HP Construction
Stair Builder Stan

Stan Foster is a master stairbuilder that I have had the pleasure of meeting via the internet.  He has built a career out of his passion for curved stairs, and his work is always in demand.  Stan and I may never meet in person, but his work and his story have touched me.  Perhaps you will feel the same when you read his account below, published with his permission.  You can email Stan at strbldr@yahoo.com or call him at 217-419-4967.  He is located in Paxton, Illinois


I have been asked many times where I get my passion for stairbuilding.....so in a nutshell....I am warning you, its a BIG nut!!  ha.....so here it is...

I graduated from HS in 1972,,,yea,,,I am getting on the "other side" .   I was always interested in math and physics and received straight A's in them.  Did I place in the top 1/4 of my class of 110...no.   I have a problem that if I am not interested in something such as English, History,.,etc...I give it no effort.,..but the math and science I would go at them with an obsession. 

I was enrolled at DeVry Institute of Technology in Chicago,  but never attended.  I went up late in the summer before classes to find an apartment. I had the biggest gut ache as I could not stand all the concrete and steel and people.  I came from a rural area and I just had not grown up yet.  I dropped out before even attending.  I remember my dad saying that  I could work for him on the farm while I figured out what I wanted to do.  Let me mention that dad had a large farming operation..all his land was paid for...and I had a silver spoon situation.  However...I am extremely independant like my dad....and I just didnt want any special offers.  So I just basically worked for wages,,,bought only a corn planter in my 15 years of farming.   I hated my situation.  I had not found myself and I can remember many times just going out by myself and sobbing.   15 years of this started an embryo for one very large catalyst that was about to bust out of its shell.

This shell cracked one day in June of 1986.  My dad and I were sitting in the truck watching some grain being loaded in a wagon.  I was a very timid and quiet person and for me to say what I was to say to my dad...took years of this festering misery with my farming occupation.  I finally mustered up the courage to say to dad...." I am going to find somethine else to do after this year".    Dad just looked at me....and said...."WHERE are YOU going to find a job?"   

Man...I got to tell you this hurts still to type...but this was the turning point in my life.   Even though dad was stating cold reality..because at that time it was hard to find any kind of work...I took it personal.  I didnt utter a word, but my soul was boiling.  I had never felt so diminished in all my life...

I went home and had been sitting in my chair staring at the wall...and finally my wife asked..."What is wrong with you tonight?"   I said with a tear in my eye...that I was done farming after this year and I dont care if I am stocking shelves at K-mart...I was going to do something else.

The fall farm work went on...and I had been searching the want ads for weeks.  I found an ad from a contractor looking for a carpenter.  I called up and was hired over the phone.  I was so elated to have a  job that paid $7.50 an hour.

I told my dad and he didnt say a word.  Enough about that area...it took him years to realize I meant what I said. 

I showed up for my new job in late November...I had all new equipment,..even a new flanel shirt.   My contractor seeing me for the first time...walked over and said...new tool belt?   then he pulled my hammer out...and said  new hammer?  then my tape measure...and said  "new tape measure?    Just how much experience do you have?

I knew this was a defining moment, and with all the quick and cool thinking I could muster...I replied   "After today I will have one full day of experience!?   My employer paused..then just laughed the biggest laugh.  I didnt know if I was coming back for a 2nd day or not.  Well...I did make it and stayed with him till the spring.   I was working on some trim when the best and the biggest contractor was talking to my boss how one of his trim carpenters left to go on his own and they were short of help.  This is the spring of 1987 when the big building boom started.

I high tailed it down to this major company over noon hour and applied.  The boss asked me if I could build stairways.   I again had to think fast...I was thinking....he asked if I "could" build stairways...not if I "have".   I answered immeditately, even though I had never built so much as a two step stoop...."Yes..I can build stairways!"   He said "Good, youre hired and I have a stairway for you to build in a few weeks"    I went home with a catalyst burning so deep and researched everything I could find about stairways..mind you, no google or computer back then.

I started my new job...and with some desperate prayers to God...built that stairway.    I was called in after it was completed and received a one dollar raise.  Now mind you...after a year at this company,...25 cents or maybe 50 cents was the norm.

My employer then asked me another question which had me digging fast for a comeback.  He asked..."Stan, how many stairs have you built?   I replied...."You wouldnt believe how many!   I got away with not revealing my secret of this being my first stairway.

