How to Build a Handrail

Three Methods:Getting Ready to BuildMounting a Handrail on a WallInstalling a Handrail Using Balusters

Stairways are centerpieces in the home, often serving both a practical and decorative purpose. Building a handrail yourself is an inexpensive way to add a new look and feel to stairs in your home, whether indoors or outdoors. A customized rail provides an elevated aesthetic value as well as ensuring that the staircase is safe to use.

Method 1
Getting Ready to Build

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    Consult your local building authority to learn about building codes. Learn whether you need a permits for handrail construction and whether there are standard specifications for handrails in your area. It is important to ensure that your home improvement projects are compliant with codes set in place for residential buildings.[1]
    • If your work requires a permit, make sure to obtain one before adding onto your home in any way. This prevents any issues that may come about with inspections, potential penalties or violations, and issues that could come about if you ever tried selling your home in the future.
    • If it does not require a permit, move forward with your building project.
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    Measure the rise and the run of your stairs. The run of the railings should be measured from the top step to the bottom step of the stairs, along its diagonal. For a wall-mounted installation, add an additional 2 to 4 inches to each end to use as returns (also called the ends) for people to grab during use of the handrail.
    • The rise of the railing should be measured according to local building authority codes; this is usually between 30-36 inches, or alternately at 36 inches,[2] at the average height of people.
    • Measure the rise at 36 inches from the same place at each step, and mark its position with a pencil or chalk.
    • Use a tape measure to draw a straight line on the wall, connecting the 36-inch marks you placed at the top of the stairs in descending order to the very bottom step.
    • Measure where you intend to place brackets that will later be screwed into the wall. Mark the bracket locations using a level to make sure that the brackets are plumb.[3]
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    Decide on the style of railing. If you’re choosing to incorporate a handrail indoors, chances are it is an extension of the staircase you already have and will hang on the wall opposite the stairs.
    • Wood is the most commonly used material for indoor handrails. Wood is sturdy and attractive, making it a good fit for indoor use. Wood is also an option for an outdoor handrail, but it may be prone to rotting in humid climates.[4]
    • Untreated wood will need an oil treatment before installation. Use tung oil, linseed oil, or a product based in one of those oils to coat the wood. Avoid water-based products because although they make wood water and moisture resistant, with time it peels and degrades.[5]
    • Metal railings are decay resistant and great for areas frequented by termite pests.[6]
    • Synthetic railings can be shaped and molded to your style needs and can even be made to look like wood. This option is expensive compared to other handrail options, but also more durable.
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    Shop for a handrail at your local hardware store. In most hardwood stores handrails come readily available, depending on the type of material you want to use. Bring your measurements with you so you can buy the right size. If you have trouble locating the size you need in a ready-made manufactured style and size, request a custom railing.
    • Stores like Home Depot, Lowe's, and Amazon are common sellers of handrail and stair products.
    • If you're installing a wood railing, you can bring home wood samples from your local hardware store to match them to the wood fixtures in your home. Bear in mind that wood does not have to match perfectly, it just has to coordinate.[7]

Method 2
Mounting a Handrail on a Wall

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    Gather your supplies. In addition to the handrail, you will need at least two sets of brackets and screws. You will also need a drill to complete the installation, and a saw if you intend to cut your own returns.
    • Remember that for a wall-mounted installation, the handrail should be 8 inches longer than your measurements, to account for the 4-inch returns you'll cut off on either end.
    • If you buy a ready-made handrail, it will likely come with brackets and screws, too. If not, purchase brackets intended for a handrail installation.
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    Cut the ends off of your railing. Use a saw to cut the ends (approximately 4 inches from each end) from the railing at a 45-degree angle.[8] Once you've installed the handrail, the returns will be attached to either end to serve as hand grips.
    • Reverse the placement of the cuts so that the pieces will be able to face the wall at the top and bottom of the rail.
    • You may want to ask an employee at the hardware store to cut the returns for you if you aren't handy with a saw.
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    Install the brackets. Line up the brackets and use a drill to mount them to the wall Repeat until all brackets are securely installed.[9] Be sure that the brackets are vertically plumb before drilling them into place.
    • It's important to make sure that the brackets are installed securely. If they seem loose in the wall, the handrail may not be sturdy enough to support people's weight as they use it.
    • You may want to purchase extra brackets to ensure that the handrail will be held securely in place.
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    Place the railing on top of the brackets. Hold the railing in position against the wall along the length of the chalk line. Secure the handrail into its position on the brackets by placing screws into the holes drilled on the railing’s underside.
    • Loosely-secured railings are a serious hazard issue, so be sure that the rail can bear the weight that will be imposed on it daily.
    • If the railing is loose, reinforce the railing from below by applying a metal corner bracket there.[10]
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    Install the returns. Place the angled edge of the return against the end of the rail. The flat end of the return should rest against the wall, forming a hand grip. Use wood glue and apply it to the cut edges before securing the return to the rail. Hold it in place for a few minutes to ensure it is securely attached. Repeat with the other return on the other end of the rail. [11]
    • For extra enforcement, hammer in 2-3 nails to connect the returns to the rails.
    • You may need to shorten the returns by an inch or two to ensure that they fit securely against the wall.

