A Reminiscence on Handrailing


I hold that a man may become a teacher at any age, but that he should not take upon himself to write reminiscences until he is in the sere and yellow leaf, otherwise “in the thin grey line.” It is only then that his retrospective eye sees further than the mass of his neighbours, and he can, if the spirit moves him, picture scenes and phases of life which are far beyond the common.

It is said of man that he may look forward in life up to the fiftieth year of his age, and beyond that he must look backward. In doing the latter, a long vista is presented to a man like myself, who counts his winters to be three score years and ten, and on reflection one is led to say with Shakespeare that “a man in his time plays many parts.”

Personally, I can endorse this truism, for one of my parts has been that of a professional handrailer and staircase builder, when the newel staircases, now so general, were scarcely known. I started in this line in 1847, when fourteen years of age, my father fitting me out with a bench in his shop, and equipping me with the necessary tools.

Mahogany was then largely used for handrails, oak rarely, and birch was brought in as a cheaper material, to be stained with dragon’s blood and polished in imitation of mahogany. It was an age of imitations. Roman cement stucco for stone, tuck-pointed common brickwork for better class walls, and in cabinet making, veneering for solid work, graining in oil colour in imitation of wood, and marbling in paint on cast iron.

There were rumours in the air of a “square-cut” system being discovered, which would replace the long bevil cut; the latter made the wreaths in the first stage look like legs of mutton, as they had to be cut out to the radius of the well with long briar-toothed bow saws. I have had days at this trying work, and as I write I fancy I can see my dear father taking the heavy end of the burden, although he has been in his silent grave over fifty years.

About 1849 he advanced in his art to the square-cut on the back side of his wreaths, i.e., on the convex side; but he never reached to the same system on the front or concave side. I remember a length of wreath being spoilt or condemned for some cause before fixing, and my sire cutting another out from it on the square cut. I asked how it was he could not get at this easy method in the initial stage, whereon he replied, “Ah, my lad, I cannot do it; but it may be done after I am gone.”

His business calling him to do work in other towns and villages, introduced me to third class railway carriages, then deep-sided wagons and roofless, the first comers getting the front seats, where, with their umbrellas up, they were screened from the engine smoke, the wind, and sparks. Later the carriages were roofed in and railed round on top, on which our appendages, as tools, bundles of mouldings, handrails, etc., were placed.

This gave me my first taste for travel and indulging in fresh scenes and pastures new, one which still affords me pleasure though now stripped of the romance of early life. The handrails grooved or not for ballusters, were round, oval, O.G. with or without a sunk or raised bead foot, plain or “toad-backed” on the top, and sometimes “cross banded.”

Typhoid, which has wrought havoc in my family, swept off my father in the prime of life in August, 1851, and nearly ruined my hope of seeing the great London exhibition, the Crystal Palace of that year. It had been arranged that I should accompany him, but after this calamity I must go alone, which I did in the closing month of the show, being then eighteen and a half years of age.

It devolved upon me to carry on his business, which, in addition to the staircase building branch, consisted of cabinet making and general wood carving, details I must pass over. I had one and only one of my father’s contracts withdrawn from me on account of my youth; but there was—as I said—no fear of my ability to carry it out.

In less than a year after the reins had fallen into my hands, I discovered the coveted square-cut on the hollow or convex side of the wreaths, and stepped away from the old bevil cut. Also, strange to say, before I was of age myself I had a youth bound apprentice to me to learn my trade, and, although wholly illegal, he stayed in my employ until he was of full age. I have looked upon this experience as being unique.

Men who could carry out handrail work in a proper manner were in the minority compared with those who tried their hands at it, and thereon hangs many a tale. I have heard my father tell of a case where a workman had made a misfit and hid his bad work in his master’s wood-yard among the grass and weeds, to be there called “nettle-creepers.” One day his master wended his steps that way, when, treading on one end of a “twist” the other rose up and gave him a blow on the head, the first intimation of anything being wrong in the handrailing department.

