How to choose a contractor

Simple. Get references first. Second, do your homework by reading what I have to say. I started woodwork and finishing by repairing ancient spinning wheels and parlor organs as a kid. Both were in high demand in Cape Breton in the 70s and I was a super provider, I didn't charge for my work at 12-14:) Visit Isaac Smith's bad and breakfast to see a sample of my work. His historic farm is worth the trip. 

I read endlessly in ancient texts on how the early American and European furniture was finished, From there I branched out into Edward Heron Allen's book Violin Making. Putting it all together, today we have the same woods, better systems for smoothing and preparing it, and a better optical understanding of what "finish" really means. Wood is at first glance a color, that's an illusion, the ingredients and structure mean it is really a color filter that returns a broad range of tone and undertone/overtones to the eye and to it's surroundings. Polishing the wood to eliminate frayed opaque fiber and sanding debri is the key. A vacuum based sanding system that keeps the wood cool is essential, heated resins (major source of color and variation) become dull if overheated.

Now, the wood is ideally as clear and optically transparent on the surface as it can be. This is really 90% of finishing. Applying a stain and rubbing in or coating with "varnish" like urethane is a way of locking out dirt, protecting from UV and oxidization both of which dull and change the photoreactive compounds in the wood.

Secondly, it provides an effect largely misunderstood but essential. A clear finish material wets the wood grain, causing it to become more transparent, very much like wetting paper. Deeper access to the inner rich colors of the wood... Then there is the surface reflection of light from the sealing coat. This has a symbiotic relationship to the underlying colors. Light strikes the surface, a portion is reflected directly, (shine) a larger portion by far passes into the wood and is reflected off off many interior resin and minerals. These bounce out of the wood at various angles providing rich character that responds differently to every light and every color in its surroundings. That's what you see in very rare old furniture and musical instruments.. Stradivarius violins come to mind. 

Finally, this process has to be done during construction of the furniture or stair/railing. This is pretty obvious, one can't sand and prepare surfaces that have mating surfaces joining at right angles! A clean end to end stroke is essential when sanding and scraping the parts, Only after each part is finish ready should it be assembled. 

Good luck!

Replacing wood balusters and refinishing old railings

Dont. Just kidding at least partly. Oak railings as the builder leaves them are seldom actually finished, they just have a couple coats of urethane at best over unsanded surfaces. This results in the dull lusterless finish you see, typically a dreary yellowish color. I've already mentioned that sanding is the key to this issue in another post. Sanding old railing is a different story. Hand oil and soil is present in any railing "builder finished" as the wood is largely open to the atmosphere. Then, the innocent come along and sand it down, make it pretty.... hours of hard labor. Then comes disaster: the finish applied promptly rejects the wood in a nasty fish eye way, rather like water beading up on an oily surface. This is the acid and soil still trapped deep in the wood. The labor required is wasted on two counts, one being that the quality of the railing will never be better refinished or not, and the other that it will take far more labor and thus cost to achieve a still substandard railing than replacing it would have cost! 

Then, lets talk balusters. Inserting balusters is not a forbidding job. Its best done after removing old balusters and if needed drilling oversize holes under the railing. Slip the baluster down into the floor hole, then mark the side about 3/4 inch above the hole in the bottom of the railing and cut it. Make sure you cut both ends if you want a specific position for the decorative element. Apply epoxy (8x Loctite works extremely well and is remarkably strong and effective.) Don't use the 3x type, it runs and makes a horrid chemical smell that may give you a wicked headache. It's important to dry fit all the balusters then take them out one at a time and wet out the hole with adhesive. Then just slide the baluster up into the railing and back down into the floor. Align it and make sure it stays aligned for 12 hours or you will NOT be able to reset it 90% of the time. It will seem welded in place. 

All that said, new balusters on builder grade railings can look fair, but they often look like a dramatic upgrade dragged down by a substandard railing. 

Tools

The status quo of tooling for over the post railing systems is archaic. Improvements are available but expensive and marginal as they retain the basic concept used for centuries. I use a proprietary system that ensures a perfect fit, and reduces labor cost while improving overall strength and quality significantly. I'll be publishing this method soon, watch here for news! At this point the system is going through patent review so no more can be said but I am really excited to be able to help others escape the torture of traditional railing fitting measuring and assembly! This is a professional grade system which can pay for itself in a week for the pro, but I plan to make loaners available for the do it yourselfer so don't give up... Video training will be available as well as phone support and on the job support via face time. 

How to fasten a 100 year Newel Post!

Fastening newels so they will last 100 years is a nice thought to have in mind when performing this task. There are some factors to consider to make that idea something like reality. Builder railings, the ones that came with the house, are often wobbly from day one. That's because the posts are often not anchored to the floor at all. Instead they are fastened to a board and the board is in turn screwed to the floor. I have removed hundreds of these and always find brittle drywall screws or just finish nails fastening the post. 

To do this job properly one has to recognize the obstacles and solve them. The first is that the post will be as solid as the structure it is fastened to, no more. This structure is a multi layered sandwich of flooring, sub floor, and framing. All were nailed down, all have air space between them. Unless we can compress (eliminate) the air space our newel will be forever loose. 

To attempt this yourself, ignore the fastening systems on the market. Instead, use six inch high grade steel construction screws. These should be set at a steep angle downward, inside a shallow inch diameter pocket that can be plugged once the newel is set. The screw pocket should be approx. 2 inches from the floor. A torx head number 10 screw is minimal. Use four, two on each of opposing sides of the post. Predrill your screw hole, set the newel in place and lightly drill a little bit into the flooring on each. Hold the post from drifting while you do this. 

Now, add a very small amount of Loctite 8x moisture cured urethane to the bottom of the post. This is optional, the torque and pressure of the screws is enough. Drive one screw in, until it just compresses the pocket slightly and does not move the post much. Drive the opposing screw equally. Repeat on the other two screws. Increase torque on each screw while monitoring the post position, keeping it square and true to the chosen placement spot. When it is dead tight the flooring layers will have compressed tightly together. You have eliminated any looseness and spring loaded the post with the compressed flooring so that it will remain tight for many years. 

I have found this results in an astonishing improvement over the common double ended bolt method and indeed any other method I've used. Finally, plug and sand the holes over the screws.