I was blessed with stairs after stairs..after stairs.  i loved the challenge and loved life again.

Well this catalyst really started getting out of hand thanks to Fine Homebuilding.   I still have the magazine that changed my life forever.  It was an article about three curved stairbuilders...one especially that worked in the sanctity of his own stairshop.  I drooled over that article repeatedly.  The catalyst was having gasoling dumped on it now.

I tried for a few years to let my employer have me build a curved stairway.  No luck...I was going to have to find one by moonlighting.   I had the first section of my stairshop built because I was prefabbing straight stairs for my employer and installing them after hours. 

I went to look at a moonlight job for another straight stairway..when the contractor thrust a set of prints in front of me showing a curved stairway.  "Can you build this?"   I again dug deep and knowing I had never built a curved stairway,..said with confidence   "Yes, I can build that"   He asked me to give him a price.  I went out to my truck and conservatively figured out a price that had plenty of "head scratching and learning time in it" and went back in with a quote.  I ended up coming home with a $5000 down payment that day!  

I remember ordering all the materials...then when they arrived ...I went out to my stair shop to start on this stairs.  I had an inmediate dose of reality right then.  I had spent all that $5000 on parts and I had the biggest gut ache come across me. It was an almost unsurmountable task.  I just remenber making two fists. and saying outloud in my shop..."I can and I will build this stairway! "    I did get it built...and the rest is history.  I moonlighted until I was confident I could make it on my own/

Now in 1997,...I was still working for this major contractor.  I had just passed my 10 year anniversary with them by two days.  Something in me clicked...and I realized if I didnt go on my own now...I would soon be there 15 years...then 20...then it probably would be too late.

I thought to myself the seriousness of leaving the best and a very secure job I had ever had.  I had overtime 52 weeks a year.  But I thought to myself..."I would rather try and have failed...than failed to have tried".   So I gave my notice and the rest is history.

I have remained small...but I have had the biggest life from following my gut...and I never ever forget thanking God for giving me a free will to do such. 

Sorry for this long winded story...but in reality...I am leaving out scores of experiences that I have been blessed going through.

My latest is this Dewalt contest...and I swear this thread is no way connected as I dont think one more vote could be mustered out of this fine group anyway.   I believe this contest will be the pinnacle of my career and its causing me to reflect on where I cane from.  It doesnt matter where I place...I have had a life I wont forget.

Stan


(Here is another one from Stan)

I love my profession of curved stairbuilding...but like any occupation, there are bad jobs.   I am a positive type and do not like to dwell on the rare negative jobs I have had....but in light of the bask and glow I have been experiencing lately, I want to balance it  out a little by showing I do have some aggravating situations sometimes.  

Fortunately, I have only had a few run-ins with a client....2 so far that come to mind....and this is by far the worst ordeal I had.

                                         The Story

Last year I was giving a very wealthy person a ride in my gyrocopter showing him my variable pitch propeller and what a difference it made in performance.  While we were flying around, he mentioned building a huge home for his daughter in Chicago.  I just non chalantly asked if he needed any stairs bid on.  He said...."as a matter of fact, yes".    I gave him a tour of my stairshop and next thing I know I am flying up to the large megahome the next day to measure and bid on the four stairways.  What I did not know was that his contractor at this home was planning on building the stairways...and my timing was such that I got the contract.   This contractors contract was just about to be signed..but here I am with the job now.

I flew back and did a final measure for the stairways and then wasnt meant so cordially by this contractor.  I was told by one of the  finish carpenters that he was irate that I got the job and to watch out for this guy.  

I spent the next several weeks building the stairways and hauled a couple of them up one day.   The owner personally told me I could use any of the subs on the job to help me lift the stairways into the home...as he was paying them by the hour.

Well, my first run in with the not so nice contractor....I needed some help ...and he just skoffed that I should have brought some.  I let him know that the owner already ok'd to grab anyone I wanted....

So, he grunted to some people to come and help me out...but he was whining all the time like it was out of his pocket. 

The stairs were set over the next two days...and I remember coming home on a Thursday night feeling all hyper how they all fit fine...and everything was according to Hoyle.

