Bannister Blues

29 11 2007

To set the scene: we live in a split-level house.  From the entry way, you can go four steps down into the den, or a steep flight up to the bedrooms.  (Either way you choose you will probably step on a marble and sprain something.)
The steps down into the den, for some unfathomable reason, are made of brick.  (They had some left over?  Didn’t like wood?  Hated the convenience of being able to mop?  Liked skinning the back off their heels when descending too quickly?  Who knows.)  Neal has particularly loathed this set of steps since we moved in.  For one reason- he’s generally the one who skins a quarter-sized hunk of skin off his heel when he hurries.  For another, the steps aren’t steep enough and he frequently cracks his head against the ceiling.
The steps came equipped with what we shall generously refer to as a “banister.”  It was made of iron like an outdoor bannister, and was attached to the steps by bolts embedded in the brick.
It’s a funny thing about brick- when you drill into it it tends to flake like pie crust and shred.  The bolts over the forty years of their life have crushed and pressed and cracked against the brick so they were mostly pretty loose.  The “bannister” (so-called) was also assembled by bolts and wing-nuts that were constantly working themselves loose.
We tried adding mortar to the bolt holes.  We tried shoving tooth-picks into the holes to shim up the bolts.  We tried doing that and adding layers of rubber washers and gluing the nuts on the bolts.
Still, despite repeated thumpings, the children persisted in pushing on, hanging on, sitting on, crawling through, and basically abusing the bannister; and the poor bolts (now in their retirement years) just couldn’t hack it.
It was even odds whether, at any given time, grabbing the bannister while slipping and skinning your heels, would be a good idea or a disaster.
Since we are trying to sell our house, and since having prospective buyers injured by our trick bannister might give a bad flavor to the showing, we determined that we were going to FIX the wretched thing.  Ha, ha, ha!
We made a trip to Lowe’s.  Lowe’s sells two kinds of rail, three kinds of spindles, and one floor attachment kit.  We spent half an hour hobnobbing with a pleasant young man in a red vest, went home to take some measurements, and spent quite a bit of money.
Problem # 1- If you buy the wrong kind of rail and then saw it in half, it is no longer returnable.
Problem #2- Something in the concrete slab near the steps isn’t concrete and ate one of Neal’s newly purchased concrete bits.
Problem #3- Whatever it is isn’t metal, either, because in the next hole it ate the metal bit, too.
Problem #4- It is apparently impossible to drill a hole through a space that already contains a drill bit.
Problem #5- The holes to mount the post can’t be moved more than half an inch in any direction.  Shoot.

My husband is not a man who quits easily.  Having sunk his teeth into a problem, he solves it or dies trying.  So far, he’s solved them all, but this bannister might be the final encounter.
We took an hour or two off to go get dinner, and let the drill (and Neal) cool off a bit.  Came up with several solutions.
Solution #1- Build a brick wall along the edge of the steps to act like a bannister.  Advantage: No drilling- just stick the bricks on with mortar!  Disadvantage: it would have to be so high and so thick it would make both the steps and the den feel claustrophobic.
Solution #2- Mount a floor-to-ceiling post at the bottom of the steps, the major attachment point being the ceiling, and fasten the rails to this.  Advantage: only minor drilling into the front of the step.  Disadvantage: Wife insists it would look really stupid.
Solution #3- Do a brick wall only to the height of the top step, top with a board & run 1×1 spindles up to another board mounted on the ceiling.  Sort of a “fake wall” look.  Advantage: not as claustrophobic as an all-brick wall.  Disadvantage: Husband insists it would look really stupid.
Solution #4- Figure out a way to commit fool-proof arson and move.  Advantage: Emotionally satisfying.  Disadvantage: I just got the Christmas decorations up.
Solution #5 is in progress now.  Neal is drilling holes in the mortar between the bricks and mounting a board against the brick steps.  The post brackets will be screwed into the four holes that successfully drilled (out of nine), and the post will also be attached to the board attached to the steps.
This was more or less sucessful.  More because the post is actually up (Hurrah!) and less because the board he used to attach it to the step is four inches short of the wall.  (What would have been so bad about cutting a board that was actually as wide as the step?  I suppose that’s picky of me.  He does the impossible and I’m complaining about aesthetic details.)  He also had to cut a slot in the back of the post and the saw slipped.  I reckon I can spackle that.  I’m not so sure I can spackle four missing inches of board, though.
The next step is really wierd.  He’s going to drill holes (again in the mortar) on each step.  He’s cutting steel roding into pins to slip in the holes.  The bottom of the spindles will be drilled to seat on the pins, and the tops will be miter-cut to fit the slope of the rail.  Three spindles to a step 4″ from center to center will meet code.  Then there was the argument about whether the top or the bottom of the spindle would be cut.  He wanted to cut the bottom because it is easier to measure a flat cut than a miter.  I though it would look wierd if all the square bases of the round spindles were different heights- kind of snaggle-toothed.  I won.  He bought uniformly square spindles and he’s cutting them at the top.
The bannister we bought (the second time around) is cool- it comes in two pieces with a slot in the bottom that just fits the top of the square spindles.  You screw down into the rail into the top of the spindles, then put the top half of the rail on & fasten it from the bottom.  Smooth.

I spoke to a realtor this evening who is going to try to help us find a rental.  She asked if we had to have a “perfect” home.  I told her we actually liked odd an unusual homes & liked fixing them up.  Which is true.  It’s a good division of labor.  I think up projects, nag Neal until he does them, and criticize his methods.  He does all the work, injures himself, tries not to cuss, and puts the tools away (eventually).  Then I write sarcastic blogs about the whole process.
Does anyone know a good family & marriage counselor they can recommend?

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2 responses

29 11 2007
Lisa

Just wondering why I am reading all of these details about putting up a bannister while my groceries thaw out on the kitchen countertops downstairs. Your writing has that effect on me. I swat off swarming chldren and husbands (well, just one husband), infringe on my time with God, and let my food get cold on the table all when you have a new post. You are the spice of my life! God knows that I need some….

29 11 2007
Linda Miller

I submitted a comment earlier but it didn’t take. However having read the one above must concur – it is just the same with me. Stop the world Angel’s blogging and it is bound to be a wonderful read. Keep it up even if it has to have an impact on house & family, some people are born to write and you my daughter are one. So much love, Mom.

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