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

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Hello! Welcome to a second installment of ‘Chad’s Tech Tips’! It’s unbelievable! She asked me back! And my last post got a comment! WOOOHOOO!

In the last episode, I focused only on the railing going down the stairs, but all of the steps - except for finding the railing angle - apply equally to a run of straight and level railings. Anyways, in this episode we are going to finish off building our stair railing by installing our spindles and discuss the differences between spindles on staircases and spindles in straight railing runs. In order to do this, we are going to need some extra tools not mentioned last time. In no particular order:

A Small Level

A little one like this is ideal. I should’ve mentioned this in the last episode, you need one to make sure your newel and especially your half-newel are straight.

A Drill

A Drill Bit (sized for the ends of your spindles)

My spindles needed a 5/8” hole to fit. Measure your dowel end before buying a bit.

Listen: Sarah asked me to write this tutorial as if it was written just for her. This means that I’m going to  explain every detail of every little thing. I am not trying to insult anyone’s intelligence, and I’m sure some of you will be rolling your eyes, but these are my marching orders. Sarah has great design sense but hand her power tools and everything goes to &#%. Seriously. I’ve tried getting her more involved in renos so she could do more on her own .I won’t tell you the story of the time she almost stuck her arm into a running mitre saw to stop a 50 cent piece of wood hitting the floor, even though I really want to. I’m sure me mentioning this will get me some grief when she proof reads this. I’m also hoping that by mentioning getting grief that she’ll let this slip though her editorial control – reverse psychology wise. If you’re reading this, then I’ve won. Yes!

So let’s get to those spindles. I’m going to divide the rest of this post into two sections – spindles for straight run railings and spindles for railings on stairs.

Straight Run Railings

Ok – so by this point you should have newels at both ends with a railing attached between them. The instructions in the last post should provide enough info to do that. Please DO use a level on two adjacent sides of your newels to make sure they’re standing straight and true. Like so:

If you’re working with a newel that needs to be placed on uneven flooring then you may have to shim it. I had to shim our upstairs newel but unfortunately I didn’t take any pictures. I can’t find any pictures on google of this either. In any case, I will try to describe the process. First, you buy some shims:

These are super cheap, which is awesome. Buy two or three packages because they’re so cheap and come in handy in other projects. What you do is place your newel post with mounting plate on the spot you want to install it. If it’s not standing true, then you place shims on the low side. Use a single shim or a combination to get it standing the way you want. Don’t worry about the shims sticking out, you’re going to cut them flush with the mounting plate – just get the newel standing right. Once you like the placement, drill pilot holes through the shims and floor and install the mounting screws. Then flush cut the shims with whatever you have handy. The best tool would be a flush cut attachment on an oscillating tool:

…but a hacksaw or small saw will work too. Just be careful not to mark up the floor in a way that Sarah can notice. Your newel post mounting plate trim will hide any marks near the mounting plate anyways.
The next step is to calculate the spacing of your spindles. The book I mentioned in the last installment has a handy formula for figuring this out and I’m totally going to steal it and rewrite their steps.

How to calculate the spacing between spindles on a straight and level railing

If you arbitrarily space the spindles, you’ll likely end up with a huge gap on one end or the other. So, in order to avoid that I have some neat-o stolen instructions to help figure out the math.
  1. Add the width of one spindle to the targeted spacing between the spindles. The targeted spacing between spindles you can guesstimate – do you want 4” between spindles? 3”? Let’s use 4” for this example. So: (1.5 (width of spindle) + 4 (spacing) = 5.5)
  2.   Divide the vertical spacing (the distance between newels) by the result in #1. (84.5 (example distance between newels) / 5.5 = 15.36)
  3. Round the result in #2 down to determine the number of spindles required. (15)
  4. Multiply the number of spindles by the width of one spindle. (15 x 1.5 = 22.5)
  5.  Subtract the result in #4 from the spacing between the newels. (84.5 – 22.5 = 62)
  6. Add 1 to the number of spindles to account for the extra space that occurs in a balustrade. (15 + 1 = 16)
  7.  Divide the result in #5 by the result in #6 (62 / 16 = 3.875)
  8. Convert the result in #7 into a fractional equivalent for the spacing between each spindle and mark your drill holes to this size. (3.875 = 3 7/8)

I’ve made an Excel worksheet that will calculate the above for you as long as you provide the inputs which are highlighted in yellow. I’m sure I could’ve made this slicker but I’m kind of drunk and don’t care. Another important note – I take no responsibility if any of these calculations are wrong! Make sure they make sense by double checking the math and after you’ve marked the floor!

