'Stair Master' Brings New Dimensions to Spiral Staircase

An elliptical staircase from John Wonderly Architectural Woodworking of Springboro, OH, won the 1997 Design Portfolio Award's millwork category.


John Wonderly Architectural Woodworking

Springboro, OH

No. of employees: 1

Established: 1989

Annual sales: $200,000

By Beverly Dunne

After a number of architects told them that a spiral staircase would not fit in their home, an Ohio couple visited the "stair master" -- John Wonderly Architectural Woodworking in Springboro. Once he reviewed the dimensions of the house, Wonderly agreed with the architects that a circular staircase would not work; he determined, however, that an elliptical staircase would be possible.

An elliptical stairway is visually more appealing than a circular one, Wonderly said, but it is much more difficult to construct. When dealing with a circle, the stairmaker can work with a radius that stays consistent, Wonderly said. However, because an ellipse is an arch that cannot be described by a single radius, "you're liable to start with an 8-foot radius and wind up with a 12-foot radius," he said. An elliptical design makes each section of the stair different, so each segment must be cut with a different template. Furthermore, every phase of the hand rails and mouldings must accommodate the changes in the stairs.

Because of these variations, an elliptical staircase usually takes 25 percent longer to create than circular one, Wonderly added. The extra effort seems to have paid off, though, in this example. His elliptical "solution" completely transformed the look of the Ohio couple's home. The white maple project also won the Design Portfolio Award in the architectural millwork category.

Besides the difficulties inherent in building an elliptical staircase, he had to contend with other design "situations" on this project, Wonderly said. First, he had to remove two "L"-shaped straight stairs that were totally enclosed between walls. Then, because the floor joists were running the wrong way, he created a web truss system to support the upper stair that spans floor to floor. Next, he designed a system of balconies and stairs to accommodate the beams and supporting walls that could not be removed. "The complexity of construction and the design parameters made this project very unique," Wonderly said.

Made from 5/4 and 8/4 select white maple, all of the stair parts were fabricated in Wonderly's 800-square-foot shop. "Due to the custom nature of these staircases, very rarely do I use manufactured parts," he said.

Straight treads and rails were made on an SCMI T-130 shaper; curved treads and rails were made with Porter-Cable 31/4-hp routers. Balusters were created on a Centauro T-3 duplicator lathe. Newels were modified on an over-the-post rail system on a MVM T-1500 duplicator lathe. Treads were rough sanded on a Timesavers widebelt sander, and all final sanding was done with a Fein 6-inch random orbit sander.

The staircase also included the shop's patented handrail, made from solid wood and laminated so there are no visible glue lines. "It looks like I took a big piece of solid wood and put it in a 'giant twister,'" he said. "Even when the wood moves, the glue lines won't be visible," he added. The handrail is made on a Porter-Cable 31/4-hp router with a custom-made routing jig using custom cutterheads.

Wonderly's staircase design also features a thicker rail -- 3 inch thick -- than typical staircases. The added height allows the hand to come in full contact with the rail, he said, making it much safer.

The larger, laminated handrail is a big selling point, Wonderly said. While the handrail is exclusive to his designs, Wonderly said he has considered offering rights to his patent to other stairway manufacturers.

Wonderly's stairways are also unique in that they are framed at the job site. Using curved stringers to support the stairs, when they are tied they become part of the entire floor system, he said. Franklin Chemicals' Titebond slow set and FS 100 construction adhesive are used in assembly. This method of construction gives the stairs greater strength, allowing him more design creativity, Wonderly said. "It seems the longer I work in this business, the more challenging projects I get," he added.

By far, the award-winning staircase was his most complicated to date, Wonderly said. After working closely with the homeowners on the design, the $64,000 project took six months to complete. With its oversized balusters, intricate carvings and select white maple, the staircase totally transformed the look of the house, he said.

Yet, Wonderly pointed out that all of his staircases are unique. The variety of wood species as well as his custom-designed balusters means that no two staircases are the same. According to Wonderly, "God gave me a talent and I like to utilize it to the fullest."

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