Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Squeezing in the Staircase

When I began to draft the floor plan for my Tuscan villa-fattoria, I envisioned an entrance hall with a sweeping, curved staircase and lovely Tuscan wrought iron for the stair railing and the balusters. But as the planning stage progressed, I had to face the fact that there was simply not space for all the features that I wanted for the villa.

I sacrificed the portico; the loggia had to be moved from the side of the house to the front; the bedroom balconies were shrunk down to near non-existence; the courtyard may end up being a few stepping stones - and the staircase is more squeezed than sweeping. You'd think that I was building in miniature!

Nevertheless, construction needed to continue in its pared-down state, so I pulled up my bootstraps and began to build that squeezed-in staircase.

You can see the big curved pieces of styrofoam that I thought I'd need for the grand sweep of the staircase. What I ended up with was a slightly rounded edge on the first step. The squeeze begins! 

Building the stairs from the bottom up. Note that sweepingly squeezed curve on the first step.

My plan was to have the stairs curve up to the top of the wall that I put up temporarily so that I could judge the correct height of the stairs. But, as the stairs curved and reached toward the top of the wall, I reached the realization that the stairs would end in a narrow hallway instead of the stair landing. This is an example of something called lack of foresight; poor planning is another way to put it. I seem to have mastered both with no effort.

So I dismantled all but the first four stairs; so far I've found no fault with these. (But then I haven't gotten very far.) Then I started building the curve again.

Just a few stairs short; now I have to perform a maneuver equivalent to making a tight U-turn on a narrow street. Or an unexpected about-face during drill. 

The stairs have performed the turn-about and are hopefully now headed in the right direction.
Of course, I had to make many changes in the upper-level floor plan to accommodate the new exit point. I had to move the bathroom, shrink the bedroom balconies, and add some doors - among other things. I do wish that I had just a glimmer of architectural knowledge. What a lot of time and trouble could be saved!

This is a long view of the entrance/dining room wall with a small piece of simulated ceiling so that I could be sure the stairs ended at the right level. That light you see through the window is the setting sun. How long have I been in this room?

The sharp curve of the new staircase is awkward, so I thought I'd try putting up a wall around the top portion of the stairs.

But that made the tight space seem even more closed in and took up too much visual space beside the arched door to the dining room.

So down came the wall - but now something had to be done about the bulk of the top stairs.

I cut off the bulkiest part...

And tried to carve out a graceful curve underneath the top stairs.

I had reached the point where I needed to leave well enough alone and start putting on the plaster. (Or joint compound in this case.)

I made sure that I applied a good, thick layer of joint compound; there were a multitude of sins to be covered. That big pig that you can see through the window is our only family pet. He's made of concrete. His name is Wilbur.

While I waited for that thick batch of joint compound to dry, I started work on the stair balusters, for which I found some nicely twisted nails of the right length. I hoped that the flat nail heads would be helpful in anchoring the stair rail. That proved to be a major mistake, as you'll see later. I also experimented with two sizes of silver beads for ornamentation. 

I painted the nails a glossy black. A scrap piece of styrofoam was put to good use to hold the nails in place during the painting.

I also used a piece of styrofoam and some nails to hold the beads in place while I changed them from silver to gold, using a metallic gold paint.

Finally, the joint compound was dry enough to sand. So I sanded and sanded and sanded. Have you noticed that I can never just write that I sanded something? I need to repeat the word over and over. But does anyone ever just "sand" anything? No. You sand and sand and sand. (Then you actually sand some more, but I won't go on about it.)

I drilled holes for the balusters at the stair edges. 

Ready to paint the stairs to look like Tuscan sandstone, a common building material.

The pale grey base coat is on....

...followed by smudges of a darker grey, a bit of taupe, a dab of white.

I found a pattern that I wanted to use to stencil the stair risers. I traced the pattern onto light-weight mylar and cut out the pattern with my smallest stencil knife.

I started with a coral stencil paint for the entire pattern.

Then I used a combination of colored markers to enhance the coral stencil and rubbed the stencil lightly with fine steel wool to fade the colors.

I applied a peach/apricot base coat of paint to the stair wall.

The peach base coat is the color that I will use throughout the lower level of the villa, except for perhaps the kitchen.

I've been holding on to two small cards that are the color that I'd like to achieve on the villa walls, using various color washes. This color combination is darker than it should be.

I added more of the antique white wash, and the finished color is just what I wanted!

I needed a flexible but sturdy material for the curved stair rail, and after experimenting with different textures and strengths, I found that this cotton cording would work the best. I curved the ends of the two lengths and painted the cording black.  I decided on two separate railings because the sharp angle at the curve of the stairs didn't leave much space for a baluster on two of the stairs; the balusters looked crowded and awkward. I left them out.

I decided that some embellishment would enhance the curved ends of the railings, so I found some slightly rounded buttons in my button box and painted them with the metallic gold paint that I used on the baluster trim.

I spent much time getting the balusters glued into the pre-drilled holes in a straight line. When they seemed firm and sturdy and straight, I tried to glue the railings onto the nail heads. But the cotton cording that I had experimented with, successfully, decided to rebel at the actual, permanently installed balusters and would not fit the steep incline. I finally gave up and quit trying to make the railing fit, for fear of making the balusters all wobbly.

