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Cherry stairs with pitch change

StanFoster's picture

Here is a stairs I just installed iron balusters in. I am going to give my honest opinion of this stairway which was out of my hands.  I do not like stairs that have a change of pitch in them. This stairs starts out with 4 straight treads, then 11 curved treads. This causes a change in railing pitch..which I feel is unsightly and not near as mechanically strong. I also would have chosen different balusters so as the patterns were more in a diamond shape. This was all pointed out upfront and they insisted on this anyway. 

(post #128252, reply #1 of 23)


I agree with you about the handrail, looks weird, otherwise I like the stairs, dont really notice the 3 or 4 steps strait and then the curve, until you look at the handrail.

Couldnt that handrail be done by making it one piece that starts strait and then transitions? I dont mean the whole length but some sort of custom ease(for lack of a better term). Just thinking out loud, maybe that wouldnt work. Have to think on it some.

Otherwise  I like the stairs


(post #128252, reply #2 of 23)


 When you say pitch, do you mean that the riser height changes? If so that is definitely not good, and shouldn't even pass code. Or are you just referring to a change in direction? Otherwise...dam! that's some nice work.

Keep those pics coming! :)

I don't understand! I cut it twice and it's still too short!

I don't understand! I cut it twice and it's still too short!

(post #128252, reply #3 of 23)

Stan, while I know you know this, for Manroot and the edification of anyone else any J-shaped stair will experience a change of pitch in the railing as the rise to run ratio changes between the curved and straight run sections. Manroot what happens is on the curved section the rise to run ratio actually does stays the same as the straight section if you follow it along the "walkline". Obviously the "walkline" is the imaginary line some distance (generally 12") away from the inner edge on which people are expected to walk.

R314.4 Winders.

Winders are permitted, provided that the width of the
tread at a point not more than 12 inches (305 mm) from
the side where the treads are narrower is not less than 10
inches (254 mm) and the minimum width of any tread is
not less than 6 inches (152 mm). The continuous handrail
required by Section R315.1 shall be located on the side
where the tread is narrower.

Checkout page 6 of the PDF The Visual Interpretation Of The International Residential Code-2000 Stair Building Code

But getting back to you Stan we see this problem a lot and the core root of the problem I think is that none of the stair railing parts manufacturers make a components that deal with the transition. If you were to use an up-easing at the transition it would be both just a tiny slice of wood with the pitch changing suddenly and also it there wouldn't be any twist in the piece either so the profiles don't line up anyway.

So what we do is we custom build our own transitions pieces that depending upon the stair can be anywhere from a foot to two feet long to smooth out that transition. I'm going to look back through our project photos for more examples of what I'm talking about because I'm pretty sure somewhere we have shots of us actually making that piece but looking around this morning I did find this one that pretty clearly shows where that transition piece was inserted.

(Click for a Larger View of this Photo)

(Click to Zoom in on the Transition Easing)

While I'll try and find more photos what we with something like that is determine an acceptable start and end point for the transition and then fit a block of raw glued up stock in place and then plane and/or sand (with a 60 grit disk) to a squared off twisting block shape that will accommodate our profile. We then either shape the profile with a 3hp router or shape and/or carve it by hand with burrs chucked into a pneumatic die grinder and/or dremel type tools. We'll also sometime use an electric die grinder we have but it's much larger, heavier, and harder to handle than the pneumatic ones. We'll then also sometimes cut a metal scraper in a profile that matches the rail profile and after roughing it close to shape with the burrs and sander/grinder we'll use the scraper to finish it off.

This particular photo is from a project that was started by another shop. We sold them the balusters and then when the owner decided he didn't like the way the rail looked he asked us to make changes that would "fix" it.

In addition to the that change of pitch problem the owner also did not like the way the lower helical curved section looked. It was done using bending rail and so while the rest of the rail you could see the figure and grain patterns in the wood which was cherry that curved section looked striped especially where some sap wood showed. We took the that curved bending rail section and planned of the top and then put a solid wood cap on it. ( I know I have pictures of that being done somewhere so I'll keep looking around for them.

He also didn't like the fact that a straight easing (typical) was used to join the the lover curved section to the level volute. Looking down the stair from the balcony you would see this nice gradually turning railing (thanks to the transition easing) that all of a sudden went STRAIGHT right at the bottom for a few inches before turning again into the volute. I hate seeing that on almost all curved stairs so most of the time we again fabricate our own curved easing to make that transition more elegant and graceful too. That's why there is no newel post in that photo we had just removed it and were getting set to make the change to a helical easing there.

Just the other day this stuff about helical parts sort of came up over on JLC in Gary Katzs Finish Carpentry Forum in a discussion about "Descending Volutes" part of what I wrote there said:

By the way descending a volute is not a "French" thing. It might be "old world" or "old school" in that it probably just dropped out of popular use in the middle of the last century as we here in America moved more and more towards adopting the production procedures and techniques. We began to use a straight easing to level off a descending rail and connect it to a level volute because those parts could be massed produced and/or were easily available. The problem with a descending volute is they have to made specifically for the stair they are going to be a part of following both the curve ratios looking at the part in plan view and the section or sections showing the rate of decent.

