So You Want to Make a Railing (Chad's Tech Tips)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

I admit, even after redoing an entire kitchen, I had no confidence that I could do a stair railing. There’s angles and stuff. And it looks all fiddly and fussy and I was sure that the spindles (or banisters or whatever Sarah calls them) would be all crooked and ^%$@^. Sorry, Sarah says I am not allowed to swear on her blarg. Which is asking a lot.

Anyways, welcome to the first and probably only instalment of ‘Chad’s Tech Tips’. I’m your host, Chad, and I’m here to help you fumble your way through DIY renovations and things of that nature. Today’s topic is…ummm….railings. Crap, I guess I should’ve done my intro differently. Well, too late, I’m not going backwards. Much like my renovations, FORWARD is the only direction I go even when it’s wrong. That’s a big part of DIY – coming to terms with your mistakes and then covering them up so Sarah can’t tell.

So – railings are surprisingly easy. If you follow my simple steps YOU can be building quality railings in no time at all! Like Sarah mentioned earlier, I actually got an estimate for getting basic railings done. In my defense, I was reno-tired and not interested and not convinced that I could do it. The estimate came back at $2300 – which was more than twice what I figured. So I told the guy to go ^#%# himself. 

PROJECT TIME: I managed in about 8 hours, and I’m no genius. (just ask Sarah)

An air compressor and nail gun - I seriously wouldn’t attempt this project without this. Rent one or buy one. I got a compressor and nail gun combo from Canadian Tire for $89 and it performed flawlessly.

Newel Posts – We got all of the railing parts from Rona. Just get whatever you like. Remember that they make special newel posts for the posts that are attached to walls. The internet says they’re called ‘half newels’.

Newel Post Mounting Hardware – These are metal plates that screw into the bottom of the newel posts and also into your floor. It’s basically a metal flange that attaches to the post and to the floor. The kit I got from Rona also had trim pieces to hide the mounting plate once installed.

Handrail – There are several types at the store. Some have a channel cut out to accept the spindles and some don’t. Some also have a fillet (a piece of wood cut to fit the channel cut out in the rail) and some don’t. For greatest ease, get the one with a channel and the fillet, like the one in the picture below. The fillet is the piece of wood on the underside in the picture. You will detach this before installing the rail and keep it for later.

Balusters – Or spindles. I call them spindles. The ones you want come with a top and bottom that are different. The bottom has a dowel end that will be installed in holes that you will drill in the floor.

The other end will be square. IMPORTANT: Make sure the square end is the same size as the channel in the handrail you’ve chosen – they come in different sizes.

* Sarah's design note: I personally preferred a completely simple baluster without any decorative detail. Ours are from Rona but it was complicated to get them. They have them listed on the website but no one in store can ever find them-so good luck. Also don't listen to them about having to special order them in, they are usually just hidden, we scored the last 17 tucked away on the very top shelf. 

Mitre saw – You’re going to need a compound mitre saw. A cheap one can be had for $50 on sale or you can rent one. Just buy one, they come in handy for all sorts of crap.

Stain and paint and lacquer – This is Sarah’s department so don’t ask me. I build it, she makes it pretty.

The first thing you need to do is decide what is going to be the height of your railing. I bought a book and it says that 30” to 38” is code height. You will have to cut your newels down as they come long. We were limited the space between the stair-tread and the wall at the top of the stairs, so this decision was made for us.

Luckily in our case, this height was 34” – right in the middle of the acceptable railing height.

Next, you get to finally use your compound mitre saw! I carefully measured 34” from the top of each newel and half newel and cut them to size.

There are many different ways to attach the newels to the stairs. The ‘best’ way was way too complicated for me – it involved cutting big pieces of the stair tread out and having the newels go inside the stair itself. I was so happy to find the newel mounting kits at Rona as they make this a whole lot simpler. I’m sure the quote-unquote ‘right’ way is sturdier but whatever. First, a picture so you know what I’m talking about:

Simple, right? The only part that’s a tiny bit tricky is lining up the plate so it’s centered – but luckily for you I’m here to tell you a trick.

Let’s say this is your newel post, looking at it from the end on.

Take a ruler or a straightedge or whatever and place it across one corner to the opposite corner and mark a line. Like this:

Then do the opposite corners:

The place where the lines meet in the middle is the exact centre of your post. You’ll notice that your mounting plate has five screw holes cut into it: one in the center and one each in each corner. This means that when the plate is aligned correctly you’ll be able to see a bit of your line in each screw hole, like this:

Since we’re working with hardwood and you’re going to put big screws up in there, drill a pilot hole to prevent wood splitting. A pilot hole is a small hole drilled exactly where you want your screw. It removes some of the material from the path of the screw which lessens the chance of a split. It’s important to use a drill bit smaller than the size of the screw you’ll be inserting.

The next step is attaching the newel and half newel to the stair and wall, respectively. To do this, we need to decide where the centreline of your railing is going to be. In our case, we were limited by the half newel again. I needed to have the half-newel centered on its little wall, so this dictated the placement of the full newel at the bottom of the stairs.

So my first step was to attach the half newel to the wall. To do this, I drilled two pilot holes (one near the top, one near the bottom) and countersunk the holes. Countersinking is drilling the surface of your wood a size larger than the head of your screw – so that once your screw is installed, the head will rest below the surface of your wood. Then you can put in wood filler or plugs to hide the screw head.

They do make special countersinking bits, but I just used a drill bit whose diameter was larger than the heads of the screws I was using. Then I used 3” deck screws to attach the half newel to the wall.

Next – I measured from the centre of the half newel to a reference point. I used the edge of the stair as my reference point, so in my case the distance from the centre of the newel to the edge of the stair was 3.5”.

Now the fun part. You know the full newel post with the metal plate on it? You have to make its center be 3.5” from the edge of the stair. Take your time and double and triple check your measurements and you’ll be fine. I should also note that this is not brain surgery. Obviously you want these measurements to be exact as possible, but if you’re out a little bit, it’s not going to be obvious over the 5 or 6 or 7 feet of railing you have. Try real hard to be within ¼”.

This next part is actually one of the simplest. You don’t actually have to measure anything with a tape. What you’re going to do is place the railing on the stairs against the newels and then mark where it meets the newel posts.

Time for the mitre saw again! Yay! Adjust the cutting angle so that when you bring the (not running) blade down it will cut the exact angle that you marked. Now go ahead and turn it on and do it for real.

Next you want to mock up its placement using some wood clamps.

Once you’re satisfied with the height at both ends, it’s time to screw it in. I again used 3” deck screws with pilot holes and countersunk. There are a couple different ways to attach the rail, but this is the simplest and it seems to be holding very well.

So – at this point in the process I was here:

Pretty good for a few hours’s work if I do say so myself! Next instalment-the spindles, when we finally get to use our nail gun.

1 Response to So You Want to Make a Railing (Chad's Tech Tips)

April 25, 2014 at 6:14 AM

You guys, this is amazing. Like you Chad, I've been putting off this project because I've been afraid I'm going to *%$ it up (and then I'll have a huge, dangerous hole in the middle of my apartment!). But you are giving me major confidence. Plus now I will have an excuse to buy a nail gun! YEAH!! I'm looking forward to the next post...

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