Depending on how long the turner takes to make the replacements, you may have a couple of weekends to clean up the wood around the baluster holes-in-waiting. Scrape off all gunk, old stain, dust and dirt and sand around the tread for a tighter fit. The days apart may also present a good opportunity to refinish the treads. Then again, it's football season; isn't it time to catch the halftime show?

When your order arrives, sand and paint the balusters. Now comes the challenging part of the project: cutting the top ends to match the slope of the rail. This is why replacing a baluster rates a 4 instead of a 1. To determine where to cut, measure the length with a metal tape and the angle with a bevel gauge. Often in old houses the balusters are no longer plumb. Resist the temptation to reinstall the new ones plumb; they'll just make your staircase look like a mouth full of crooked teeth. Settle for making them parallel or evenly spaced, top and bottom. This is one of those cases where, if it looks right, it is right. "It's not an exact science," Raymond says. "Ultimately, it's about what the eye picks up."

Once you've cut the baluster, insert the tenon in the mortise, and then position the top end in the middle of the rail's underside. If the tenon is too big, rasp it down; if it's too small, Raymond suggests wrapping a piece of paper around it and gluing it in place. For a superstrong bond, apply carpenter's glue twice on the top of the baluster before securing it to the banister with two 2-inch nails. Raymond considers hardwood trim nails essential because they're thinner, harder and coated for split-free installation. Try predrilling the nail holes to prevent the wood, especially hardwood, from splitting. When the baluster is set, nail on the tread return with 21/2-inch hardwood trim nails. Finally, cover the nailheads on the banister with putty and touch-up paint.

Voila: A clean column of balusters guarding the stairs in what the naked eye perceives as perfect symmetry. Ready to fix those squeaky treads?

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