John talks about the craft of making staircases
How long have you been making your own staircases?
“When I did my first loft conversion about 15 years ago, I knew that I wanted the stairs to be top quality. So rather than getting just any joinery company to make them, I decided to get Ali Dalton, a carpenter that I’d known and admired for years and whose work I really respected, to make them in his workshop. We agreed that I would observe and help him, and eventually make them with him and then finally by myself, as a kind of extended apprenticeship I suppose.
During the course of about eight loft conversion staircases over two years, I eventually felt confident enough to make the stairs from start to finish myself. It’s so satisfying and I will always be grateful to Ali for taking me under his wing and passing on the craft. I’ve since built my own workshop and stair building has become my passion.”
So what’s the process of building a staircase?
“There are so many steps in the process that’s its impossible to go through them all in detail here, but basically, following measuring up, the first step is to develop quite a complex scale drawing. It’s all about making it work and there are so many restricting factors that come in to play; the floor to floor height, the rake of the roof, doorways and so on, that it can take a long time to tease out a staircase design that will really work well and of course comply with relevant building regulations.
Following this, a full size plan of the stairs is drawn so that I can make the templates to form all the ‘kite winders’ and mark out all the ‘strings’.
Once everything has been cut to size and before I commit to gluing and wedging everything together, the whole thing is put together in a dry run. It’s this ‘dry rehearsal’ in a purpose made stairwell, which allows me to make any precision adjustments to the staircase prior to gluing and wedging. It’s this last procedure which means I absolutely know they are going to work perfectly when I fit them in the customers’ house.”
Why is it important to you…what’s so special about a Clarendon Carpentry staircase?
“First of all, it’s time in my workshop for me to do some real carpentry. Also I’ve always thought that the staircase is like the quality benchmark for the whole job. It’s the first thing you see, so it has to match the existing original flight and it needs to look like a top quality professional piece of joinery. It sets the standard for everything else and raises the status and profile of the whole loft conversion.
It’s obviously important that as well as looking good, the stairs don’t creak and they perform well, but there is also something about the fact that I do it the traditional way which appeals to me. For example all my stairs are glued and wedged. I like keeping hold of the old crafts that are about quality and strength. The new methods of doing it are all about saving time, reducing materials and making it cheap, and what I like about my staircases is that there is nothing ‘cheap’ about them.
Even the way that each tread is constructed; the winders and the treads are all inevitably wider than any piece of wood that you can buy off the shelf, so everything gets jointed and glued using a 25mm tongue. Now that isn’t how you do it with modern methods, but that is the strongest way to do it and given that stairs are so structural, that’s really important. I’ll often joke that if you want to survive a nuclear attack then run for cover under my stairs!
A staircase is probably going to get used every day for as long as the house is standing and you will only put in that staircase once, so quality is everything.
I think my staircases look good, but they are functional. They are not made out of oak or some sort of exotic timber, they don’t need to be, but they are made out of good solid timber sections that are sturdy and built to last (definitely no MDF!). That’s not to say I wouldn’t be up for doing a staircase in oak or something more exotic…nobody has asked me yet, but that would be cool!”
How do you feel when you first put a staircase into a property and the customer sees it for the first time?
“Oh yeah, I love it, because they never fail to impress. They go in and you stand back and you think …Wow, they look amazing!
And customers are also impressed because there’s no mess. People expect it to be messy but when you’ve done over eighty staircases like I have, you figure out a way of doing it that manages all the dust and all that potential mess. Yeah, when the customer comes in and not only are the stairs in, but everything is looking so sweet and tidy, the look of amazement on their face… it gives me a buzz!”
Read what our customers think of John’s staircases on our testimonials page here
As our business has grown we now also work in partnership with Chris Baker, who is a local staircase making specialist with over 25 years’ experience dedicated to making staircases. You can find out more about Chris on our Team page here. Combined with modern know-how and tools, it means you’ll have a staircase that’s solid and bespoke, fits the space superbly and won’t creak! We can also create fittings such as units or bookcases.