Archive for the ‘Updating Stairs’ Category

Where you will not save money when remodeling your stairs

Friday, April 27th, 2012

What you are about to read is going to save many stair remodels and a fair amount of cash. This is important for anyone who is going to be involved in a stair remodel or upgrade in the near future. It addresses an issue that frequently comes up when I meet with clients about their stair project. It may be a hard one to grasp as it has become second nature to want to recycle, re-use and re-purpose the things we would have easily thrown away twenty years ago.


It is not cost-effective to re-use existing stair parts. You will not save money if you re-use the old handrail, balusters or newel posts. Now, realize that I know you are looking at your existing stair case and thinking, “These still look pretty good. I bet they would be fine if I just replaced the treads…”. Yup, when I first began doing stair remodels I, too had a problem tearing apart a perfectly good stair case and tossing it out. I tried to save parts and reuse them and wound up wasting a lot of time with a bunch of used and useless stair parts in my workshop.

Here’s why:

When a staircase system gets built, it is a custom job. Each staircase has its own particularities and unique assemblage. When a stair guy is building a staircase he is always thinking and planning ten steps ahead. Sometimes building stairs can be a very complex task because there is more than one way to approach an installation. Each piece gets cut, assembled and sanded to the requirements each installation step demands. Sometimes you have to tweak a fitting or handrail to make it fit. One side may require a little more sanding than the other. Balusters and newel posts get cut to different lengths. A stair case is NOT a fit-and-snap together system; all parts are not created equal (even though they do try). We stair guys are dealing with curves and angles that never line up perfectly. This is where experience, skill, know-how and a wicked sharp chisel come into play.

Custom Curvy Wrought Iron and Wood Stair Remodel

Every staircase remodel is a custom job.

Now imagine this, a staircase was built 20 yrs ago by somebody else doing the same thing as above, only he may or may not have had adequate experience and skill level. He may have had a different method of building all together than the way we do. With that said, take this stair system apart without breaking any parts and put it back together. Yeah…no.

Another problem faced when trying to use the old system is having different surfaces, textures and finish types sitting next to each other. Old stain with new stain will never be a perfect match. Compare it to building a house with used materials. Sure, it can be done but what will it look like? Like a house built with shabby used materials.

And here is a little known fact: The amount of time a carpenter must spend getting a used stair part to fit back into place and look decent can double or triple the time it takes to do a stair remodel with new materials. It actually ends up costing more and looking like you re-used materials to save money.

Now, I have a work shop full of used stair parts that keep me warm via the wood stove, and when we disassemble a staircase system (with care), most of it is re-usable and gets hauled off to a rebuilding center or Habitat for Humanity. And, I can sleep at night with a clean conscience.

So if you are planning to remodel or upgrade your stairs, keep in mind that the stair parts that are there now (handrail, newel posts and balusters), should not be re-used. Your budget is better spent elsewhere on the staircase.




Upgrades for your stair system

Monday, February 27th, 2012

Recently Shane (owner of Portland Stair Co) was invited to guest author an article in Northwest Renovation Magazine about stair remodels and upgrades.  He went over trends in stair upgrades, what makes stairs look out of date and gave some advice on how and when to call in a professional.  Click here to read it!

You know, stairs are a unique specialization for a carpenter.  A carpenter really has to know his craft to tackle tough stair projects.   Shane can answer any question you may have about stairs. He would love to hear from you, bring it on!   Either comment here or write to

Stair Upgrades

5 Ways to Tell if Your Stairs Need Updating

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

Fashion trends change with season. Home interior trends change about every decade.   This doesn’t mean that your home will need a new set of stairs every ten years. In this new economy, I have assisted many clients find cost-effective ways to improve/update/change the look of their stairs. This list was compiled from actual client experience. Enjoy…

Here are some tell-tale signs of stairs needing a bit of upgrading:
  1. Your staircase has a carpet-wrapped edge on each step. This makes a great cat scratching post, but really dates your staircase! One cost-effective option for this is tearing out that carpet and replacing it with beautifully stained wood end-caps with a new stair runner/carpet; this gives your staircase instant style.

    change carpet wrapped stairs with wood end-caps

    Carpet wrapped stairs on the left and Wood end-caps on the right.

  2. Your balusters and newel posts are generic and blah. The old ball top posts are a great design for ages 8 to 15 to swing off of, but also are very dated. If you have young ones, you can stop the use of your staircase being used as a jungle gym quite easily with this simple handling:
    A quick way to modernize this scene is to replace the balusters with simple (yet elegant) wrought iron. The newel post can also easily be replaced.   All of this can be accomplished without having to tear apart the stairs, thus making it much easier on the bank book, plus it can be accomplished quite quickly.

