Woodworker crafts custom spiral staircases one step at a time

Story by Tristan Scott | Photography by Lido Vizzutti
In the late 19th century, the architect of the famed Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, died suddenly just prior to completion of the iconic, Gothic-style Roman Catholic church.

Realizing too late that the chapel was lacking a staircase to the choir loft, and ruling that a standard staircase was too cumbersome for the chapel’s narrow confines, the builders suggested a ladder as the only means of ascending the loft.

The Sisters of Loretto were concerned, however, because the long habits they wore would make climbing a ladder dangerous, so for nine days the nuns prayed to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters, asking for intercession. On the final day of their “novena,” a bedraggled stranger appeared at the church door with a donkey and a toolbox looking for work. He explained that he would build them a staircase, but that he required privacy to work.

He locked himself in the chapel for three months before disappearing without pay or thanks, leaving behind him a stunning work of carpentry in the form of a wooden spiral staircase, which solved the spatial problem, as well as an indelible myth – the nuns believed that St. Joseph himself appeared at the doorstep and built the staircase in response to their prayers, and the carpenter has never been identified.

Craftsman Zane Smith next to a spiral staircase under construction in his workship

Craftsman Zane Smith next to a spiral staircase under construction in his workshop

The so-called “miraculous staircase,” which ascends 20 feet and makes two complete revolutions without the use of nails or a support wall, was innovative for its time and its design still perplexes some experts.

In the Flathead Valley, Zane Smith has been performing these miracles for years, but each staircase still presents its own unique set of perplexing challenges.

 

And while he’s never staged his own “novena” seeking help and clarity, he’s come close.

“At certain times with most projects, I feel like a little boy wandering around in the dark looking for a light switch,” said Smith, describing the process of making custom, spiral staircases, which he constructs at his Kalispell shop. “With every job I do I have multiple revelations.”

A second-generation saddle-maker by trade, Smith ran a custom saddle shop in Montana before the difficulty of the work prompted him to try his hand at construction – “saddle-making is a lot tougher than staircases,” he says – and when the housing market crashed he began doing remodels and refined his carpentry skills.

“I love building things, and when I saw this style of staircase I thought I would love to do something like this someday,” he said. “I like the fact that there’s something different with each design. The only problem is that sometimes it feels like I have to recreate the wheel.”

The staircases are mesmerizing, and puzzling over the intricate logarithms Smith employs to design a staircase that curves out and around a fixed central point is bewildering on its own, but taking into account that he’s twisting wood into the M.C. Escher-like designs is inconceivable.

“Wood does not like to do this,” he said, twisting a piece of alder into a helix as it crackles in his hands. “If you’re doing something curved, it’s three times harder. If you’re doing something spiraled, it’s four times harder.”

The early stages of Smith’s staircases involve a lot of math and problem solving, and much of the woodworking is complex, tedious and requiring of his signature finesse.

But then there’s the gluing and the clamping and the endless sanding, and “at a certain point I’m just a good, old-fashioned wood monkey,” he said.

Smith holds an end piece cut from a custom spiral slide

Smith holds an end piece cut from a custom spiral slide

Although staircases are his specialty, Smith also takes on other projects, and recently he accepted what may be his greatest challenge yet – a spiral slide made of 120 quarter-inch layers of black walnut, which connects the main level of a home on Finley Point to its basement.

“You talk about a challenge,” he said. “This challenged me beyond belief. The slide was like, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do this, but I know it’s possible.’”

Because every client is different, Smith says each project is unique, and while the spiral staircase fills a certain niche by design, the work is never humdrum.

“It’s something custom, something unique that you can’t just buy somewhere or check a box and in six to eight weeks it’ll be done,” he said. “Every project is different, tailored to the client and his or her home.”

Many of the staircases feature helical wooden handrails, while others are more of a traditional, open-tread, free-span spiral, but all of them feature an elegant and space-saving design that’s as old as sea shells, sunflower heads and other natural wonders featuring their own versions of the traditional logarithmic spiral.

And while Smith might not be the patron saint of carpenters, and doesn’t build his staircases with 19th century tools, he’s something of a seer in his own right.

“It’s an old-world art, and because of its grace and beauty it becomes the focal point of a home,” he said.

For more information on Zane Smith’s spiral staircases, visit his website at www.zanesmithwoodworking.com.