My husband, Robert, came to my rescue. He went out and bought a bolt cutter. (I had already tried to cut off the nail heads with tin snips. No way.) Robert cut off each nail head with a quick snap, and the cotton cord railings went on with only the usual, normal, trials and tribulations. But they did go on satisfactorily. I glued in the gold buttons as the last step. 

And voila!

The villa-fattoria has a staircase! It may be less than sweeping and grand, but it is a curved staircase with a wrought-iron banister, just as my (revised) vision called for!

And now it's the Month of March, which has come to Lincoln, Nebraska in the form of some creature that is neither lion nor lamb, but something in between. Something that has only our good and our warmth in mind, I hope. The work on my Tuscan villa-fattoria continues no matter what the weather, so I will post my progress, whatever it may be, whether the creature brings Balmy weather or Blizzard. Enjoy this month, my friends. I wish you all the best that it has to offer.


  1. Te ha dado mucho trabajo esa escalera,pero el resultado ha valido la pena,es preciosa!!!!!!
    Y Wilbur te observa desde la ventana!!!

    1. Hi Pilar,
      Yes, it was a lot of work, and very messy work too! But I was happy with it at last. I'm very glad, though, that the villa will have just the one staircase! Thanks for your nice comments.

  2. Hello Marjorie,
    Fantastic work my friend. The shape of your staircase is not an easy one, but you managed to create a beautiful and realistic staircase. The nails are such a great idea to make beautiful balusters. Great idea! It might not be the shape you envisioned, but I think it is perfect for the style of the house and is quite elegant. The banister is great! I've seen many miniaturists use cord before, but yours looks right and is the right size. I can't wait to see more Marjorie, you are creating a masterpiece...again.
    Big hug

    1. Hello, Giac.
      Thanks for writing such nice comments. That staircase was a handful and a headache to build, but I admit that it turned out better than I hoped, considering all the setbacks that I encountered! Of course, it was also interesting and fun, in spite of all the negative feelings that I had at the time. Building in miniature usually provides its own saving grace, thankfully. So now I can truthfully say that I'm very eager and excited to get on with the next thing!

  3. Hi Marjorie! I love your stairs! with pattern look fantastic. Great job!
    Warm hugs

    1. Hello, Magda.
      I'm glad that you had a chance to visit my blog and read my "staircase" post. Thanks for your interest and your comments.

  4. Hi Marjorie! Your stairs look Wonderful!!! Your trial and error methods do lead you through some challenges.... but you have succeeded to make a beautiful stair... and probably is just the right amount of "grandeur" for this house! I know what you mean when thinking about the ideas you wish you had room to build....minis become pretty large when we build castles and manors! LOL! My "castle" dollhouse is almost six feet wide and five feet tall! Or it will be when I finally finish it LOL! I am enjoying seeing your methods of building with the foam and the joint compound! It really looks perfect!!!

    1. Hi Betsy - Thanks for taking the time to visit my blog post, and thanks for your continuing interest in my building methods. I appreciate your comments. I am surprised to learn the size of your castle! I thought my villa was big; maybe I should have increased the size in order to fit in all my "wishes." But then I'd never have been able to find a permanent place for it! You're so right - minis do tend to grow by leaps and bounds all of their own accord!

  5. Wow your stairs turned out amazing. All your very hard work was worth it as you have created a gorgeous sweeping stairs. I love the how you used the nails fantastic idea. I am looking forward to seeing more.
    Hugs Maria

  6. Hi, Maria, and thank you for your complimentary comments! The stairs were a lot of work - maybe the hardest part of this villa construction. (But I should knock on wood - I have a LONG way to go yet!) Thanks for stopping by.

  7. Oh YOU are soooo Clever and a gal after my own heart when it comes to trying out new techniques! :D I LOVE the idea of using nails for the posts and the cotton cording for the handrail!!! The end results are PERFECT for your sweeping staircase which is yet another feature which I truly admire. I LOVE IT I LOVE IT I LOVE IT!!!! :D


  8. Hi Marjorie, Followed you over from Studio E . I can see that the twists in the nail would give the impression of an Italian balustrade. Very clever.. Good work Robert. I bet he had always wanted to buy bolt cutters!
    I made my balustrade with bamboo skewers and decorative beads with electrical wire for the rail. It is easy to manipulate and paint.
    Looking forward to more.

  9. Beautiful work on this staircase. I think stairs are one of the hardest things to make but so important to get right. I took two weeks to build the cantilever stairs in my fairy house and yet I know it looks like it was no work at all!

    Love the balustrade - ingenious. And a helpful husband is worth his weight in gold.
    Mini hugs

  10. Beautiful work on this staircase. I think stairs are one of the hardest things to make but so important to get right. I took two weeks to build the cantilever stairs in my fairy house and yet I know it looks like it was no work at all!

    Love the balustrade - ingenious. And a helpful husband is worth his weight in gold.
    Mini hugs

  11. Fantastic! Loved reading about the process and your perseverance! It's lovely!

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