How to Make a Hand Rail or Railing for Steps and Stairways

Video Transcript

Video Transcript

RON HAZELTON: Our trip through coastal New England continues today in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  Pat and Judy Nerbon are just about finished renovating their old house.  And they’ve asked me to help them out with a problem on the staircase.  But my problem right now is navigating these narrow streets.  Let’s see.  Gates, Gates, okay, this is Gates Street.  Good morning, Pat, how are you?

PAT NERVON: Good morning Ron, good to see you.

RON HAZELTON: Oh, thank you very much, good to see you.  What a beautifully restored house this is.  Was it like this when you moved in?

PAT NERVON: No, it wasn’t.  Thank you very much though for the complement.  It was a very neglected house.


PAT NERVON: And we’ve been working on it for about a year and a half. 


PAT NERVON: Come on in and meet Judy.  Judy, come on down, Ron’s here.

RON HAZELTON: Hi, Judy, how are you? 


RON HAZELTON: Pleasure to meet you.  I love your house and what you guys have done here.


RON HAZELTON: It’s beautiful.  I know the project has something to do with the steps, so why don’t you fill me in?

JUDY NERBON: Well, we’re interested in a, in a banister on this side.  We have three grandchildren with dirty little fingers that go right down the wall, and we’re worried about safety.  So we’re really interested in something there.

RON HAZELTON: So what are you thinking?  Something, the metal brackets and the conventional hand rail, the round hand rail?

JUDY NERBON: Well, we’d really like to match this banister if we could and have it flush against the wall because our stairs are narrow. 

RON HAZELTON: So you’re talking something custom, huh?


RON HAZELTON: Okay.  Well let’s take a little while, a few minutes and design what we want to do and then we’ll make some measurements and then we’ll start to work. 




RON HAZELTON: We’ll start by measuring the height of the banister.  25.  Nearly on the nose.  Now, what are your thoughts on the height of the banister over here?

JUDY NERBON: I think 25 sounds good.

RON HAZELTON: Just match it?  Let’s draw ourselves a vertical line from the very front edge of the steps.  So we want to be sure that this level, this edge right here, that’s right at the very front, so why don’t you go ahead and move that back and forth.

JUDY NERBON: All right.

RON HAZELTON: Until it bubbles in the center there.

JUDY NERBON: We’ve got it, I think it’s perfect right there.

RON HAZELTON: You got it, now I’m just going to draw a vertical line right here.  Good.  Now we’ll measure up 25 inches from the front of the step.  There we go and we’ll make a mark.  Judy and Pat head up the stairs to once again find the 25-inch mark. Great.

JUDY NERBON: All right.

RON HAZELTON: Here you go, Pat.  This is a chalk line.  The best way to draw a straight line over a long distance is to use a chalk line, which is simply a piece of string coated with powdered chalk.  And Judy this is your end.

JUDY NERBON: All right.

RON HAZELTON: Okay, you guys pull it nice and taught.  This is the fun part.  Stretch it way out and okay. Judy wants to extend the railing from the bottom of the stairs to the corner of the wall.  Good.  So we use a level to create a line that’s parallel to the floor.  You get this symbol right here, that means we’re on the edge of the stud.  A handrail like this must be extra sturdy.  So, we’ll attach it directly to the wall studs.  To locate them, we’ll use an electronic stud finder.  So that’s roughly the width of our wall stud there, okay?  Now this is a piece of hand rail, somewhat similar to this one right here, but instead of mounting it in this position, we are going to mount it on edge, like this, that way it won’t stick out into the stairway as far.  But instead of putting it directly on the wall, I want to add a mounting strip underneath, like this.  This’ll do two things, gives us more room for our fingers right here and it allows me to put the screws closer together because I’ll have a continuous strip of wood.  Now we’ll need a table saw to cut the mounting strip to width.  Luckily, I’ve got one right outside of my mobile workshop.  Then, we’ll cut it to length, using the power miter box.  Okay, folks, let’s put this right up on the wall, this is our mark here.  It’s a little bit below the blue line, because that’s going to be the top of the rail.


RON HAZELTON: All right, in position?

JUDY NERBON: Yeah, I think we’ve got it.

RON HAZELTON: Okay, I’m going to drill this pilot hole.  This is the stud that we marked earlier, right here. 


RON HAZELTON: Once I’ve drilled the pilot hole, I use a counter sink bit to make sure the screw heads will be resets.  Before staining the mounting strip, Judy masks off the wall with low tack painter’s tape.  Even though Pat has already stained the mounting strip, it’s still a lighter color than the handrail we’ll be attaching to it.  So, we add some stain to the polyurethane to create a better match.  Well, the time has come to cut our handrail to fit.  Now this is pretty expensive wood, so we double-check our measurements before heading outside to the miter saw.  So, how many miter cuts have you made before?

JUDY NERBON: This is my first.

RON HAZELTON: Your premiere miter cut, huh?

JUDY NERBON: Absolutely.

RON HAZELTON: Couple of tips. Just push down on this so it’s firmly on the bed and up against the fence, that’s really important.  This is your handle up here and your switch.  Just squeeze that, turn the saw on, let it come up to speed, cut all the way through, then release the switch here.  When the saw stops, raise this back up.  Keep this in place until the saw has stopped.


