What I'm Seeing Now

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I'm Always Impressed When I See A 100+ Year Old Newel Post

The newel post is the end post of a guardrail on a staircase and I am always impressed when I see a 100+ year old newel post.

Why?  Because they are firm!

In the photo to the left, the only new material in the photo is the flooring.  The rest is original to this old Virginia farm house.  Even the stair treads are in good shape.  And they are refinished, but delightfully worn at the edges!

One of the biggest complaints in newer construction is that the newel post wobbles.

If you can find me a more-recent newel post installation that will last 100+ years, let me know...

The reason for a wobbly newel post is installation.

And so often a poor installation involves the ubiquitous drywall screw!

The installation to the right, which uses a very firm plate of metal called a "button plug," has to be attached firmly to work long term.  The right screws and material underneath have to be used.  By right material, the wood under the vertical screws has to be solid and very strong.  It is very vertical and does not flair much for support.

And the structure of the whole thing is okay.  However, the structure of the whole thing is very local to the base of the post.

Notice how a skyscraper flairs larger at the bottom, and/or its structure extends very deeply into the ground?  A newel post has to do the same thing for long-term firmness.

That extension is mimicked by the post attachment to the left.  It would work very well given two things - strong screws and firm structure underneath into which the screws go!  Then the screw heads would be capped and professionally hidden.

Why do the historically-old newel posts last so long? 

1.  They are typically very wide at the bottom.  I seldom see them less than 5" and sometimes they are as wide as 10".

2.  They extend below the surface where they are viewed.  Some interesting examples of that can be seen in the diagram above from a 100+ year old book in my collection (notice the wonderful vocabulary used!).  Notice how the post at the bottom of the stairs extends below the floor?  It can extend many inches and there it would be bolted two or three ways into solid substructure.  Most often that attachment is not visible.

Builders don't often take the time in new construction to do things the "old" way.  And the carpentry seen in the photo where the post is fitted around the stairs and stringers is very hard to find.

Plus, the availability of drywall screws is too tempting!  So the posts wobble!

My recommendation:  lots about the "old" is better than the "new!"  Certainly the professionalism of the "craftsman old" exceeds the less-professional "tract new!"  And necessarily.  Houses are built quicker now, for reasons that weren't around 100+ years ago.  But you can't pay too much for the kind of craftsmanship that existed in the old days...

 

 

Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC  

Based in Bristow, serving all of Northern Virginia.

Office (703) 330-6388   Cell (703) 585-7560

www.jaymarinspect.com


Comment balloon 38 commentsJay Markanich • October 02 2014 04:33AM

Comments

no fashion like the old fashioned when it comes to solid construction...and the old world charm of beautiful woodwork.

Posted by Sally K. & David L. Hanson, WI Real Estate Agents - Luxury - Divorce (EXP Realty 414-525-0563) over 6 years ago

I think many times the older reflects a period of pride in work whereas today its more about the paycheck!

Posted by Gary L. Waters Broker Associate, Bucci Realty, Fifteen Years Experience in Brevard County (Bucci Realty, Inc.) over 6 years ago

Good morning Jay,

It is fun to take clients to different "new" builder's and show them the differences in construction.

Make yourself a great day.

Posted by Raymond E. Camp, Licensed Real Estate Salesperson Greater Rochester (Howard Hanna Real Estate Services) over 6 years ago

And this was a beautiful house S&D, which married really well the old and new.

That new room on the back is the old open breezeway!

Gary - there was more pride then, real apprenticeship and true craftsmanship.

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) over 6 years ago

Raymond - that's a great practice.  Sometimes people ask me if this or that is a good builder.  My answer is that it depends on the supervisor who is on site everyday and the quality of the subs.

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) over 6 years ago

Good morning Jay Markanich mass production has diminished the quality of materials today.... the days of hand crafted materials is something we need to preserve and try to use in our custom homes.... I remember building an addition decades ago and the main beam was a hand hewn member from an old barn.....

