Q: One section of the stair railing in my 1903 condominium has been broken and poorly repaired for many years. Some wood is missing, and there is filler of some sort and a metal band. I asked a furniture restorer who used to work at the Smithsonian if he could repair this, but he said it’s not in his skill set. He did write, “It looks like the main banister of the straight portions are walnut and the curved U-shaped end returns are oak.” I have searched the Internet for a carpenter who advertises work on wood like this but have had no success. How do I find someone with expertise to repair this?
A: Many trim carpenters have experience installing new railing systems, but for a job like this, you’re better off going with a company that specializes in stair and railing work and is sensitive to your end goals. Rather than doing a web search for carpenters, search using terms such as “stairway railing repair.”
But that’s just the first step. Make sure you discuss your goals with any prospective person you’re thinking of hiring. Clearly, you want an attractive, sturdy rail. But how critical is it to preserve as much of the original wood as possible? Your answer to that question will influence how the repair gets made and at what cost.
It’s sometimes possible to use glue and trim screws, which have heads no bigger than finish nails, to repair a simple U-shape curve or even a volute, the spiral scroll that curls around to the end post on some staircases.
However: “If wood is missing, there is no hope whatsoever of gluing and screwing it back together,” said Brandon Rogers, owner and lead carpenter of Stairways by Rogers in Fredericksburg, Maryland. He’d need to replace at least part of the assembly.
If it’s important to keep as much of the existing wood as possible, he would remove the metal band and screws, then trim off the end of the piece that has the wood missing. For a precise cut like that, he’d probably use an oscillating multi-tool, often referred to as a Fein, the brand that popularized this type of tool. Then he’d fabricate a new but slightly longer piece to replace the small section between the curved piece and the piece he had just trimmed. He’d make custom jigs to align and hold the pieces, and then he would screw and glue everything together, using the existing screw holes in the piece that rounds the bend, plus new screw holes where needed. The final touch would be to putty over the screws and stain everything so it matches as well as possible.
Or, rather than patching the assembly together with as much of the existing wood as possible, he could replace all of the curved pieces, ending where the lower curved piece meets the floor, or at a lower level. Or he could replace just the piece that has the missing wood. If it were his own house, he said, he would at least do that, because it would result in a sturdier repair. But with either option, he’d leave other elements of the stair rail in place, without removing any more parts than absolutely necessary.
The big caveat, he said, is that the replacement wood might not perfectly match the color of the existing wood. But because your Smithsonian friend already identified two types of wood in your railing assembly, that’s probably not a huge issue. Stained and finished to match the color as well as possible, the replacement pieces will certainly look better than what you have now.
Staircase work isn’t cheap. It takes precision and experience. Rogers has been doing it for 22 years. First he worked with his father, who did it for 35 years, and then he took over when his father retired. Stairways by Rogers has a minimum fee of $1,000. Stairway repairs sometimes run higher, maybe up to $3,000, and you should get a firm estimate before work starts.
Rogers sometimes makes missing parts in his own shop, using a router to form the curves. Other times, he sends out that work to a millwork company with a computer-controlled router.