    Baluster Replacement photos

    Top: wooden balusters. Bottom: rubbed iron balusters

  3. Your stairs sag, squeak and creak. This is good for the parent with teens ages 16 to 18 at 1:00 a.m. either coming or going; however, it can be rather annoying any other time of the day. The remedy entails something a tad more invasive than mere cosmetic changes to your staircase. It could require a tread replacement/repair. It could just need a little reinforcing too, so be sure and ask a real stair guy!
  4. The finish or stain on your handrail and/or balusters are worn, dirty or chipped. When that “lived in” look becomes “run down”, you know you’ve got to take action!  If this is the scene in your home, I recommend the handling in #2, but if you love the balusters and handrail, then what you need is a REALLY good painter/finisher. Please do not try to refinish the wood on your own. It always looks unprofessional. Your stairs are the focal point of your home, as well as a major selling point.  Call a stair guy for a solid referral.
  5. Your staircase looks out of place with your more (ahem…) modern interior furnishings.Your stairs were probably constructed from basic stock materials and not intended to stand the test of time. Unfortunately, experience has taught me that they also don’t stand the test of quality either. The plus point here is you now have a solid justification to buy new furnishings now that you have upgraded your stairs. Reinforcing the stair system and doing a few cosmetic changes will breathe new life into dull stairs. Most stair system upgrades can be done in 1 or 2 days and cost a fraction of the cost that a new stair system would.

If you are interested in discussing/asking questions about your stair system, please comment and I will answer all questions.

Thank you for reading!

Shane Kenney

Why hire a professional?

Sunday, November 7th, 2010

Have you ever hired someone and didn’t get what was pitched to you? Have you ever had a written contract that didn’t work out? Sometimes you can have all the T’s crossed and the I’s dotted and have what you think is a boilerplate contract – and still feel like you get less than what you paid for.

I’m positive that everyone has a story like this to tell. For example; I had a roof replaced on a house that I owned back in Boston in 1984. I got the three usual bids. The first guy showed up in a fairly used truck, with a shoebox containing photos of roofs he had done, a generic contract and his own opinions of how good he was. He gave me the lowest bid. A week later I received his contract in the mail including a coffee cup ring at the bottom (I think this was the Dunkin Donuts Seal of Approval).

The second contractor, who owned the company, pulled up in a clean truck with signage on the side. He didn’t say much but showed interest in the project. This guy had a briefcase which held samples of his work and a tape measure. He began by counting off from one corner of the house (by foot) to the other corner. He then asked if he could take a look in the attic to inspect the rafters to see if they could hold the weight of the new roof. This struck me as an odd request, but I humored him. He said “everything looks fine”, and went back to his office to write up the bid, which he promptly delivered the following day.

The third roofer showed up in a brand new truck representing a fancy franchise roofing company. He pulled out a tape measure and proceeded to measure very thoroughly just about every detail on the roof. He went to his truck and returned about 15 minutes later with a fully written contract which included every kind of guarantee under the sun. Before I’d even had a chance to properly review it, he quickly asked me when I would like them to start. Needless to say, this was an extremely high bid.

Not surprisingly, I went with the middle bid and got more than what was asked. The crew was very professional, clean and on time. The owner of the company showed up every day, did some pointing around, brought coffee for everyone, including myself. He bantered back and forth with his crew, helped load scrap into the truck, and then took off around 11:00. I got the sense that he had been around the roofing business for a while when he showed up for the estimate; he was interested, attentive and possessed an air of certainty and authority while being quite casual about it all. This was true even more so after I signed the contract. I could observe that he really enjoyed what he did, his workers respected him. During our short venture together his professionalism radiated throughout the entire process.

A few months later I was working on a project and having lunchtime with another tradesman. The subject of roofing came up and I told him the story of having my roof done and who had done it. It turns out that this guy had worked for that outfit and he told me that it was one of the best crews he had ever worked for. He said the old man really towed the line about smoking on the job site and strongly discouraged the use of rough language. He also always made them wear shirts in hot weather but always had water for the crew and took care of them. Then he asked me this question: “Did he ask to go up in your attic?” I replied “Yes he did.” He laughed and said, “He did that on every bid! And, did he ask to buy anything up in your attic?” I replied, “No”. He laughed and told me that he had a warehouse full of antique furniture with more than half of it coming from people’s attics. He’d offer them a couple of bucks and most of the time they’d sell. Apparently, he made more money buying and selling furniture from people’s attics than roofing. I guess he enjoyed the game of being a professional, whatever the trade he was in.

A professional has a duty or personal conviction as their prime motivation rather than personal gain or money. That’s what the owner of this roofing company embodied. Because of this, he won my business. A professional has total certainty in knowing what he does and because of this earns the trust of the client. A professional is interested in the client’s project, he listens to their ideas and helps direct them to the desired finish. You can’t hire a second-rate contractor and expect professional results. You hire a professional for that.

“If you think hiring a professional is expensive, wait till you hire an amateur.”
– Red Adair (Oilfield firefighter)