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A few thoughts about a cottage railing, and simple things made to last

Updated: Jul 21, 2022

The thing about family summer cottages is that they gather memories two weeks at a time, wandering slowly through our lives across generations. The Adirondack chair you’re checking email on your phone in right now is the same Adirondack chair your grandmother sat in in 1964, snapping peas into a bowl.

We arrived at my wife’s family cottage in Michigan last week and were pleasantly surprised by a new wooden railing, made by my brother-in-law for the steps that meander down to the beach path. I love good, simple craftsmanship, and have been admiring it for days.


Our modest cottage is set back from Lake Michigan by about 50 yards, most of which is covered by a grassy sand dune and a beach. Fancier houses up the coast are too close to the water and occasionally fall prey to erosion, which no amount of money can ever really stop. We like our house safely set back, and love sitting on the screened porch looking at the changing shades of blue, listening to the surge of the waves.


That’s what I am doing right now.


The porch leads to a wooden deck with a set of steps down into the small valley that is the dune between house and beach. It has existed without a railing for several years but can be tricky to navigate at night. It was tough for my father-in-law in the end. He died last year, and I suspect he might have been on my brother-in-law’s mind when he built it.


Although we are on the west coast of Michigan, our view is to the north, looking across more than 100 miles of water to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula over the horizon. (To get the idea, hold your left hand up and facing away from you. That is Michigan. We are on the tip of the pinky.)


Because the lake is mostly surrounded by northern forests, our beach is a constant supply of driftwood, arriving in all shapes and sizes. There are natural logs and stumps. But there are also random boards from who knows what.


Much of the lumber making up the structure of our new railing is store-bought. But the handrail is driftwood. I can only imagine how long the two-by-fours floated in the lake, then sat on the beach. But they are now weathered to a soft gray. If they could talk they would say: “Hang on. I’ve been out here for a long time and I’m not going anywhere. I’ll get you down these steps.”


I should point out that this is not a straight set of stairs. It was custom built to follow the contour of the dune, and each of the nine treads is three or four feet long. Sometimes you take two steps over for each one you take down. And it curls gently down to the left, from the deck to the beginning of the path to the beach.


The real beauty is in the cutting, sanding, and fastening. The posts are neatly bolted to the base of the steps, not sloppily screwed or nailed to the treads. This means the whole apparatus is reassuringly firm. Even if you grab it and shake it, this admirable railing won’t move an inch.


Meanwhile, the compound miter cuts that allow the railing to wander gracefully are beautiful. In a year or so, after the northern weather has done what it does, this railing will look like it is part of the land; like it has been here for years.


Did I mention that my brother-in-law, a carpenter by trade, is also a musician? You can find John Dehner and the Enthusiasts on Spotify. He has a knack for turning experiences in his life into well-crafted, evocative songs. There is a skill in taking something simple – a shaft of dusty sunlight in a woodworking shop or an old guitar at a yard sale – and making it something beautiful and singable.


I don’t make music. But I am a moderately handy person. I’ve built a shed myself. And, with some help from a friend, I made a beautiful wooden table I’m proud of, and that my wife works on every day. But I know I could never have built this railing. My version would have been at least a little bit shaky, no matter how many bolts I used. And there would be gaps in my cuts, each one a comment on my lack of skill and patience. I also probably wouldn’t have thought to use the driftwood for the handrail, settling instead for the best two-by-fours I could find at Home Depot.


I turned 60 last week. And I haven’t had too many positive thoughts about it until now. It seems like just yesterday I was hoisting my children gleefully on my shoulders to walk down these steps to the beach. They are in their 20s now, and we walk down one at a time. But as I look at this railing, I can imagine myself in a decade or so, really needing the handrail as a small child holds my other hand to go down to the beach and look for Petoskey stones.


“I can remember when your Uncle John made this railing,” I’ll say. “Boy did he do a good job!”






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1 Comment


This is a lovely tribute to much: the house that John bought and the stairs that a different John built. And all the people and memories stairstepping in between.

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