Well, that was until the next morning when I went to my stairshop and played my answering machine.  The contractor left a message that I will never forget.  He in short said....."The stairways will not pass code and will all have to be ripped out."

Of course my heart skipped a beat...and I could not believe it.   So I called the contractor...and he ripped into me about how the first step on each stairway was 3/4 of an inch to low....and the top step on each one was 3/4 too high.  This will not pass code!

I actually was relieved as I politely explained to him that the owner specified clearly that the stairways were all getting carpet runners and the thickness of the carpet/padding selected would make the the bottom and top steps equal.

He screamed profanitys back at me and said the owner never said anything about any GD fxxxing carpet runner.   I sternly defended my position and said my pilots license states my hearing is good enough for a class 3 medical...and I clearly heard a carpet runner was going on all 4 stairways!   This just escalated the contractor and I said I would let him cool down and call him later.   He then just plain and simple ordered me to come up on Monday...and he would supply the manpower to take the stairs loose and raise them 3/4 of an inch...and have this done before the owner arrived on Wednesday.  He also laughed at me and said since I wanted to be a big contractor that I had to be responsible for my mistakes.   I told him   " I am responsible and I am not tearing out the stairways.,,, its not going to happen" and he then slammed the phone down on me.

I of course called the owner who was out in Arizona and luckily caught him on the phone.  I was aprehensive of course...I mean..what if he had changed his mind about having a carpet runner and never told me.   I had checked the contract and for some reason failed to put that detail in it. Yes...I was nervous even though I knew they told me carpet runners for sure.

I casually mentioned the stairs are all in and they fit very nicely. ...and oh by the way....are you still going with the same thickness of carpet runner/pad?   My heart was racing as I heard the answer..."of course....I thought we had discussed that?"

I felt like 3000 pounds lighter....and I then explained upfront not to mention this to the contractor, but he was so sure that I was wrong that I was ordered to rip out all the stairways so they would be correct when you arrived on wednesday to see them.  

The owner said not to worry about the contractor...and he was still sore about losing the stair contracts.

I thanked the owner for double verifying that I was correct and I told him to have a nice flight to Chicago in a few days.

I then called back my contractor....and he gruffly answered..."yea"       I told him the stairways were fixed.   He said...."What do you mean fixed?"    I said   "they are fixed"

He then yelled some more profanities ..."what do you mean they are fxxxxxxx fixed?    I had to say this....."What part of "are fixed" dont you understand?"    I called the owner and waisted my time verifying that there are indeed carpet runners on all four stairways."

He just about had a coronary....and was screaming..."You never go over my fxxxxxxx head to the owner"    I retorted..."Oh yes I do, especially when they hired me and sign my checks!     The contractor slammed the phone down on me and that was that.

I thought,..this will be a long drawn out ...curve balls thrown at me the rest of the project.....and I was correct.

The next day I was at the home starting to run some railing...and the contractor would not even speak to me.  I would say his name...and he just ignored me. 

Now...I am a very laid back person...but I am like an ol tom cat who you can stroke his fur backwards for quite awhile...then just turn on you in an instant.     I can get very sarcastic and obnoxious when treated like #### after awhile.  I remember whistling the "sounds of silence" all day around the contractor.   I would entertain the subs all around the house as they knew what was going on.   I would smart alleckley blurt out  " SOUND CHECK, does anyone hear me? "    This contractor was just not going to talk to me so I let him have his way.

Many days went past and next thing I know there is someone on my stairway measuring the rise of each step.  I smelled trouble..and went over to see what the issue was. The contractor was just sneaking around the corner disappearing on me.  I aksed.."Is there a problem?  The inspector just plainly said..."  I cant pass this stairway.   Your top and bottom step are way off"   I tensely told him that it gets a carpet runner and it will correct it.   He scratched his head and said  "I dont think so...we always measure the treads"    I was being tested like never before...and just politely defended my case that where you walk should have an even rise all the way up...and thats why the code rule exists.  If it measured perfectly without the runner...then it would be a trip hazard after the runner. "

He said he would check with his boss.

Well..that afternoon here comes his boss...along with my friend the contractor.   Of course the contractor was pleading the case against me. 

