Back in April we covered part one and part two of our entry hall update. This significant feature of our home was what welcomed visitors and provided an initial impression of our home. We wanted arriving guests who were visiting for the first time to be pleasantly surprised by the home's interior, given the house's 15 foot width and plain exterior. We also wanted returning guests to walk in and feel at home and comfortable with their surroundings.
With the work we had completed, including the new leaded glass transom, harlequin paint pattern on the wall, and antique corbels, the entry hall had really taken shape.
By the time the photo above was taken, we had already stripped and painted/refinished the stairs and re-plastered the stairwell walls, but the handrail situation really left something to be desired. From an earlier photo you can see the handrail we had when we moved in.
Besides being unsightly, it was dangerous. I nearly fell down the stairs several times when my shorts' leg would catch the top of the handrail as I rounded the newel post. We knew we wanted to replace it, but with what we didn't know. The space it quite tight, so something large really wouldn't work. Since there are two simple and plain walls, rather than an open handrail, we felt like something a bit more decorative might work well.
We really were a bit lost with what we wanted to do, and I was striking out with my ideas. I purchased some salvaged handrail brackets, but those wouldn't offer enough embellishment. I bought a handrail to match the handrail upstairs. When I brought it home Wendy just looked at me and shook her head. I ended up returning it. She was right, looking back on it, my purchase was way too large and I don't know what I was thinking. (Although in the moment I didn't concede quite that easily.)
I always really liked the raised panel wainscoting we would often see on home tours, but I just didn't know how to work it into our project. It wasn't until we went to dinner at a local restaurant that our solution presented itself through a bit of inspiration.
The restaurant, currently Columbia Firehouse, is located in an old firehouse building. It is a large building with a lot of dark and intricate woodwork, fitting for an Old Town bar and eatery. The restaurant has multiple floors with handsome wood paneled walls next to stairs. One stair in particular has the handrail worked right into the paneling. When I saw this solution I realized that this was our solution and what we needed to pursue, just on a smaller and less "masculine dark wood" scale. Here is a quick but sort of bad cell phone camera photo of our inspiration. I took it while trying not to look too conspicuous on the way to the restroom :-)
We decided to do a painted raised panel wainscoting with an integrated handrail to cap it off. This would accomplish the slightly more decorative approach we were looking for, and would allow us to use a less intrusive handrail that we could move to the right side of the stairs. I could see it in my head, but the plan was a bit complex, and was like nothing I had ever tried before. So we had to do a ton of planning and calculations before starting.
There were basically two aspects to the plan, the raised panel component and the handrail component, so I broke the project into two smaller projects.
Raised Panel Wainscoting
I had seen raised panel wainscoting along stairs in many homes and the restaurant I mentioned above, and I liked the look. I had never installed wainscoting, nor cut raised panels, so doing a rail and stile raised panel wainscoting as my first project was a bit ambitious, but worth a shot.
Since we were going to be painting the whole thing, I decided I would do the rails and stiles using poplar, but would cut the panels from MDF. Since the MDF is more stable, we wouldn't end up with paint issues from expansion/contraction through the seasons due to heat and humidity.
With the materials chosen, I started measuring and planning. Here is the original sketch of our plan with all of the measurements, calculations, and estimations. Having never installed wainscoting, I was flying by the seat of my pants.
I had to account for how many stairs there were, how many panels we wanted, how many panels per stair, how the panels would look above each stair, with width of the stiles, the angle of the stairs, the length of the stairs, where the landing was, what height the handrail would need to be once you reach the landing, how many panels and their sizes once on the landing, and on and on. It was almost overwhelming, but the plan above was my guide throughout. If you look closely, you can even see my long division.
Once the plan was set, the first thing I did was order a rail and stile router bit set. We wanted the panels to look as much like the original doors in our house as we could, and this bit set matched the edge detail of the rails and stiles on the doors.
After we had the bits, I focused on the construction of the panels. The doors we have are not the same as typical raised panel doors. Most doors have a slight angle towards the panels, then a small bevel before reaching the panel. However, our door panels are flat until you reach the bevel at the panel. The panel then comes after a very small but sharp bevel, not the gradual one you typically see on most doors. I've searched high and low and can't find the panel raising router bit to match this profile, so I had to improvise. Here is a photo of the door details that we were trying to match.
To accomplish this, I setup the router to make multiple cuts on each panel. First, I would remove all of the material using a standard flat cutting bit. This would give us the panels as a simple raised box. Then I used the V groove router bit to delicately cut the beveled edge. It took a LOT of measuring, but it came out looking the way I wanted it to.
Once we had all of the panels cut, and all of the rails and stiles routed, I nailed the bottom rail to the wall based on the angle I determined, and started laying out the whole setup to get a rough sense if everything was going as planned.