Reverting to the square-cut, the saving in wood alone was enormous. I had one contract, labour only, for continued handrails to about a dozen staircases. The principal contractor had, until the year before, a partner who was master of handrailing on the old “pitching” or bevil cutting system, and he was conversant with the acreage of mahogany planking he cut into. He prepared on his accustomed lines for my “marking out,” a very simple operation of filling in the square cut ramps, wreaths, scrolls, bends and straight lengths on the surface of the wood.

I used about half the wood he had provided, and upon informing him that I had marked all I wanted he ridiculed the idea, saying I must be mistaken, that he knew better, impossible, etc., etc. He insisted on me taking a further plank, and I did so to pacify him, and decided in the future to cut up my own wood and have the benefit of the discovery.

I had one workman keenly and openly bent on learning my secret, but he never did. I had a contract for a dozen large flights of stairs and handrails to a new warehouse, and I deputed this man to do the fixing, during which he had a curious accident, which laid him aside for a few weeks. He had fixed the first or bottom flight, and had advanced about one third of the way up the second flight, where he was fitting in a winder; on this he leaned, to mark or do something on the underside, when the step slipped out of the “housing” and fell, carrying him with it to the flight below.

In due time he started fixing the handrails which I had prepared; as he went along he tightened up all the joints, and by the time he reached the first landing his handrail or guard was only about half a yard high above the floor. The architect—a very peppery little gentleman under a stove-pipe hat—came in, and some very brimstony language soon filled the air.

My man would not be dismissed the premises, and the chief contractor was ordered to discharge him; he had to explain that he was not his master, whereupon I was sent for post haste and had to run the gauntlet of abuse. However, I managed to put all right in a few minutes by slacking and easing a few joints and lifting the handrail to its proper height.

I am writing of men who seem all to be in their graves, hence I hesitate to bring them by name into the fierce light of these twentieth century pages. One workman, I will distinguish by the initial “S,” was master of the handicraft of handrailing on the old “pitch” or “bevil-cut” system, and it was recorded in one case that in applying his bevils to the edge of a mahogany plank with his “face-moulds” on the sides, he placed them the wrong way, a very easy matter, and that when he carried his work to the new staircase he found the “wreath” twisted the wrong way and would only fit a staircase winding the opposite hand.

In due time this man came into my employ, as one who could carry handrailing through from beginning to end. I had far better men on other work, but on this detail he was “cock o’ the walk.” I found his place vacant one day, and after talking with my foreman was inclined to think he had gone on the “boose,” with his work of a handrail half finished, no doubt in his pride thinking he had cornered the shop. I remarked to the foreman, “if ‘S’ does not turn up to-morrow I will myself go into his benchway and finish his work,” which I did.

On his return the tables were turned against him in the shop, and in a crestfallen way he remarked, “I forgot the guv’ner.” It was a salutary lesson, and he never played the like card again. He left me to become clerk of works on some building. The date of appointment found him in his cups; the excitement was too much for him. He was to learn the result by the next post, and I see him now wandering aimlessly about the yard muttering to himself “It’s all coal or slack with me to-day.”

One of my most amusing experiences was connected with a gentleman, a painter and decorator, who retired from business and built himself a house. The contractor was a joiner by trade, and would do his own staircase and handrail work; there, like the bald-headed man who tried to pin a lady’s hat on himself, his trouble began.

He waded in a manner through the staircase, and it passed muster with the architect and proprietor, but the handrail became the burden of his existence. In fixing, it would not go in the direction he wanted, nor would it as it twisted around or turned about, keep its back upwards. By the time he reached the first landing the moulded rail was on its edge, and half-way up the second flight it was wrong way up with the “nut-holes” on the top side.

His own men would look on while he lay on the stairs swearing at the handrail till nearly black in the face. I need not say that the architect condemned it. I was ordered to take it down, put up a proper handrail, and send my bill to the architect—which I did. I found the staircases so out of line that I had to plumb the risers of each flight down to a floor or ground plan. The new rail was made to fit, and when completed the proprietor tendered me his thanks, saying that he suffered from rheumatism and that when he went upstairs with the first handrail his arm was nearly twisted off.