I just finally had enough...and said if it takes a jury trial to decide this, so be it. "  

They left me with the matter of fact statement that they just made another contractor tear out a $52000.00 dollar stairway...and that they enforce a 0 tolerance rise variation."  I said...so you mean to say.."If its one thousandth of an inch off...its going to not pass?"   They said..."You got it pal"

Well,  I knew the contractor was in bed with these guys..so I just had to trust my gut and figured somehow justice would prevail. 

Now..if this isnt enought..my now talking to me contractor let me know in front of these inpectors that my bullnose starting had a 1/4 variance across its width. "  

I told him the step is level....the floor is out of level 1/4 inch!

The inspector then chimed in that I should have put the stairway with the floor.  I said..."and have it out of level 1/4 inch?"    He said  "Yep"    I thought about it a minute...and just said   " Jesus Christ himself could not build this stairway to satisfy you guys"    With that...a few eyebrows were raised and off they went.

I told the contractor he had to float the floor level before the flooring was installed.   He said he wasnt going to do it..." voided the warranty"      I could see this guy was hell bent to bring me down.  

I could tell I was going to have to do something...so I dug deep into my improvising tricks I have accumulated over the years...and removed the bullnose starting step.  I told the contractor to run his floor and I will set the step to it.  I just figured I would shim his floor level without him knowing it to get rid of that 1/4 inch variance. 

I came back two weeks later after the floor was layed...and started to check to see how much to shim the floor.  To my surprise the floor was perfectly level!  I studied it and could see the floor had been floated after all!   I acted dumb around the contractor and asked him how he leveled the floor.   "Dont fxxxxxxx worry about it!"  he snapped.   I said..."You must have jacked the floor up?    Dont fxxxxxx worry about it!    This guy was a piece of work.   I proceeded to re install the bullnosed step that I had needlessly removed and all was correct....except for that 0 tolerance statement.   When I left ...I just let the contractor know that I just hadnt just got off a banana boat and why he just couldnt admit that he floated the floor shows his true character.   Of course you dont talk to an idiot like that...but I am human and my fur had been stroked too long the wrong way. 

I could go on with this story...as its pages..but I am going to abreviate the rest of it.   The very wealthy owner was let in on the inspectors 0 tolerance rule...and he said that would be taken care of....as "obviously Jesus Christ couldnt do that himself"   I just laughed as I knew that comment had gotten back to him!

The stairs passed code....and ironically...the contractor had built a backstairway that was to be carpeted. The rough tread height without the thick carpeting was the same rise all the way...and any kind of carpeting would clearly put his stairway out of code.  I took my tape measure and have several picures coming off the tile floor showing that no way this stairway of his would pass code.   I saved that picute as an ace up my sleeve...just in case...but I never had to use it....nor would I ever lower myself and use it against him just for spite.

Well...you think this story would be over...but one more segment.   I was all done and commented to my wife that I bet there will be something that contractor does to make me come up again to Chicago.  I was right.  I got another gruff call and he said I wast finished.  I said ..."now what?"  He said I had a nail to set!"   I said..."a nail to set?  Have you any carpenters there that I could pay to go over and set that nail?'   He shouted back..."We aint touching your fxxxxxx nail"    I said thanks for the opportunity to work with someone who is a real trip....and I will be up tomorrow to remedy the situation.

I had been flying my SparrowHawk to this home as it has its own private airstrip....and instead of a 2.5 hour drive...it was only a 1 hour flight.   Beings I love to fly...I thought this would be a good mission for me.

I flew up early the next day..arrived at 7:15 a.m...took some last pictures.... and then went into the home.  I went right into the contractors face and asked where that nail was.   He showed me...and I said...stay there...as  I looked at my watch.  I had a hammer and nail set in my hand...and set the nail.   I sarcastically looked at my watch...and said...."gessshjh...it took me longer than I thought...almost 20 seconds.  I have to hurry out or I may miss the next flight out"   I went out with a #### cat grin as all the subs were watching the show ...and were all grinning.   I fired up my SparrowHawk...taxied down the end of the runway.....and took off headed right for the home that was right on the end of the runway.   Everybody was outside waiving their hardhats as I took off and flew  just a few feet over the house...did a sharp 90 degree bank with the rotor blades just pounding and popping the air into submission as I turned toward my heading to Paxton.   I never went back to the home...even though I was invited to a huge open house that the owners were putting on.    I told them I never wanted to see that contractor again.

Stan

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