"The Cattail Stairway"
by J. Edward Clemens, Creative Forge
(As it appeared in Fabricator, Nov-Dec 1994)
The story of the cattail stairway began when we were contacted by Phil Lederach of Paul Lederach Architects, the architect who designed the house. He informed us that the homeowners had originally wanted a double helix staircase. However, because of the limited amount of space and the owners' preference to have free-standing stair, they couldn't find anyone to build it for them.
Phil Lederach had drawn a simple plan sketch for us to illustrate what he was thinking. He showed a simple scissor stair having a circular landing. It seemed rather straightforward at first, but that was before we realized that there was another identical stair above it. One thing was evident: this job would take a great deal more planning and some coaxing to fit it into the space, since any space was at a premium.
Step two was to talk to the homeowners. The owners told us they wanted incorporated into the stair, including round landings, open risers and an artistic railing. They not only wanted a unique way to go from one floor to another but also were interested in owning something very special. They showed me some railing designs from a collection of books, but what they really wanted was for me to design something especially for them. I was excited, since that is what an artist-at-heart truly longs to hear!
I went to the drawing board and came up with about three simple designs that seemed to lend themselves to the flow of the stair. I suggested thin lines, such as flat iron set on edge, which gives a lot of see-through without sacrificing strength. We needed to keep the rail airy so as not to block the light from the window wall. Since their house is set in the woods and most of the walls have huge window areas (it feels like you're outside!) they chose a vegetation design. Cattails! I love cattails. I had made a gate with cattails in it a few years back, but I had never used the design in a railing.
After arriving at a satisfactory price, my partner Carl Hackman and I began working on the landing sections of the stair. We used a rolled 10-inch jr. channel with a rolled 10 inch by 1/4 inch flat welded on the inside to form a tube that became the outside perimeter of each landing, making it match the 2 by 10 inch stair stringers.
We were told earlier on that it would be very difficult to build a stair like this without acquiring a lot of spring and bounce. With some anxiety we set out to prove the skeptics wrong. We had to, since the homeowners had stipulated no posts under the landings and no attachments to the walls! We placed a heavy channel from one side to the other, resting against the beefy 1/4 inch plates that formed the center inside turning radius of the landing and welded the ends and the middle of the channel up solid. This later proved to be a key factor in virtually eliminating bounce and sway, delighting the homeowners and us!
I began designing the straight rail coming in from the entrance door, then the two rake rails going up the step. This area was more critical because if you stand in the living room and look at the staircase, you are actually looking through all three rails at one time.
To maintain a balanced look through all three, I drew them all individually, then placed them on top of each other, to view through them. I prepared scale drawings of all the rail sections, which then became my shop drawings. There were eight stair rails, two curved radius rails, one ell and two straight sections.
The leaves of the cattails were formed from 1/4 by 1 1/2 inchy iron tapered to a dull point so as not to catch on clothing. Some of the leaves were welded to the intermediate horizontal bar that is located five inches from the top tube, but some pierced through the bar attaching itself to the brass tube with a countersunk screw, keeping a trim look.
The cattails were made of 1/2 inch pipe and a 3/8 inch rod running through them and then welded all the way around top and bottom. Some of the cattails were brazed with a textured finish then buffed to produce a brass sheen that matched the top rail. This helped to bond the top brass rail and the bottom iron rail together.
For the rails that sit on top of the walls, we used the same 2 inch diameter brass tube, with cattail leaves placed every thwo or three feet that come up from the flat bar and are attached with countersunk screws to the top brass rails. The flat bar was fastened with flathead wood screws into the cap on top of the wall.
To fabricate and install the rails on the stair, I made up the framework of each section, with just a few verticals in place, and then field fit it by pre-drilling and tapping the stringers. Then when we returned they were all fabricated, painted, and ready to screw together. We installed the top brass rail last by screwing it to the iron rails then silver soldering every brass joint to produce a seamless top rail system.
The homeowners were very accommodating, letting us take all the time we needed, and for that we were grateful. This project was a good learning experience for us. It was an engineering challenge and a design opportunity all rolled into one. We were all thankful for the occasion to certify our skills and prove to ourselves again that determination will take us through.