Circa 1987: I’m working at a wood shop in Florida that makes staircases, both curved and straight ones. It’s been quite a learning experience, but I’m getting the hang of it. This is my first installation of a solid oak “ladder” type staircase. It has only the stringers and treads: no risers (the vertical part between each step or “tread”) and no backing board. That means it’s exposed from the back, as well, so there will be no visible shims or screws. Since things can vary slightly from bottom to top, each tread is measured and cut onsite. Everything has to fit precisely. This one’s big, and it’s going in an expensive house. It’s the signature design feature of the main entry.
I’m working with Harold, the top boss in the shop, a quiet man with longtime experience and excellent skills. I’m the low man on the shop totem pole, so I’m surprised when he requests that I go with him on an installation.
Today is the deadline. This staircase has to go in. We unload the stringers and install the one that attaches to the wall. We tack the other stringer in place and start dry-fitting treads, one by one, carefully measuring the space between the stringers, including the custom-fit slots that secure the 2″-thick oak treads.
I cut each tread to measure and we dry fit three or four of them. We’ll glue them all in at once, right at the end. Like the ones before, the next one is also 40″. No problem. I “cut the one” (using the 1″ marker instead of the inaccurate clip end of the tape measure), measure 40″, and make as clean a cut as I can. Looks good.
I bring it in to Harold and we dry fit it to the stringers. My heart sinks. The tread is 1″ too short.
There’s a saying in woodworking: “Measure twice; cut once.” Honestly, I’m pretty sure I measured it twice. Wrong, both times.
“I guess we’re done for the day,” says Harold, calmly. He’s just stating a fact. We’re done.
We both know that it takes three days to make a new tread. You have to plane the raw lumber to 1/4″ thicker than the final tread size. Each tread is made up of several pieces that are biscuit-jointed together, so you use a super-sharp joiner to ensure the edges are perfectly smooth and square. Once glued and clamped up, the tread must dry completely. That alone takes 48 hours. You then plane the excess 1/8″ from each side before you route the bull-nose. The whole thing has to be sanded thoroughly.
We load the tools in silence. My ears are red and I’m sweating profusely. We get in the car.
“Listen,” says Harold; “if anyone ever tells you they never did that, they’re lying. It happens to everyone.”
That’s all he ever said about it. He knew I didn’t need to hear anything else.
Three days later, we finished the job.