High-quality trim carpentry is one of the most noticeable improvements you can make in your home. But hiring a carpenter for a custom project can be expensive. When it comes to railings, however, you can create the look of high-end custom woodwork even if you have only basic carpentry skills.
With ready-to-assemble components, you can build beautiful railings and save money by doing the labor yourself. From elegant curves to the straight, clean look of the Arts and Crafts movement, a variety of styles of handrails, balusters, newel posts and other components are available in different wood species. They can be mixed and matched to create just the look you’re after, and because all of the milling has been done for you, installation is far easier than it may appear.
Although it seems there are many different ready-to-install components available, in reality most are simply variations of a few basic pieces in different styles and materials. Understanding what these pieces are and what purpose they serve is crucial to constructing a railing that is not only beautiful but safe. The basic components are:
- Newel posts — the main anchor posts that bolt to the floor (also available in halves for mounting flush against a wall). Local codes determine the minimum height, but in general newels range from 41 to 54 in. tal.
- Balusters — vertical stair members that attach to the underside of the handrail and to the top of the shoe rail. In general, balusters cannot be spaced more than 4 in. apart.
- Handrails — the top members that serve as the main handhold, available in both a ploughed version (with a slot for the balusters that runs the length of the rail) and unploughed (with no baluster slot). In general, handrails are mounted no lower than 34 in. and no higher than 38 in.
- Shoe rails — ploughed rails that run beneath and parallel to the handrail to support the bottoms of the balusters.
- Fillets — thin, narrow strips of wood that fit into the plough of the shoe rail and handrail between the balusters to create a finished look.
- Newel plates — special metal brackets that anchor the newel posts to the floor.
your own railing
The first step in any railing project is to remove the old railing. Whether it is metal or wood, the removal process is basically the same: Pull back the carpet (if any), unbolt the newels from the floor (photo 1) and unbolt the handrail from the wall. If your railing utilizes half-newels that are attached to the wall, you’ll need to remove those as well.
Removing the old railing is often as simple as pulling back the carpet and unbolting the old rail from the floor.
Newel posts vary by design. Some are solid and can be screwed directly to the newel plate. The newel post I used for this project was hollow and incorporated a sliding sleeve that covered the newel plate. Because the post was hollow, I first had to fasten a solid block of wood that acted as a plug into the base of the newel so that the newel plate would have something solid into which the mounting screws could be driven (photo 2).
Attach the newel-plate components to the newel post. If your newel post is hollow, install blocks to fill any voids.
Follow the directions that come with your newel plate to safely and securely attach the newel post to the floor (photo 3). And throughout construction, always follow local codes. If you’re incorporating a halfnewel into your design, you’ll also need to screw it to the wall. To provide proper blocking for the hollow halfnewel, I first screwed a scrap of 2x4 to studs behind the drywall; then I attached the half-newel to the 2x4 (photos 4 and 5).
With the carpeting pulled back, attach the newel plate to the subfloor following the manufacturer’s instructions.
To install a hollow half-newel, first attach a 2x4 to the studs behind the drywall; then nail the half-newel to the 2x4.
Once your newel posts are in place, attach a length of 1x6 to the subfloor to serve as a decorative base for the shoe rail. Check for level and shim as necessary before driving the nails; then fasten the shoe rail to the 1x6 base (photo 6).
After nailing the 1x6 base to the subfloor, attach the ploughed shoe rail to the 1x6.
To attach the handrail, first measure the height at which you want to attach it to the newel posts. (Height is determined by the length of the balusters you’ll be installing, measured from the bottom of the plough in the shoe rail to the top of the plough in the handrail. Use a spacer to properly position the handrail; then fasten it to the newel posts using two 3-in.-long handrail screws in each end. Because my newel post is hollow, I was able to drive one of the handrail screws from inside the newel into the handrail (photo 7) and the other from underneath the handrail into the newel post (photo 8).
Fasten the handrail to the newel post by first driving one screw through the newel and into the handrail; then drive a second screw from underneath the handrail into the newel.
Cut your fillets to the necessary length for your installation (see “Baluster Placement,” below). Nail the first two fillets in place — one in the plough of the shoe rail and one in the underside plough of the handrail. Position the first baluster tight against the fillets and toe-nail it to both the shoe rail and the handrail; then repeat the process, fillets followed by balusters, until you have the entire infield of the railing completed (photo 9).
Use fillets nailed in place to properly space the balusters; then nail the balusters to the shoe rail and handrail.
All that’s left is to attach any remaining small trim pieces (such as around the newel plate), reinstall the carpeting (if necessary) and stain the railing. For this project I used Watco Danish Oil in Fruitwood top-coated with Minwax Wipe-On Satin Polyurethane.
Everyone’s railing project will be a little different depending on the installation; though these steps cover the basics, you’ll need to adjust your approach to fit your specific needs. Many home-improvement stores offer free railing-project guides that walk you through purchasing the materials and installing the components. Because safety is paramount, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Your reward will be a beautiful railing that will look as if you hired a master carpenter to build it. After your friends complement the work, you can smile and tell them you did it yourself.
It’s essential that the open space between balusters be no greater than 4 in. so that a child’s head can’t become trapped in the railing. To determine the number of balusters you’ll need for your installation, measure the distance between the newel post and the wall (or between two newel posts). Subtract 4 in. from that number; then divide that number by the baluster width plus 4 in. For example, if you have 96 in. between the newel posts and your balusters are 1-1/2 in. wide, your equation would look like this: (96 – 4) ÷ (1.5 + 4) = 16.72, rounded up to 17 balusters. To ensure equal spacing between balusters, first multiply the number of balusters by the width of one baluster and then subtract that number from the distance between the newel posts. Take that number and divide it by the number of spaces you’ll have in your railing (always one more than the number of balusters). Your answer will be the proper space (and the length of the fillet) between balusters. Let’s assume as before that you’re building a railing for a 96-in. space. If you’re using 17 balusters that are 1-1/2-in. wide, multiply 17 x 1.5 to get 25.5. Subtract 25.5 from 96 and you come up with 70.5. Divide that number by 18 (the number of spaces) and you have a fillet length of 3.91 in., or roughly 3-7/8 in.
After you’ve done your math, use a fillet cut to size and a balluster cutoff to check spacing.