Mark Milner is an expert in wood construction. He lectures and assesses students at North Kent College in Gravesend, and is an Assessment Development Consultant for City and Guilds of London Institute. Mark has written a great book on building stairs.
Workshopshed: Mark, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed.
When I looked on Amazon for books on stair building, I found many examples going all the way back to Fred T. Hodgson’s “Common-Sense Stair building and Handrailing” in 1903, what sets your book apart from these other titles?
Mark: Hodgson’s book, like virtually every other book currently available on stair building, is American. In North America, terminology unfamiliar to British apprentices and students is used – lumber, for example, means timber or wood; imperial measurements are employed, making calculations difficult and arousing discomfort among all but older generations of trades people; and methods of construction differ in North America, as I experienced first-hand during my time with a Toronto-based custom stair-building company in the mid-1990s.
Workshopshed: So that sparked your interest?
Mark: I became fascinated with stairs almost immediately upon entering the trade in the 1980s and sought a good book to help me learn. I was unable to find what I was looking for and eventually decided that the book I wanted didn’t exist and that my only option was to write it myself.
Workshopshed: That’s an extreme form of the do it yourself mentality. What did you write about?
Mark: Simply Stairs is the only British book available on stair building. More generally, there are many high quality carpentry books with accurate information about stairs; readers are able to learn about the names of components, the relevant Building Regulations, and about methods of construction. Written from a technical perspective, these books fall short when it comes to providing readers with the step-by-step guidance needed to build a staircase from start to finish. Their bias towards a macro viewpoint suits those requiring limited information about all aspects of joinery, but inevitably leads to constraints of space, disappointing those in need of more in-depth guidance. Simply Stairs is the only book to provide this guidance.
Workshopshed: How have you made your book easier to understand?
Mark: Explaining the techniques described in any technical book would be impossible without images. The images in many other woodworking books are drawings; Simply Stairs contains over seven hundred high quality photographs of all the processes, skills, and techniques described, hence the slogan, “Other books describe the skills, Simply Stairs demonstrates them.”
Workshopshed: What is the key to designing a good set of stairs?
Mark: Good staircase design starts with careful and accurate on-site measuring; the finished floor to floor rise, the total going, the width, and the available headroom must all be measured, checked, and double-checked. Back at the workshop the design process continues with staircase calculations, and I am reminded of the words of Kevin Jones, Technical Consultant for the UK’s leading manufacturer of stair parts, Richard Burbidge, who describes staircase design as “a mathematical solution to the problem of moving safely from one floor level to the next.” Accurately recorded site dimensions are used to calculate a suitable rise and going for the staircase that will not only demonstrate compliance with the Building Regulations, but will ensure a smooth and trouble-free fixing on site.
Workshopshed: How do you ensure it is easy for the carpenter to assemble on site?
Mark: Any staircase will always be assembled to the greatest extent possible prior to delivery to site.
The limiting factors preventing complete assembly include access to the building in which it is to be fixed and final installation in its intended location. The parts of a staircase that, if assembled, will not permit entry into most buildings are newel posts, handrail, balusters, and, especially, landings and winding steps necessary when a change of direction is required mid-flight. If dry-fitted in the workshop prior to delivery, final assembly for the site carpenter will be straight forward.
Workshopshed: What kind of joints are used when making staircases?
Mark: The four common joints used in staircase construction are the housing joint, the mortise and tenon joint, the tongue and groove joint, and the butt joint. Housing joints are used to join treads and risers (the steps) to the main inclined structural members, the strings. As well as being housed, the steps are also glued and wedged in place. Mortise and tenon joints are commonly used to join strings to newel posts and handrails to newel posts; newel posts are heavy vertical members found at the top and bottom of flights and where there is a change of direction mid-flight. The tongue and groove is a widening joint used for larger treads such as tapered or winding treads. And butt joints – the simplest of all woodworking joints – are also used for widening treads and strings. The simple, yet weak, butt joint should be used with care, for example, where there is a sufficiently large surface area of timber and with strong, modern wood adhesives.
Workshopshed: How important is it for a novice carpenter or joiner to use hand tools?
Mark: Very important; I will not allow my students to use power tools until they have learned how to tackle a task with hand tools. Power tools are invaluable when it comes to getting the job done quickly and with less effort, but there will always be situations where the use of power tools is impossible; working in a confined space or cutting into a tight corner, for example, can usually only be carried out with hand tools. Using hand tools allows the novice carpenter or joiner to get a ‘feel’ for the characteristics and behaviour of the wood they are working with and, unlike power tools, can be relied upon when no power is available.
Workshopshed: Are there new tools and techniques since Fred’s 1903 book? Is joinery an evolving discipline?
Mark: For centuries people have been earning a living by working with wood; it is known as a ‘biblical trade’; many of the techniques and skills used today have been passed on for generations. However, the pressures of modern living mean that never before has speed been so important; getting the job done quickly without compromising quality is essential in order to keep clients happy and stay competitive. And this need for speed has led to an increased use is sophisticated equipment such as high-speed moulding machinery and CNC routers. Modern adhesives are now stronger than the timber itself, and finish treatments are more attractive, durable and longer lasting than ever before.
Workshopshed: What advice would you give to someone who was hesitant to start a DIY stair project in case it collapsed and someone got hurt?
Mark: As with any carpentry or joinery project, it is essential to consider the implications of every action taken. The question that should constantly be asked is, “If I do this, what’ll happen to that?” Remaining aware of the consequences of every cut, every fixing, and every alteration is especially important when working on stairs due to the weight of the structure and the risk of falls. Familiarity with the relevant Building Regulations is important; practical advice on how the functional requirements contained in the Building Regulations can be complied with when working on stairs can be found in Approved Document K: Protection from falling, collision and impact, available free of charge at the Government Planning Portal
Workshopshed: What’s the tallest set of stairs you’ve ever built?
Mark: Having worked almost exclusively building domestic staircases, where flights rarely exceed sixteen steps, it is probably more appropriate to ask, “What is the heaviest staircase you’ve ever built?” During my time in Canada, I built large circular staircases made from American White Oak which were extremely heavy. Each staircase then had to be delivered and installed, which meant loading and unloading by hand, carrying the assembled staircase into the building and then lifting it onto the trimmer ready for fixing – back-breaking work!
Workshopshed: Thank you again Mark for the interview, Simply Stairs does sound like a great book for new and experienced stair builders.