We were happy with the way the panels came together, so we were all set to move ahead. One tip I learned was to pre-prime the panels before install. This way, if they moved just a bit, you wouldn't end up seeing unpainted wood through any cracks in the paint.
Note: There is one thing I didn't do here that I should have. When you cut MDF with a router it leaves a little bit of "fuzz" in the cut area. You can't really sand it out, and when you paint that fuz, it gives a bit of a bumpy appearance. After this project I learned of a trick to take care of this. Mix one part regular wood glue with one part water and, using a small brush, paint the cut areas with a coat of the mixture. Allow the coat to dry and lightly sand with a fine sandpaper or steel wool. Repeat this process three times. This will give you a nice a consistent surface similar to the finished area of the MDF. I've done this on a few projects since then and it works really well.
After the panels were all primed, we proceeded with the install. Since everything had been dry fitted and numbered, the actual install went really quickly. I only glued the rails to the stiles, no glue on the panels, as they need to stay floating to allow for small amounts of movement.
A few hours later and we had what appeared to be a decorative wainscoting. It was looking really good.
I really didn't want to remove the original plaster and lath, both for historical integrity and for the insulation and sound attenuating characteristics it offered, and I didn't want to try to remove the baseboard fearing it would either break or bring much of the plaster with it. This meant that the baseboard was set back slightly to the wainscoting, so I bridged the gap with a piece of molding that had a slight step back to it.
Now that the wainscoting was done, I turned my attention to the handrail detail.
As I mentioned, we had planed on integrating the handrail into the wainscoting design. We could have mounted a handrail to the front of the wainscoting, but we felt that would intrude too much on the already narrow staircase. Using the inspiration from the restaurant, we found a somewhat small stock handrail at our local Lowes. The stock only came in 10' lengths, so we would need to join a few pieces together to make it work.
My plan was to create a small ledge that the handrail would mount to. That ledge would then sit flush on the top of the wainscoting, and then a molding would bridge any gap left between the molding and the wainscoting, making it look like one piece. I would also route an ogee on the ledge under the rail to give less of an abrupt transition between the pieces. Here is one of the extra pieces we had after cutting. It gives you a good idea of the ledge with handrail joined to it.
We then screwed the handrail to the ledge every two feet. The screw was slightly countersunk, hole filled with epoxy filler, and sanded smooth. Since the handrail needed to be made of several lengths, I was able to stagger the ledge and handrail pieces to create one solid, 26' handrail length. The handrail was much longer than the house is wide, so when I brought it up from the basement, in order to turn it around we had to take it out the front door, spin, and bring it back inside. (Wendy and I received some strange looks from passer bys when doing this. I guess it's not every day you see people bring their handrail outdoors.)
When everything was glued, screwed and pointing the right direction, we simply screwed the flat portion of the handrail ledge to the wall above the wainscoting. We used long 4" decking screws to secure the entire handrail into studs in the wall. This handrail wouldn't be going anywhere if someone grabbed it to steady themselves.
We finished the landing portion of the stairs with the same handrail just for consistency.
Our new handrail and wainscoting were installed and just needed the final few coats of paint.
For my first shot at doing several items on this project, and wrapping them all into one project, I'd say we did a really good job. I wish I had known the trick to knock down the MDF fuzziness, but it doesn't look too bad. We had a contractor come over the house to give us an estimate for something, and I was just generally talking with him about projects we had. When I showed him this wainscoting, he seemed very surprised it wasn't a kit of some sort and that I had cut everything on my own.
There was one particularly tricky spot on this project, it was the panel that happened to land on the transition from the stairs to the landing.
As you can see from the photo, I had to get creative with my measuring and cutting. We didn't have much of an option. If the panels were larger so this wouldn't happen, they wouldn't look right on the stairs, smaller and they would look too thin. So I ended up making it work given what we had to work with. This photo also gives a good view of the stepped molding we used between the wainscoting and the baseboard.
Here's another shot looking down from the top.
Almost without fail, when people first come to our house, they often ask us about the wainscoting and handrail. It has become one of the focal points of the entryway when you are a few steps into the house. In our opinion, it looks like it has always been there, and provided an aesthetically pleasing solution to improving the safety of our staircase. No longer do I worry that our handrail will get caught in my shorts' pocket, and cause a nasty spill down the stairs.
There's one very important lesson that we've learned over the years though: hold onto the handrail when going down the stairs! The stairs themselves are a little slippery, and we try not to go up and down them in stocking feet. If only Wendy had been holding our beautiful new handrail one summer day in 2008, she wouldn't have ended up with this attractive bruise just north of her backside.
Have you completed a home improvement project in the name of safety that also serves as a design feature in your home? And don't worry about Wendy. Luckily she walked away from the incident with only bumps and bruises...to her backside (and her ego). Lesson learned.