Another note - I just spent an hour online trying to find a goddamned tool to convert decimal inches to fractional inches. This link is the best I can find. It will give you the right answer, but you will have to reduce the fraction. Inputting 3.875 into this calculator will give you an answer of 3 14/16ths, which reduces to 3 7/8ths, which is the answer that people will understand.

Now that you know your spacing, you need to make marks on the floor where your spindle holes are going to go. In order to do that, you’ll want to find a centerline between the newels. Luckily, this is easy. Measure the width of your newel and place a mark on the floor at the halfway point between either edge of the newel. Do this for both ends. Then put a metre stick or some other straight edge between the marks you just made a draw a light line across the floor, joining the two marks you made on the floor.

Then, all you need to do is use your trusty measuring tape to mark off the intervals you calculated in the last step. In our example, this is 3 7/8”. Mark a perpendicular line across your centerline every 3 and 7/8”. If you’ve calculated everything right, these marks should work out and leave you with the correct amount of space between the last spindle mark and the end newel.

Phew! Now comes the scary part – drilling massive holes in your nice wood floor!

  1. TEST the drill bit you’ve purchased for size on a scrap piece of wood before actually drilling into the floor. In order to choose your bit, you need to measure the width of the dowel end of the spindles you have and buy a bit that’s that size. For the love of god, buy an actual wood bit like this. That little Christmas tree looking end of the bit will very precisely start your hole so you don’t chatter the bit all over the wood. Bring it home and drill a nice big hole in a scrap piece of wood and make sure your dowel end fits nicely into it. You should not have to force or otherwise pound the dowel end in – it should drop in nicely. If it is very tight, try a drill bit one size bigger. Equally you don’t want a lot of slop in the fit. Your dowel should not rattle around in the hole.
  2.   Next you’re going to drill the floor for real. You can put a mark or some tape on the shank of the drill bit that corresponds to the length of the dowel end of your spindles so you don’t needlessly drill too deep. Then, where your spindle lines cross the centerline you are very carefully going to place the drill bit tip into the wood with light pressure. Make sure your drill is being held straight up and down. Start slowly, drilling until the bit starts biting into the wood. Once the hole is established, you can increase the speed and pressure until your hole is deep enough.NOTE: Many drills have a speed selector or switch on them. One speed is low speed/high torque, the other is high speed/low torque. Make sure you are using the low speed/high torque setting.
  3. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Drill the first hole ONLY so you can test fit a spindle and make sure everything is lined up right.
  4. Once you have your hole, place a spindle in the hole. The spindle will be too long, but that’s ok. Angle the spindle so that is up against and behind your railing. Like this: 
  5. Now hold your little level against the spindle and make sure it is completely vertical.
  6. With a pencil, mark where the spindle intersects the bottom of the railing. Do NOT cut at this line.
  7. Now, you have to account for the channel that is cut into the bottom of the railing. Measure the depth of the channel and add this depth to the line you’ve just made on your spindle. In my case the channel was 1/16” deep, so I measured up from the line  1/16” and made another line there.
  8. Now it’s time for cutting. Put the spindle on your saw table and bring the blade down a few times with the power off so you can see exactly where it’s going to cut. Once you’re happy, power on and do it for real. Note: you don’t want the saw blade to cut right into the middle of the line you made, as this will make your spindle very slightly too short. You need to account for the width of the saw blade (the ‘kerf’). See my shitty drawing below: 
  9. Now we’re going to test fit the spindle. Because of the dowel end, the only way to insert these is to angle them in from the side. Until you get the dowel end totally in the hole, it will be tight. You may have to use a rubber mallet to pound it into place.
  10.  Now we get to see how well you’ve done. Using your level, check for vertical. Then place the level on one of the adjacent sides (the ‘front’ or ‘back’) of the railing and check to make sure this is level as well. If so, congratulations! You’ve placed your holes in the floor correctly! If it isn’t, well then it’s a good thing you haven’t drilled more than one hole. Correct the error for the subsequent spindles.
  11. Now you get to use your nail gun! Get it ready and load it with the correct nails. I used 2” nails. Practice with it on scraps of wood. It’s not complicated, but do it anyways. It’s fun. Then, double and triple check that everything is vertical then aim the nails like so: 
  12. Repeat steps 1 through 11 for the remaining spindles – until you run out of side-to-side room to insert them.
  13.  The last few a bit trickier. More amazing MS paint skills:
The way to deal with the last couple is to cut the dowel end at an angle so that you don’t need as much room to place them. Like so:

The final step is to put fillets into the channel in the underside of the railing where the spindle are not. Remember in the first post when I told you to detach the fillet and set it aside? Well now’s the time to use it. The distance between each spindle will be slightly different for each one, so you can’t just saw a bunch at once an install them. Each space needs to be measured and each piece of the fillet cut custom for that location. Then just use your nailgun to put them in place.

And that’s it! Now have someone else who didn’t have to do any math give them a sanding with fine sandpaper and then stain or paint them.

Railings on staircases

Right. Doing this on a staircase is not much more difficult than a straight run railing – actually the spindles go in easier since the tops are angled, but getting the holes marked on the floor takes a bit more time.

I did a balustrade with two spindles per stair. The way you want your spindles placed on the stair is as follows:
                -The front spindle is aligned with the stair riser beneath it;
                -The rear spindle is centered on the riser.

Here’s a picture I drew:

  1.  First things first. You’re going to need to find a centerline along the stair treads. Measure the distance from the centre of your newels out to the end of the side of the stair tread, just like you did when you installed the newels. It should be the same for both newels.
  2.  Mark this measure on each stair tread in at least two spots per tread. More is better. Then using a straight edge, join your marks into a continuous line on each tread.
  3. Measure the distance between the risers and divide by two. Mark this measure across your centerline on each tread, measuring from the riser at the rear toward the front of the stair. Your tread likely overhangs the riser at the front of the stair, so if you measure front to back, you will not be centered on the riser.
  4. Measure the amount your tread overhangs each riser at the front. To this measure, add half the width of one of your spindles. This was actually the part I had the most difficulty with as the treads are rounded and hang off the riser on all sides, so I had to kind of eyeball it. Once you have this measure, make an intersecting line on each tread centerline. (Note: Don’t tell Sarah, but ours don’t exactly match the riser below, they’re off a tiny bit. No one can tell except probably expert carpenters).
  5. Ok – scary time again. You should have enough marks to start drilling into the stair treads. Again, do one at a time in case you’ve screwed something up.
  6.  The remaining steps are the same as the steps 4 through 11 above except that your mark on each spindle top will be at an angle instead of perpendicular. This means you don’t have to worry about side-to-side clearance; they should fit in nicely. Make sure to use that level before nailing them in!
  7. As before, measure and cut the fillet pieces to fill in the unused portion of the channel on the underside of the railing.
  8. And again, whoever didn’t have to do math gets to sand, stain and paint!

And that should be that. Sorry for the delay, but I lost 25% of this post somehow (Google Drive, I kill you!) a month ago and didn’t have the strength to go on. But now it’s done. Sarah can stop nagging me…for a few days.

4 Response to So You Want to Make a Railing - Part Two (Chad's Tech Tips)

August 6, 2014 at 12:42 PM

LOVE the apron in the first pic!

August 6, 2014 at 6:25 PM

Thanks! I got it custom made!

March 17, 2015 at 8:52 AM

Your railing turned out really pretty, and it looks so professional. I really love the white with the brown accent on top, it compliments your house really well. If I knew how to work with power tools I would totally do this project myself, but I'm a little over my head with it. I'm best at sanding and painting, and I'm pretty weak in the area of building things from scratch.
Hand Rails

March 18, 2015 at 4:50 PM

Thanks Angela!
I agree, I am also pretty weak in the area of building anything. Heck, I can hardly put together things from Ikea. I would not have tried this myself either-that's what Chad is for.

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