Work on the stairs:
After removing both the rails and the metal balusters, I started to sand away the paint coating the lower rail. This proved slow going -- even with 60 grit paper on a new random orbit sander. So I went all chemical on it:
Stripper contains methylene chloride which dissolves practically anything (except wood). You just slather it on as a paste and wait for the paint to blister and then scrape it off- right onto the concrete floor in my case. I had to do a couple cycles of strip and sand because the paint was so durable. It's still unfinished because the sides are particularly hard to treat. But here is some real progress:
Recall the end grain detail from the rail:
Here is the end grain from the base:
That is a flat top rail adjacent to the steps. You can see a closet door knob for scale. The wood appears to be doug fir but its growth ring pattern suggests it's intermediate between the rail and the foot rail. Also note that it's made of two joined pieces.
I await Sixty's expert opinion.