Method 3
Installing a Handrail Using Balusters

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    Prepare your deck or porch for building. Inspect the condition of your foundation. If repairs need to be made to floorboards, do so now. The less work done after the rail installation, the better in order to make sure the handrail stays intact for as long as possible.
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    Buy your materials. To install a handrail using balusters, rather than installing one on a wall, you'll need quite a few materials in addition to the handrail you have chosen. If you're installing double handrails, one on either side of your set of stairs, double the quantity of supplies you purchase.
    • Your handrail should be a 2x4 piece of wood that is no longer than 8 feet long, according to most building codes.
    • Purchase two newel posts, the supporting posts that hold up the rail; you'll need one for the top of the stairs and one for the base. The standard size of a post is 4x4 inches and 5 feet long.
    • Purchase one baluster per stair step. Balusters are the spindles that connect the rail to each step. The height of the balusters should be between 30 and 36 inches, depending on how high you want the railing to be. If there are already posts and/or balusters in place, count the total numbers of pieces you will need to replace, if any.
    • For secure installation of newel posts, you'll need a post-hole digger and concrete mix to pour into the holes.[12]
    • Purchase sure-tite fasteners for secure installation of balusters in the steps.
    • You'll need wood glue or epoxy glue to fasten the handrail to the posts.
    • Depending on the style of railing you install, you may need additional reinforcement supplies, such as a finish nail gun and a screwdigger.
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    Install the newel posts. If you're replacing an old handrail, your set of stairs may already have newel posts at the top and bottom that you can use to support your new handrail. If not, you'll need to install posts before you can install your rail.
    • To install a post in the ground, use a post-hole digger to dig a hole least 18 inches in depth in front of the bottom step. Fill the hole halfway to the top with mixed, wet concrete. Stand a newel post in the hole. If you're installing two posts, use a 4-foot level to stand on the top of both posts to ensure that they posts are perfectly aligned with one another vertically. Use the same level to ensure that the posts are horizontally aligned and level, too. Wait 24 hours for the concrete to set before installing the handrail.
    • To install a top post to a wooden deck, place post over the stair stringer in a plumb position. Use four timber lock screws and wood glue to secure it into place. Finish it with finishing nails.[13]
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    Install the balusters at the appropriate point on each stair. Balusters should be spaced no more than 4 inches apart. Use a pencil to mark the place where each baluster will be installed. Make sure the balusters are lined up with the newel posts at either end of the stairs.
    • Drill holes into each step, then thread the holes with sure-tite fasteners.
    • If your balusters don't already have holes, you'll need to drill them. Drill a standard sized access hole into the bottom of the balusters. Into the side of each baluster, drill another access hole horizontally to intersect the first hole.
    • Set each baluster, or spindle, onto the sure-tite fasteners on each step. Tighten them down with a wrench.
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    Attach the handrail to the newel posts and balusters. Apply wood glue or epoxy glue to the top of the posts. Fit the handrail into place. Wait 24 hours for the glue to dry before using the handrail, then secure the handrail and balusters together one at a time with a finish nail gun.
    • For extra reinforcement, you can screw the handrail to the post with a Screwdigger, using a wood screw of 100-120 mm in size.[14]
    • Position the screw behind the post and make sure that it is going through both the posts and the handrail.
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    Apply an exterior primer to your finished handrail. If the handrail is unfinished, finishing it is the last step. After allowing the glue to dry completely, use a sturdy paintbrush to apply a topcoat of primer onto the railing from the top down, ensuring that all surfaces and nooks are covered. After the topcoat dries, apply a second coat.[15]
    • If you wish to paint your stairs and railing, use an oil based paint because it preserves the wood grain while protecting the wood against harsh weather conditions. Use the same technique as the primer and topcoat when making the application.
    • If staining is more your preference than painting, choose a wood stain that contains a deck sealer to preserve the look and feel of the wood.


  • Remember to measure twice, and cut once.
  • Do not cut any of your pieces until you have laid it all out to see how it will fit.
  • Pre-measure the baluster lines, mark out where the newels will be placed, and determine the height of the handrails.
  • Finishes are only necessary if the wood you purchased was unfinished. Just be sure to coat it with stain and polyurethane pre-installation to ensure an easy and simple application.
  • Erase marks and/or remove the tape you used as a references from the wall and railing. Oil the railing again with the oil of your choosing.

Things You'll Need

  • Tape measure
  • Pencil
  • Chalk
  • Carpenter level
  • Hammer
  • Post-hole digger
  • Concrete
  • Sand
  • Nail gun
  • Nails
  • Wood glue
  • Epoxy glue
  • Screwdigger/screws
  • Rail bolt kit, including a nut and washer set for each rail
  • Sure-tite fastener kit
  • Brackets

Article Info

Categories: Home Decorating | Home Improvements and Repairs