How to Build Handrails for Steps

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Exterior stairs are safer with handrails.
Exterior stairs are safer with handrails. (Image: outdoor night stairs with metallic handrails image by d_j_ang0 from Fotolia.com)

Most people traverse steps every day, but that does not mean that it cannot be a dangerous endeavor. Installing handrails on stairs is the easiest way to ensure that people can move safely from the top to bottom of them. The rails help people keep their balance and steady themselves, in the event of slippery footing. Most building codes either recommend or require handrails on stairways.

Things You'll Need

  • Level
  • Tape measure
  • Marker
  • Wooden handrail and bracket set
  • Chalk line
  • Stud finder
  • Pencil
  • Electric drill and drill bits
  • Miter saw
  • Chalk
  • Calculator
  • Metal flanges and railing set

Indoor Stairs

Set a level with one end tight against the front of your bottom step. Start a tape measure at the spot where the level and step touch, and measure 32 inches up from this point. Mark the level at this location.

Hold your handrail diagonally and measure the width of the rail. Also, measure the height of the brackets you have selected to hold the railing in place. Add these two measurements together, and then subtract that number from 32 inches. For example, if your railing is 4 inches thick and your brackets are 3 inches tall, subtract 7 inches from 32, leaving you with 25 inches.

Mark the level at the spot of your new measurement (25 inches, or whatever number you came up with). Set the level flat against the bottom step, as before, and mark the wall at the new spot. Move up to the top stair and mark the wall at the new measured spot. Snap a chalk line between these two spots to give you the angle at which you will install your railing; you can hang brackets anywhere along this line.

Locate the studs in your wall using a stud finder. Mark each edge of the stud, placing a pencil mark on the wall. Measure to the center of the stud, and mark that location on your installation line.

Drill a pilot hole with a 7/64-inch drill bit onto the spot where your installation line meets the center of your bracket, just above your bottom stair. Install your bracket using as many pilot holes and screws as necessary; different bracket styles will require different numbers and types of screws. Repeat bracket installation over your top stair, as well.

Line up your railing piece with the skirt board that runs over the wall above your stairs. Mark the railing at the point where the skirt board starts diagonally up and down your stairs. If you have no skirt board, mark the railing about 2 inches longer than the edges of both the top and bottom steps.

Cut off any excess handrail pieces using a miter saw set at a 45-degree angle. Set the railing on the bracket and screw in the bracket's collars to secure the bracket to the railing.

Outdoor Stairs: Calculations

Make a chalk mark on your top and bottom step at the locations in which you want to install the posts for your handrails. Record the measurements of the height of each step, the depth of each step (front to back) and the distance between the edge of the steps and these marked locations.

Add the length of the steps to the distance between the steps and marks. As a separate calculation, add the step heights together. Divide the height calculation by the length calculation, then perform an inverse tangent (tan-1) on your calculator. The final number is the angle at which you need to install your handrail. Select your fittings and flanges based on this angle calculation; consult a professional and a hardware or home improvement store if you need help finding these fittings.

Use your calculator to square the height calculation and length calculation. Add the two squares together and take the square root of that number. This provides you with the length you need for the pipe handrail.

Outdoor Stairs: Installation

Set the flange on the chalk mark on your bottom step. Push a piece of chalk through the flange’s screw holes to leave a mark on the surface. Remove the flange, leaving only the marks behind.

Attach the appropriate drill bit to your electric drill. For concrete or brick, use a carbide masonry bit; use a regular bit for wood. Drill pilot holes for your brick screws, concrete anchors or finishing nails, depending on the type of steps.

Set the flange in place again. Insert the screws, anchors or nails into the pilot holes and secure them in place. Insert the bottom post into the bottom flange and secure it into place with the provided screws, unless otherwise instructed by your railing product. Repeat the flange attachment process with your top flange and post. Use a cord or tape measure to line up the flanges.

Attach the fittings to the top of each post. Depending on your railing product, you may need a wrench or screwdriver to secure these in place. Insert the handrail between the two fittings and secure it into place. Test the railing with your weight to make sure it will hold.

Tips & Warnings

  • If you want your indoor railing to touch the wall directly, take the 45-degree pieces you cut from the ends of railing and glue them on the opposite ends.
  • Some outdoor handrails will include plugs to protect the railing from rain. Use a mallet to bang them into place.
  • Always wear protective gloves and goggles when cutting wood to protect yourself from shrapnel or splinters.

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