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'Art You Can Walk On' Earns Top Honors for Vermont Shop

A unique circular staircase in a Vermont residence was selected as winner
in the Design Portfolio Awards' architectural millwork category.

By Helen Kuhl

The most unusual aspect of the residential stairway that took top honors in the "Architectural Millwork" category in CWB's Design Portfolio competition is the fact that, "just like in nature, there are no straight lines in it," said Tom Martin, owner of Renaissance Woodworks Inc., Wolcott, VT. The circular staircase, built for a residence in Stowe, VT, has a 72-inch diameter and a 105-inch rise, with curved treads and risers. The outside stringer is freestanding; the inside is supported by an 8-inch tapered wood column.

Martin added that the beautiful setting for the stairwell added to the drama of the finished project. "It is set in an octagon tower complete with a domed ceiling and copper roof. The tower protrudes from the house, giving it almost a life of its own," he said. "Surrounded by glass walls, the staircase can be appreciated from all sides, almost as if it were in the center of a room. Because of its setting, I felt this went beyond being a fundamental staircase and became a piece of art that you can walk on."

While Renaissance Woodworks bills itself as "a full-service custom woodworking shop" that can handle a variety of projects from design to installation, unique staircases are a specialty, Martin said. "This has been my niche for the past 10 years. There are a lot of great woodworkers in my area. Everyone was doing kitchens, but nobody was doing stairs."

Martin started work on his award-winning staircase in the same manner as he usually begins unusually-shaped stairs -- with a full-scale layout drawn on the floor. "We obtain all essential measurements for our parts from that drawing," he said. "We then build a two-by-six wall at the required diameter to use as a form for bending the stringer. Layout marks of the run and rise on the form create a 'string line,' making the pitch uniform and giving us a line to bend the stringer to."

The Stowe staircase is made primarily of native Vermont lumber. Brown maple was used for the treads, and the underside of the treads were veneered with maple. Cherry was used for the risers, posts and handrail, and the backs of the risers were veneered with cherry. The stringer also was veneered with cherry, inside and out.

"The first problem encountered on this project was not being able to find cherry lumber 20 feet long for the stringer to be made in one piece," Martin said. "That was overcome using half-lap joints hidden by the veneer and strengthened by the construction technique of grooving and keying."

For this method, the rough stringer started as a 12-inch-wide and 13/4-inch-thick plank, marked out for 1/2-inch dadoes to within 1/8 inch from the face with 1/2-inch spacing between. These were made on plumb lines, not squared, Martin said. The stringer was bent around the form on that "string line" and clamped in place.

For the "keying," wedge-shaped keys were made that fit snugly in the dadoes and were glued in. "We made them longer than needed to temporarily screw them to the form," Martin said. "After the glue dried, which took a couple of days, everything was cleaned off to get a smooth surface on which to laminate a 3/16-inch by 12-inch face. This face not only looks good, but also keeps the whole thing together, adding strength and helping hold the shape with little or no spring-back."

Another problem was getting the stringer off the form, Martin added. "Because it made a complete circle, we had to take the form apart with the stringer still on it to get it down. That was no easy job!"

Next, the treads and risers were laid out on the formed stringer. A 1/2-inch plywood jig that had saw kerfs on the back side that conform to the contour of the stringer was used to rout the housing of the treads and risers. Then the "keys" were cut flush to the stringer edges and sanded smooth so that veneer could be applied to top and bottom edges.

The final step on the outside stringer was applying the veneer. "We used the yellow glue technique, rolling glue on both surfaces. We let it dry for at least one-half hour and then held the veneer on the stringer and ran a hot iron over the veneer to bond it to the stringer.

"The veneer was applied with the grain running vertical to give an illusion of 'How is that thing standing up?'" Martin added.

Treads were dadoed and rabbeted to interlock with the risers. The riser was made of two 3/16-inch cherry panels with 1/4-inch plywood in between. It was bent on another form with a 6-foot radius, which Renaissance also made for the job. Mouldings for under the tread nosing also were bent on this form and then shaped.

There is no metal supporting the staircase, except for the screws which fasten the risers to the treads and a couple of lag bolts.

Laying out the column also was a challenge because of its 2-inch taper, Martin said. "Since the column was segmented, I chose a glue line as a starting point for the first riser," he said. "Then I laid out 16 equal sections from that point on top and bottom to make equal plumb riser lines. I laid out the tread heights and used the same routing jig used on the treads to rout the column to accept the treads and risers."

Martin said that even though the plan was divided into 16 equal parts, there were only 15 risers, which left the top landing at two tread widths. The front tread leading down the stairs was identical to the other tread; the outside was a mirror image and wrapped around the post, also with a riser and mouldings, to meet with the top riser.

Nothing was assembled in the shop; all parts were installed on-site. The treads and risers were secured with liquid nail and wedges, and the dadoes and rabbets also were locked together with liquid nail and screws. After everything was installed, all exposed surfaces were veneered, mouldings and brackets were installed, and a final cleanup was done prior to applying the finish. The staircase was finished with polyurethane. A local artist, Gail Kessler, created the faux marble finish on the column, Martin said.

Martin started Renaissance Woodworks in 1983 and primarily works alone, he said, although he sometimes employs part-time help for installations. His shop is 5,000 square feet. His original plan was to include a showroom, but that never materialized, he said. He sometimes rents his "extra" space to other woodworkers.

For this staircase project, a lot of the work was done using a 3-hp plunge router from Porter-Cable and a 1-hp router from Milwaukee Electric. Martin also used a 14-inch Delta bandsaw, a 16-inch Rockwell jointer, a 20-inch Linmack planer and a 10-inch Powermatic Model 66 table saw. The shop also houses a Powermatic shaper, Newton boring machine, Craftsman radial saw and Porter-Cable tabletop edgebander. All sanding is contracted out.

Martin estimates his annual sales at around $100,000. This winning staircase was about a $25,000 job, he said. He worked on the stairway with designer Gerry McDermott ("the idea was hatched over lunch on napkin sketches," he said), but often does his own designs.

Martin also said that he does all his own installation and added that installation is "the most important part of a project." He said that installation of this stairway was the most difficult part of the project, because it was almost a full circle and could not be installed one part at a time.

"The center post had to be moved around to get the parts in, which meant dry fitting everything, then removing them, putting on the liquid nail and then installing them all together," he said. Although this was not the most difficult stairway he has ever produced, it was the most interesting, he said.

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