I often think, in looking back, that man comes into the world innocent, and that guile or corruption grows on him like a distemper, as he advances in life. I am reminded of this when reading architect’s specifications, for wherever “oak handrails” were specified I read it as “wainscot oak,” and carried the work out accordingly.

I contracted to put a heavy moulded oak handrail up to some stone stairs in a public building, and personally carried it through. When completed the architect and I went up the stairs from bottom to top, and stood together looking down on the handrail as it wound its way to the scroll. He remarked, “It seems a good job.” I replied, “Yes, it is as good as I can make it, for it is all wainscot oak.”

He was a strange man, with a taste for private theatricals, his favourite part being Richard the Third. He looked at me in an unpleasant manner and said, “What do you mean by wainscot oak?” I replied that it was the best oak in the trade and came from Russia; this made things no smoother, and he angrily protested that when he specified an oak handrail he meant real English oak and no other. I remarked that I truly regretted I had not understood his wishes on the matter, and the incident ended.

This opened my eyes to the ignorance of some architects on the subject of wood, and a man has not far to travel to-day to find that their education has but little improved. The incident of the wainscot oak sunk deep into my mind, and I determined to profit by it. I purchased some fine large logs of American white oak and planked them for future handrailing; thus swinging to the opposite extreme of a soft working cheap oak. I had not long to wait for further “oak handrails,” this time from an architect who was building for himself.

One would have considered him a practical man, for he had graduated from the bench to a builder and contractor, and from that to an architect with a large practice. I put in the American oak, not without sundry misgivings, and coloured and polished all off nicely. The architect was satisfied, and complimented me on the work, saying the eight flights of handrailing to the four houses were “the prettiest job he had ever seen.”

I admit it was pretty work, the colour of the oak being far more uniform than the wainscot of that day which was floated down the Russian rivers on rafts, to be stained brown a foot or two at either end and three or four inches up from the soles, a fault we are able to surmount in these days of continental railways.

My gossiping story must end, as I do not know how the reader will take to my new line of literature. I may add that an American called on me one day with a publication of his, “A new system of square cut;” our interview was rather amusing and he admitted that I was the first man he had come across whose system he could not tumble to.

I asked him if he could tell to the eighth of an inch how far he could bring the joint of his wreath down his bottom or up his top ramps, the planks being one-eighth of an inch thicker than the width of his rail. He admitted that he could not tell, and that he had a mechanical place for his joints. I found in small wells I could bring the wreaths a long way on the ramps. In one case, as a curiosity, I made an eight winder wreath to a small well all in one length, without joint in the centre.

I have been writing of over thirty years ago, before I deserted the building for the timber trade, but one never forgets a craft learnt in early days. I was reminded of this about two years back when staying with a friend some fifty miles from this port. He took me into a bank he was building, in which were two flights of good stairs, and asked me if I could find a man in Hull who could make and fix the handrails, saying his foreman had put up the stairs but could not do the handrails, as he had neglected to learn the art from his father.

I knew of none, but told him that if be was really cornered, I would come to his house for a day or two’s holiday, and stand over his foreman, guiding his hands until he had all the handrails jointed up and squared on the top side. This I did to my friend’s astonishment, as he had no idea that I had ever learned any other trade than that of a timber merchant and saw-mill proprietor. This I look upon as my last association with the now almost lost art of handrailing.

William Stevenson

The Journal of the Society of Estate Clerks of Works – February 1, 1903

—Jeff Burks

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13 Responses to A Reminiscence on Handrailing

  1. Jeff Burks says:

    There were many tools invented to assist in laying out handrail wreaths. I have assembled the relevant US patents here.

    • jimtangent says:

      Most all these gadgets were versions of the “falling compass” and are evidence of great tribulations associated with learning the drafting part of the trade. They were marketed as “easy, short-cut tools” with promises of success for one and all. It was also an attempt to move all the practical work into the workshop and out of the drafting department. I’m quite sure I would have had very little use for any of these toys. Robert Riddell himself, advocated his index finger and string for drawing most all elliptic curves and I concur.. .

