likely to see.

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