This is what I meant above when I said "the core root of the problem I think is that none of the stair railing parts manufacturers make a components that deal with the transition." or the transition at the volute which I happen to think is more elegantly done with a helical easing or integral descending volute.

Funny to Stan on first glance this project looks a lot like a mirror image of one we've done that I'm pretty sure you've seen before too. It has the same stain on the rail and the same basic wall & trim colors. There's a good view of the helical easing that we did as part of that job (click the thumbnails for the larger JPG). A mahogany rail in Greenwich CT residence.


We avoided the problem of using a separate transition piece on this project by fabricating the helically curved lower section longer than typical so it ran another tread and a half past the curve up on to the straight section of J so the transition is actually "fabricated" into the curved piece. The brass bulbous pieces on the balusters weren't position in these photos yet (they are held in place with set screws) since they had to be positioned to gracefully follow that change in pitch accordingly.

Edited 10/24/2003 6:44:18 PM ET by Jerrald Hayes

(post #128252, reply #4 of 23)

It was built that way for a reason.  But what was that reason?

What would you have done differently considering the space?

The stairs going into my downstairs have a similar effect.  I've always wondered why.


(post #128252, reply #5 of 23)

Stone:   I would have had all 15 treads be of equal pie section.  Then the rail would follow a consistent pitch.

In cases where a circular stairs would not satisfy the client ..I have built elliptical stairs that can be adjusted to fit either wide but deep foyers..or vise versa.


Jerald:  Your post was right on..and your work is top of the line. I have said this before...its work like yours and Armins that motivate me to raise my standards.  I dont understand why I get so much credit here just because I post lots of pictures.  I wish you guys would post more. 

Edited 10/24/2003 9:06:59 PM ET by Stan Foster

(post #128252, reply #6 of 23)

Hey, your more of a curved stair specialist and were really more railing specialist. We actually sub out a lot of the actual stair work and sometimes most of the railing too to the point where all we do is the fabrication of those special unique pieces (like helical easing) and the installations. We don't build any straight stairs at all ourselves and haven't in three years now. We out source that. I'm pretty sure you don't do straight run stairs either am I correct?

It all a matter of developing process specializations. Last spring I had the guys work on redesigning the processes of how we were doing curved stair and rail fabrication and I gave them print outs of your project posts from here to get ideas (so please don't ever stop posting) along with all the other books and articles I could find. In the long run I think what they've probably come up with is not like Stan foster does it but draws from that and I know it's not like Jerry Hayes used to do to but it draws from my methods and thinking too.

Ahhhh, we're all still learning.

(post #128252, reply #7 of 23)

Jerald:   Its interesting to see how each and everyone of us has our own ways of achieving the same thing. I like to observe others methods so I can perhaps modify and improve my own. We all benefit from viewing others methods, good ones or bad ones. I am sure I have helped a few with some of my ideas..and I am just as sure I have ways that people just say,,"I wouldnt do it that way".  So..I just keep a posting away.

(post #128252, reply #8 of 23)

Here are few examples of what we do, the curved rails are custom cut by hand from solid stock by Global Railings in Toronto.


(post #128252, reply #13 of 23)

Johny:  beautiful work you posted.   Here is another curved stairs I built two years ago.  It also had to transition from straight to winding. 

webx.jpg74.67 KB

(post #128252, reply #14 of 23)

Hi Stan,  I looked at your picture of a winding stair.  I have to build something similiar.  Can you give me any pointers or resources that might help me.  I am rising 9' and need a 2'6" radius.  The plans show it to be a "closed" stair with metal railing/baluster/newels.  I just need some help doing the risers/treads and stringer system.     Nighthawk

(post #128252, reply #9 of 23)

Stan, I think Jerrald hit the nail on the head.  The transition from straight to curved sections begs to be more gradual.

(post #128252, reply #10 of 23)

SPHAUGH "The transition from straight to curved sections begs to be more gradual."
SPHAUGH I know Stan knows that and feels that way too but as he mentioned the design of the "stairway was out of his hands".

The problem is you get some builders every once in a while that want you to build the whole railing out of stock rails and parts from LJ Smith or Leepers or whomever and it leads to kludgey looking rails sometimes. There just isn't anything those big suppliers make that addresses those conditions and to deal with it properly requires some custom fabrication which ain't cheap! At least we wont do it for cheap (see Pricing for ‘perceived value’)

My hunch is he had one of those builders who just didn't want to spend those extra bucks.

(post #128252, reply #11 of 23)

I meant no disrespect to Stan - and I agree with you 100% that the reason is pretty predictable

(post #128252, reply #12 of 23)

Sphaugh:  I  totally agree with you.  Jerrald said it much better than I would have.  My whole point of posting that stairway that I built was to have people throw mud at it...and I flung the first handful myself.  :)    That is not the way I would have built it if I was paying the bill.