How to Install a Handrail
Handrails can prevent nasty tumbles down the stairs, so it’s important that they be sturdy. Looking good is also important because of their prominent place in the house. We asked Jerome Worm, our favorite trim carpenter, for some tips on installing handrails. He demonstrated a fast and foolproof way to measure, showed us a great way to assemble the rail and specified what hardware he liked best and explained why. These tips will help you hang an attractive, rock-solid handrail that will last as long as the house.
Measure From the Bottom Stair Nose to the Top Stair Nose
The handrail needs to run the entire length of the stairs to make sure it’s safe and code compliant. The easiest way to determine that distance is to hook a tape measure onto the bottom stair nose and measure up to the top. Our expert prefers to add 6 in. to that measurement to provide a 3-in. buffer on each end.
Mark the Studs
Handrail brackets should be secured to the studs; drywall anchors aren’t strong enough. These brackets need to be fastened a maximum of 48 in. apart, but check the specifications on the hardware you’re using. Space the brackets 32 in. apart for round and oval handrails because they aren’t as sturdy as the beefy, oak “bread loaf” style rail we’re installing. Install a bracket on the studs closest to the top and bottom of the handrail. Mark the studs with painter’s tape so you don’t have to make pencil marks on the wall.
Find the Bracket Height With a Carpenter’s Square
Mark the location of the bracket screw hole on the wall, not the top of the handrail. To find that measurement, set the handrail upside down on the stairs. Set a rafter square on a stair tread, right up to the edge of the stair nose. Next, set a bracket on the bottom of the rail where the screw hole lines up with the edge of the square. That dimension (5 in. in this case) is the distance you’ll subtract from the desired height of the top of the handrail. We want the top of our handrail to be 36 in. high, so we’ll make a mark on the wall 31 in. high.
Mark the Starting Point and Bracket Height
Use a 4-ft. level to plumb up from the nose of the bottom step, and mark a vertical line on the wall. That line will indicate where the bottom end of the handrail should start. Next, measure up from the nose of the steps and mark an intersecting line representing the height of the bracket screw.
Set Other Bracket Locations with a Square
Set a framing square on the skirt board, line it up with the mark indicating the bracket height, and note that number. Move the square up to the next stud that will support a bracket, and mark that number on the wall. If there’s no skirt board, lay a 2×4 on the stairs and slide the framing square on that.
Avoid 90-Degree Returns
Handrails need to meet the wall (or a newel post) at each end. These “returns” alert people that the railing has ended. Returns also protect folks from bumping into a sharp edge of the rail. Our expert cuts returns so they die into the wall at a 45-degree angle instead of a 90-degree angle. This method looks good and prevents clothing, purses and other items from getting hooked on the end of the rail.
Cut With the ‘Show’ Side Toward the Fence
Miter saws cause wood to tear out and splinter more on the side that rests against the fence. This may sound counterintuitive to you woodworkers, but when cutting handrail, it’s better to have the tearout occur on the “show” side of the rail, or the side that faces away from the wall. Tearouts on the wall side of the rail will show up on the inside of the miter and are difficult to sand out. Rough wood on the outside of the miter can be sanded and rounded over much easier. Minimize tearouts with a sharp blade and by cutting slowly and letting the blade stop spinning before raising it.
Find the Length of the Return With a Block
Code requires a space that’s at least 1-1/2 in. between the wall and the handrail. To find the length of the return piece, cut a 45-degree angle on a scrap of wood, and then cut a block of wood to the thickness of the desired gap between the wall and the railing (1-5/8 in. in this case). Place the 45-degree angle up against the fence and slide the 1-5/8-in. block up to that. Mark the point where the two intersect (top photo). That mark represents the short side of the handrail return. Transfer the mark onto the handrail (bottom photo). Cut the return off the same side of the rail where it will be installed. That way the wood grain will carry seamlessly through on the front of the railing.
What is code for a handrail?
- Handrails must run the entire length of the stair (bottom nose to top).
- The top of the rail should be between 34 in. and 38 in., measured directly up from the stair nosing.
- There needs to be at least 1-1/2 in. between the wall and the rail.
- Handrails must die into a wall or newel post.
- Circular handrails must have a diameter between 1-1/4 in. and 2 in.
- Custom shapes are acceptable but may have a specific size requirement (check with your building official).
Glue and Pin Returns
Glue and pin the return pieces before screwing them together. Line up the two glued ends as accurately as you can before pushing them together. If you move them around too much, the glue can act as a lubricant, making them difficult to hold in place when you pin them together.
Hold the pieces in place with a 23-gauge pinner while the glue dries. Pinners are nice because they don’t leave a big, ugly hole, and the pins are less likely to follow the grain of the wood and veer off course like larger-gauge brads are prone to do.
Secure Returns With Trim-Head Screws
Let the glue set up for 15 minutes or so, and then strengthen the miter with a 2-1/2-in. screw driven in at the bottom. A self-tapping trim-head screw leaves a smaller hole and is less likely to split the wood. Regardless of the screw type you use, predrill a hole all the way through the first piece and about 1/2 in. or so into the second.
Use Tape to Align the Handrail
Fasten the brackets to the wall, but leave them loose enough so you can twist them into perfect position with the rail. This rail runs 3 in. past the top and bottom stair nose. Our expert wrapped tape 3 in. up the bottom of the rail in order to line up the rail with the tape that represents the bottom stair nose. Predrill holes into the handrail for the bracket screws, and finish tightening the brackets to the wall after all the brackets are secured to the rail.
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