Stairs 5: How to Install an Inside Handrail

Have you ever admired the staircase in a well built house with its flowing balustrade? The parts for this type of handrail system are readily available in most wood working finishing stores and can be assembled with a little determination, perseverance and guidance.

The Newel Posts

The first step is to install the newel posts, preferably before any carpet is installed and after any hardwood floor is down. The newels are sturdy posts usually made of laminations of oak (for staining) or hemlock (for painting) about 3 1/2" square and turned to exotic shapes on a lathe. The newels and spindles usually are matched to the same shape. [See diagram]

Drawings of styles of spindles and newwels including square-top spindle, dowel-top spindle, ball-top newel, dowel-top newel and dowel-top or square-top half newel.

The newels are the foundations for the handrails, providing the support needed for a safe and secure system. There are three types of newels on the market today: the ball top (the most popular); the dowel top, also called the underscroll mount; and the square top. Newels are placed around the perimeter of a stair opening in the floor to act as guard rails. As with most guards they have a finished height of 36" from the floor to the top of the rail in a single residential dwelling. Obviously, we can't just screw the post to the top of the floor and expect it to be secure. The newel is installed through the floor and is notched to fit the side of the floor joist and attached with carriage bolts or lag bolts. The newel should be flush, on the opening side, with the finished wall covering such as drywall. This allows a baseboard to be installed later. [See photo]

Photo of a balustrade base board on stairs.

To install the newels on the stair landing, attach them to the riser above the landing if the stairs are above the landing or to the riser below the landing if the stairs are below the landing. [See photo]

Photo of our newel attachment.

If the stairs end on the lower floor not attached to a wall on one side or the other, a volute or scroll may be used to end the handrail on the open side. These volutes can be purchased turning left or right.

Drawings of 18 styles of stair balustrade fittings.

Drawings of various offset and riser styles including level half turn, left wall offset, right wall offset, left Y wall offset, right Y wall offset and straight 2 1/2 inch or 3 1/2 inch riser.

The first step ending in a volute should have an underscroll newel attached through a step extension onto the surface of the floor. [See following]

Drawing a scroll assembly with rail connection detail with measurements.

The Handrail around a Landing or Floor Opening

Once the newels are installed, the top and bottom rails are attached. For around the stair opening, the top and bottom rails including balusters or spindles are assembled as a unit. Drawing of rail profiles for newel post tops.There are two types of rail systems available, the ones with and the ones without a dado and fillet (see drawing). The choice is yours. Start with cutting the rails to fit tight between the newels, plumb the posts as you are taking this measurement.

Layout the placement of the spindles at 5" centers starting from the center and going each way. A trick I do is to lay a strip of masking tape on top of the bottom rail and lay the centers out on this. If the end spindle comes too close to the newel, start over in the center and layout a space in the center rather than a spindle. This should correct the end spindle spacing against the newels. The building code states that a 4" diameter ball cannot pass through the spaces between spindles or the space between the spindle and the newel post. The 4" ball relates to a baby's head.

Once happy with the spacing of the spindles, drill the center marks with a 5/32" bit. Turn the bottom rail over, bottom side up and countersink the holes so the #8 x 1 1/2" flathead wood screws will be flush. Clamp the bottom rail in the center of the underside of the top rail and drill through the pre-drilled bottom rail to mark the centers of the spindles on the top rail. Remove the bottom rail and pre-drill the top rail for 2 1/2" double ended screws. Insert these screws into the top rail and screw the spindles into these, add a touch of glue to the ends of the spindles. Wipe off any excess glue with a damp cloth.

The length of the spindles should be sufficient so that the top of the rail is 36" from the finished floor. Turn this assembly over with the top rail resting on the floor and the spindles sticking straight up. Attach the bottom rail to the spindles with the underside facing up, showing the countersinks. Screw the 2 1/2" screws into the center of the ends of each spindle, offset a finishing nail to help keep the spindle from turning. Start them first, then tighten them up together.

Put the whole assembly into position, pre-drill for wood screws from the top rail into the newel on the angle, use glue on all joints. There are small headed, hard screws available for this purpose at the finishing store. Screw into the floor through the bottom rail. Plug the holes.

Drawing of securing spindles in a handrail balustrade.

The Handrail Down the Stairs

For the handrail on the slope of the stairs, there are three ways to go about installing the spindles. There may be a pony wall closing off the open side of the stairs, there may be a bottom rail coming down the steps or there could be two spindles attached to each stair tread. In assembling the rails and spindles going down the steps, it is best to assemble the rails first and install the spindles one at a time. [See following diagram]

Drawing of how to secure newel posts to a pony wall showing fillet, bottom rail, lag screw, small scroll newel post top, underscroll newel, stair end, riser, base, extension cap and base plate.

With the spindles on the step, usually 2 per step, you want the flow the same all the way down. That is, you want 2 spindles per step, but they must be the same distance apart at the handrail. This is tricky and takes a bit of patience and layout. The centers of the spindles, if 1 1/2" square are 5" center to center. This can be varied a little to suit your tread width. Make sure the distance between the spindles is not more than 4" even where they are tapered, remember the 4" ball. Coming down the slope of a handrail makes it easier to fasten the spindles underneath the handrail at the top side of the spindle. At the bottom fasten them on both sides. Use the same type of hard, small head screw as mentioned with the top handrail to newel joint, except a bit shorter.

Drawing of stairs showing each component with technical names for each.

Here are some pictures of my staircase. It was the first I did and the most complicated. Notice the round top and bottom rails. These are bent around the shape of the floor or landing using strips of oak, in my case, provided for this purpose. I used blocking nailed to the floor with wedges to squeeze the glue out from each individual board. When dry the pieces were taken to my local finishing store to be machined to the same shape as the top and bottom rails. You may notice at the wall end of the round rail, I chose not to use a half newel post. This is another option.

Photo of two angles of a rounded stair case with a landing and balustrade.

Photo of stairs from the top showing the balustrade.

I found the sales people at the finishing store were excellent in helping me buy the correct parts, including handouts for challenging assemblies. Bring them a drawing of your staircase and they will help you out. If by some rare chance you run into trouble, I'm just a click away with an email.


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