Posted by Barbara Todaro, Previously Affiliated with The Todaro Team (RE/MAX Executive Realty - Retired ) over 6 years ago

Yes, this is certainly an example of they don't make them like they used to.  The newer ones constantly wobble and they aren't attractive.  I have many customers looking to fix or replace them.

Posted by Debbie Gartner, The Flooring Girl & Blog Stylist -Dynamo Marketers (The Flooring Girl) over 6 years ago

We still more closely approach professionalism with custom homes, Barbara, but even then they have to be inspected by an independent party.

Old barn wood is cool!  Be sure to bake it though - full of insect eggs!

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) over 6 years ago

And that replacement can be problematic Debbie.  Often there is cracked or damaged substructure and nothing to screw into.

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) over 6 years ago

I had new railings put in my house several years ago. The two newel posts are anchored below the floor to framing members. They are very sturdy. Any posts done poorly from a 100 years ago are gone, simply because they we not done by quality craftsmen. Poorly installed materials do not hold up over time. To say things were better a 100 years ago is in my mind inaccurate. The cream always rises to the top. 

Posted by James Quarello, Connecticut Home Inspector (JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC) over 6 years ago

Craftsmen can be found today.  They are custom home builders and master carpenters building very expensive homes.

I had a home buyer ask me about the trim on his beautiful NV luxury home in Potomac.  The "helpers" were installing the front door trim.  It was a one piece premade piece.  The buyer asked why they are using the premade piece of trim and not "hand making it". 

I told him that he could get such hand made trim on his new home if he were willing to pay the price.  Of course, he wasn't. 

Posted by Lenn Harley, Real Estate Broker - Virginia & Maryland (Lenn Harley, Homefinders.com, MD & VA Homes and Real Estate) over 6 years ago

Jim - the only firm statements I make are that I am impressed when I see 100+ year old posts (it could be that I have seen new posts in historic homes, but I don't remember), and that old "craftsmanship" exceeds the newer "less professional."  If those statements are inaccurate I stand accused.  If your new newel post lasts 100+ years let me know!  And I found the vocabulary in that old diagram fascinating.  "Spandrel framing ... carriage ..."  How cool is that?

Lenn - they can be found today!  And are they too expensive?  I love pointing out great work on custom homes to my clients.

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) over 6 years ago

Jay, I have never seen or heard of the metal plates you show.  The newel posts I see extend to the the bottom of the joists below (or lower) and are blocked in place between the joists.  Either that or they wobble :)  Here is a picture from my 1937 Audel:

Newell

 

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) over 6 years ago

That plate is common here Charlie.  And your diagram brings a tear to the eye!

I just looked it up and a used, "very good condition" 1937 Audel is available for $12.60.  Apparently the only demand for it is people like you and me...

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) over 6 years ago

I have two complete sets of the 1937---they were my dad's

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) over 6 years ago

It looks like quite the series - many topics.  How many in a set Charlie?

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) over 6 years ago

Wow, who knew so much went into these newel posts. Oh that's right, you did :)

Posted by Suzanne Otto, Your Montgomery County PA home stager (Six Twenty Designs) over 6 years ago

Suzanne - anything that is sound and long-lasting is so for a reason!  And when people make things look easy - magic, piano, swimming, anything - it is because they are practiced and practiced and practiced and adept.

It takes a minimum of 1000 throws to learn how to throw a curve ball.  But only then can you begin to perfect it and develop your own styles...

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) over 6 years ago

Jay, I absolutely love this discussion! Call me weird I guess. The old drawings are particularly interesting... It's rare to find newel posts in new construction that are very solid!

Posted by Tom White, Franklin Homes Realty LLC, Franklin TN (Franklin Homes Realty LLC (615) 495-0752 or www.FranklinHomesRealty.com) over 6 years ago

You probably see a lot of this old stuff down your way Tom. 

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) over 6 years ago

Four books in a set

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) over 6 years ago

Jay, the last "craftsman carpenter" that I know told me that he is retiring.  I could cry!

