Jed Dixon's stair building shop is a time warp to the 19th century. The only thing missing are pulleys, leather belts, and a water wheel outside. Through layers of mahogany sawdust, the place looks like a museum.
But Dixon's no Luddite. Over the years he's found the best combinations of tools and technologies young and old to deliver high-quality projects. In fact, just a couple years ago he stopped drawing all his stair parts on paper and started using a CAD program. But whether he's using a computer or a pencil, Dixon's stair work always begins with full-size, precise drawings, from which he makes templates and blanks for cutting and carving volutes, upeasings, newel posts, and balusters. For Dixon, accurate drawings are the only way to ensure the proportion and design are sharp.
The same goes for his power tools: They're old, too, but each one is a workhorse, and the blades and cutters are razor sharp, and so are the setups. Dixon uses two lathes and makes all his own balusters. He even carves rope molding on an old single-spindle carver. For cutting rails, Dixon relies on a shaper, and he uses the same tool for making easings. His idea for a pendulum jig: Set up the device with extreme care–make it perfectly square to the shaper table, position the brass pin at exactly the right radius point, and radius-cut rail easings will come out perfectly each time.
For rough carving, Dixon relies on an angle grinder fitted with a chain saw blade, but all the finish details are cut by hand with knives, chisels, gouges, and planes. Every carving tool is meticulously sharpened. That's also a job for hand tools: stones, strops, and diamond hones. The word sharp sums up Dixon's attitude toward craftsmanship, too: "Don't bother making anything," he's fond of saying, "unless you design and build it to last 200 years."