  2. Ryan McNabb says:

    A good description of this process in a modern context…with information on the modern text for the job.

  3. Eric R says:

    Absolutely incredible work.
    Those pictures speak of craftsmanship that is very rare today.
    Another great article Jeff.
    Thank you.

  4. Any time I feel like I’ve gone a bit long with one of my blog posts, I like to go back to some of the articles from the turn of the last century that Jeff posts. Then they look positively brief.

    I’m bookmarking this one.

  5. I absolutely love spiral staircases…something hypnotic about them.

  6. woodworkerme says:

    long read,but very nice work that is seldom matched in modern times,

  7. Jim Baldwin for the win. I sent him an e-mail a few years back and he was very helpful. http://www.thisiscarpentry.com/2011/11/25/traditional-tangent-handrail/

  8. admiralbumblebee says:

    Can someone explain the square/bevel cut that was mentioned?

    • Jeff Burks says:

      The wreath is the part of a handrail that is curved in both plan and elevation.

      Bevel-Cut is the system of preparing wreaths in handrailing in which the sides of the wreath piece are shaped by vertical cutting when the plank from which they are cut is placed at an inclination parallel with the pitch of the stair.

      Square-Cut is the system in which the joints in the handrail are made square, or perpendicular to the surface of the material from which the wreath is cut.

      The upside of the bevel-cut system is that it requires less knowledge of geometry. The carpenter can guess on the size of the plank and use a sort of ‘scribe it in position’ technique to acquire the cut lines.

      The downside of the bevel-cut system is that it wastes a lot of valuable material. It requires the carpenter to work with a much thicker plank, which takes more labor to shape the blank before it is molded.

    • jimtangent says:

      Bumblebee, it’d difficult to describe without pictures, but by the old bevel-cut (cylinder) method, a single wood plank was fitted or coped to a standing cylinder-form, by cutting and removing material from the inside (concave) surface until the inside fit the form and followed the trajectory of the proposed helical handrail. These bevel cuts were the first cuts and beginning of the formation of the handrail wreath. The outside (convex) surface was gauged from this and the top and bottom edges were taken from reference marks along the form, or by by bendable side-patterns, known as falling molds. The handrail joints by this method, were usually left plumb. It was Peter Nicholson who first published a drafting method (in English) of drawing this process out on paper. Now working from patterns they could eliminating the cylinder forms.. He also devised a method of effectively canting the wood-plank in two directions or an oblique plane-angle, by positioning the pattern per a beveled plank edge. (and no longer strictly parallel to the pitch of the stair, as Jeff suggests). This is what won him well-deserved accolades and a leading place in our trade-history. He was a bit of a genius by all accounts.

      The “tangent and square-cut method” of Robert Riddell, was entirely new and not widely accepted at first, as it was difficult to learn and easy to make mistakes. By this method though, the curvature and twist of the handrail, as well as the butt-joints, were all predetermined on paper. Now craftsmen, working strictly from patterns called face molds, had everything they needed on the pattern and their “world by the tail!” Now the curve or arc of a handrail segment, could be cut-out flat on the band saw. This includes the joints which are also cut “square to the plank” (hence “the square-cut method). The twist bevels or torsion required for helical formation, were cut afterward from the square-cut stock. All this allowed for individual arcs to be nested together and cut from glued-up wide boards etc. It also eliminated the long objectionable bevel cuts associated with the old system. Even rail-bolts were invented to facilitate the new “square-cut butt-joint” All this was happening in the USA in the last half of the 19th century and from Jeff’s excellent article, we get a taste of how it was being disseminated abroad.

  9. jimtangent says:

    Wow that was fascinating although a bit-to-much blatant braggadocio for my tastes (reminds me to much of me). I also can’t see trading-in that trade to become a lumberman? Sounds a little suspect…(I was an accomplished concert pianist but gave it up in favor of the piano moving business).

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