Posted by Fred Griffin Tallahassee Real Estate, Licensed Florida Real Estate Broker (Fred Griffin Real Estate) over 6 years ago

I saw Electrical, Mechanical Drawing and Drawing Design.  We called it Mechanical Drawing when I was in junior high!  Probably a fascinating series Charlie.  I really liked the vocab on that old diagram in the post.  They didn't have stringers then - it was Spandrel Framing!

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) over 6 years ago

Fred - they are getting far fewer and further between!

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) over 6 years ago

Jay, interesting observation!  In my 100 year old house, there is a lot of funk, but my newel post is strong as an ox.

Posted by Patricia Kennedy, Home in the Capital (RLAH Real Estate) over 6 years ago

That's funny Pat, because I remember trying to wobble your newel post once to see if it was strong!

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) over 6 years ago

There was this woodworking show on AETN not so long ago where a guy would make chairs, dressers, tables and a host of other things wood related.  He used the old tools and made them in the old style.  Just looking at the quality and workmanship involved was just wonderful to look at.  Sad that tradition has almost gone away

Posted by James Dray, Exceptional Agents, Outstanding Results (Fathom Realty) over 6 years ago

It must be fun to see those old techniques employed James.  Not too many people even familiar with the old tools, much less having the ability to use them productively.

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) over 6 years ago

Jay, sometimes the old is much better than the new! Enjoy your day!

Posted by Wayne Martin, Real Estate Broker - Retired (Wayne M Martin) over 6 years ago

It is Wayne.  And if not "better," than very often more pleasing to the eye!

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) over 6 years ago

Jay, Book 1:  Tools, steel square, saw filing, joinery, furniture

Book 2: Builders mathematics, drawing plans, specifications, estimating

Book 3: House and roof framing, laying out foundations

Book 4: Doors, windows, stair building, millwork, painting

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) over 6 years ago

That's very fun Charlie.  They are full of principles and things, like "mathematics," that a lot of people do not employ today, or maybe even understand.  How many carpenters do "spandrel framing" now!?

I have some old tools from my grandfather, from whenever, and I find that they are very ergonomic.  The grips of the screwdrivers are similar to the "new' ergonomic screwdrivers now.  Modern science is coming around!

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) over 6 years ago

My niche is Victorian/Edwardian homes. We're a sorry lot when newell posts cause a fluttering of the heart. LOL

Posted by Mimi Foster, Voted Colorado Springs Best Realtor (Falcon Property Solutions) over 6 years ago

Mimi - I remember you telling me about your restored home!  What a wonderful, and probably difficult, project that must have been!

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) over 6 years ago

Actually, we restored about 12 of them, and it was a fascinating journey. The vintage items we found behind walls (and in newell posts!) became a background story in my second book (THUNDER STRUCK. A favorite find was a walking stick that was carved with pictures in the bark, and signed by the carver in 1903. If you've done old houses, I'm sure you've found the turn-of-the-century newspapers that insulated the pipes and were in perfect condition from being behind the walls. Seriously, that kind of thing makes my heart happy ;)  

Posted by Mimi Foster, Voted Colorado Springs Best Realtor (Falcon Property Solutions) over 6 years ago

Mimi - my wife owned a 19th century row house on Maryland Avenue in DC just down from the capital building.  It was doors down from Frederick Douglass's house.  I helped her restore it.  When I removed an old fireplace mantel (with 40 coats of paint) it had grease pencil writing on the back.  One date was 1839 and someone's name, perhaps the carpenter.

I dipped the mantel and stained and finished it.  It's a beautiful black walnut.

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) over 6 years ago

Since Colorado Springs wasn't settled until the 1870s, 1839 sounds exciting! ;) One favorite find was removing a mantle and finding an 1896 photo - and we all were totally spooked that the man in the picture looked EXACTLY like the young man that was at our home just then visiting one of our daughters. No possible relation, but they could have been the same person. 

And rarely do we find anything other than oak, maple, and pine. One time we found mahogany on a newell post, but it's pretty rare here. 

Posted by Mimi Foster, Voted Colorado Springs Best Realtor (Falcon Property Solutions) over 6 years ago

Spooky about the photo Mimi!  And old is old!  And likely full of craftsmanship when you look at it.

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) over 6 years ago

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