RON HAZELTON: Okay?  I’ll go back here and kind of hold up the end of this.  Once the railing is cut and brought back inside, we mark the locations for the screw holes.  A strip of masking tape makes the marks easy to see and protects the wood. 

JUDY NERBON: Marking 48.

RON HAZELTON: Well our miter cuts are made on both ends.  Now all we have to do is slip this channel right here in the handrail over the mounting rail.  This is a combination pilot hole drill and counter sink.  There’s the mark we made in the tape, the cross mark right there.  And in goes our first screw.  Pat and Judy continue drilling holes and installing screws on the main section of the hand rail while I cut the short horizontal piece at the bottom of the stairs and fit it into place.  Perfect, just perfect.  To finish off the end of the handrail right here, I’ve cut a short section and put a miter on it.  It’s going to drop right in here and to keep it in place; I put some glue on the miter cut surface right here.  Remember this technique any time you need to end a piece of molding or a handrail like this in a middle of a wall.  For extra security, we’ll drill some additional pilot holes and put in some more screws.  Our banister is secured in place; Judy can remove the tape.  These are precut mahogany pegs that we’re going to put right in this hole here to cover up the head, the head of that screw.  What’s important is that the grain of these plugs be in the same direction as the grain of the wood here.  Sometimes what I do is take a pencil and just make that mark along the grain line so I can line it up a little more easily.  Usually they are held in with a little bit of glue applied right to the tip here.  Okay. 

JUDY NERBON: Here we go.

RON HAZELTON: Judy pushes the plugs into place.

JUDY NERBON: Okay, let me just turn that a little bit.

RON HAZELTON: And Pat taps them home.  Now, what do you think?

JUDY NERBON: I think it’s great. 

RON HAZELTON: What you wanted?

JUDY NERBON: Just exactly what I wanted.

RON HAZELTON: And the kids?

JUDY NERBON: They will love it.  Those hot wheels will zoom down here. 

RON HAZELTON: Well, I enjoyed working with you both.  I’m going to go off and do some sightseeing now around town, so be well and thanks again for having me at the house.

JUDY NERBON: Thank you.

PAT NERVON: And thank you.

Install a Matching Wood Handrail on the Wall Side of Your Stairs for Eye-Appeal and Stair Safety

Secure a second decorative wood handrail to the wall on the opposite side of your staircase. The second stair railing adds interest and eye-appeal to the bare wall and, more importantly, provides additional safety for people as they go up or down the stairs. Orienting the handrail on its side can add finger-hold and save space on narrow stairs.

Measure and Mark the Correct Height for the Wooden Handrail
Step 1

Measure and Mark the Correct Height for the Wooden Handrail

Measure the banister height and mark that distance above the stair treads at the top and bottom stair. Use a level to draw a vertical line at each mark and connect them with a chalk line for the stair railing.

Use an Electronic Stud Finder to Locate Wall Studs
Step 2

Use an Electronic Stud Finder to Locate Wall Studs

Locate all the wall studs along the length of the stair rail with an electronic stud finder. Mark each for use in securing a mounting strip directly to the studs for extra strength.

Fit a Mounting Strip to the Handrail's Bottom Channel
Step 3

Fit a Mounting Strip to the Handrail's Bottom Channel

Cut a mounting strip to fit the width and length of the bottom channel of the decorative handrail, mitering/angling the ends to fit the cap at the top of the railing and the horizontal section along the bottom.

Position the Mounting Strip and Countersink Screw Holes
Step 4

Position the Mounting Strip and Countersink Screw Holes

Align the mounting strip below the chalk line. Drill pilot holes and then countersink holes for the screws on top of each stud

Mask off the Wall and Stain the Mounting Strip
Step 5

Mask off the Wall and Stain the Mounting Strip

Use low-tack painter's tape to mask off the wall around the pre-stained mounting strip. Add some stain to the polyurethane and apply a second coat to match the existing stair railing. Remove the painter's tape.

Cut the Decorative Handrail to Fit with Mitered Ends
Step 6

Cut the Decorative Handrail to Fit with Mitered Ends

Double-check measurements before cutting the expensive decorative handrail and the cut it to fit each section with appropriately mitered ends.

Slip the Handrail Channel over the Mounting Strip
Step 7

Slip the Handrail Channel over the Mounting Strip

Slip the handrail channel over the mounting strip. Mark evenly-spaced screw positions on painter's tape along the railing that do not coincide with screws in the mounting strip. Countersink screw holes and drive in wood screws to secure the handrail.

Cut a Horizontal Rail for the Bottom of the Stairs
Step 8

Cut a Horizontal Rail for the Bottom of the Stairs

Cut a short horizontal handrail for the bottom of the stairs, mitering one end to fit the angled main handrail and square-cutting the other end square to fit the wall. Secure it the same way as the main rail.

Miter a Cap for the Upper End of the Handrail
Step 9

Miter a Cap for the Upper End of the Handrail

Cut a mitered cap of the same material to fit the upper end of the main handrail. Apply glue to the mitered surface and position the cap prior to driving in countersunk screws for extra strength.

Insert Pre-cut Wooden Pegs into Each Screw Hole
Step 10

Insert Pre-cut Wooden Pegs into Each Screw Hole

Glue ready-made pegs of matching wood into the holes to cover the countersunk screws. Ensure the grain on the peg aligns with that on the handrail and gently tap them flush with the handrail using a hammer.