How to get a great staircase
Good looking stairs are often featured in home design. Stairs are often near the front
door and can be used to support and highlight design choices in a home. Of course they are
much more than that. They should provide comfortable and sensible access to other floors.
They must be sturdy and safe as well. Many building codes have been developed to make sure
stairs meet these goals. Here in a mainly rural area, codes are often overlooked. But I would
suggest most of the codes for stairways make good sense.
A common assumption is that carpenters build stairs. Some do, but very few carpenters
have experience putting in fine finished staircases. A lot of misunderstanding and trouble can
be bypassed with a little planning. The person responsible for putting in a finished stair should
be the one who builds (or oversees) any rough framing components for a stair case. May
problems can be caused by framers getting a stair ready for drywall. I am often called later in
the project when a homeowner has started to lose confidence that good stair detailing is taking
place. Repairs or changes at this point can add more cost to a project. Sometimes if a project is
well underway when I arrive to survey a stair job it is simply too late to correct problems.
Another problem is that many designers and even some architects are not well based in
stair design. In thirty years of stair installation I have worked on many home plans, either prepackaged
or drawn by a professional, where too little space was allowed for a proper stair.
Home space is a precious commodity and homeowners and designers often don’t want to give
up space to a stairwell. But who wants to spend money on a stair that may be beautiful but
My main advice is to get the planning done a head of time so that details are handled
smoothly. You do not have to become a stair expert. Rather, make sure that whoever installs
your stair has a good understanding of stair design and stair codes.
Here is a list of thoughts that I hope might be helpful:
• Pick someone to install your stair that has experience and the appropriate knowledge. Ask
for references, pictures of their work etc. Follow through with the references!
• Ask the stair installer to go over your plan and make sure enough space has been provided
for the project. Tell your installer if there have been any changes to the plan. For instance, if
you change the height of your walls it will have a corresponding effect on the stair.
• Check to be sure that your installer is familiar with any applicable local building codes. If you
are still unsure, contact your local building inspection office (if you have one in your area).
• Your installer should be able to give you a clear idea of what the final stair will look like. If
you are unclear, keep asking questions! You both need to be on the same page.
• Make sure that both you and your installer have a good idea of what stair parts are to be
used. Further, make sure your installer familiarizes themselves with the parts you choose.
Parts often come in many sizes and lengths and often have matching components. Stair
parts are relatively expensive and mistakes in parts orders can be expensive and cause
trouble on the job site.
• If the house framers are involved in the stair rough-in, or wall and floor components by the
stair, make sure they are in proper communication with the stair installer so that surprises
don’t arise at time of finish.
• If you are going to have open sections of balcony railing, make sure that your flooring
contractor and your stair person have come up with a plan together. That way the floor will
meet the balcony components in an appropriate fashion.
• It is best to have a clear plan so that all work around the stair is scheduled at the right time.
For instance, some stairs are installed after drywall, some before. Some stairs need wiring
• One of the biggest mistakes I see, is putting in a finished stair too soon. The last thing
anyone should want is for a large boisterous crew of construction workers trafficking on a
finished stair. Dents, dings, scratches, spills and much worse can occur! Solutions like
temporary stairs and temporary handrails as well as protective coverings can make the job
site much safer and the finished products less exposed to damage.
I am available for consultation and my work can be viewed at riverwoodstair.com.
May your stair bring a blessing of safety and beauty to all who use it and all who see it
Riverwood Stair Company
497 Bartlett Drive
Willow Springs, MO. 65793