Stair rail assemblies consist of three parts: the stair rail or handrail, a horseshoe-shaped bracket and a triangular bracket with an arm. The triangular bracket screws to the wall. The rail is secured to an arm on the triangular bracket via a horseshoe bracket, which screws to the underside of the stair rail. If your handrail tilts, squeaks or feels like it might come off, chances are that the problem is one of the components or a combination of all three.
The stair rail is mounted to the wall with three screws that penetrate through a triangle bracket. There's two at the top and one at the bottom. All three screws penetrate through the drywall into a single stud. The top two may be at a slight angle to penetrate into the center of the stud. If any or all of the screws loosen or strip, the handrail is in danger of coming off completely. The problem might be because of faulty installation or simple attrition of the rail. It will rattle, tilt, twist or all of the above. Repair it by using a drill/driver to remove all three screws from the triangle bracket. Measure the screws and replace them with screws that are at least 3/4 inch longer than the originals. Drive them tight into the original holes from the old screws. Do each bracket the same way, one at a time.
The horseshoe bracket is directly under the rail. The horseshoe part of the bracket fits over the rounded arm, extending up at an angle from the triangle bracket. This bracket takes a real beating when people twist the rail or use it for leverage when climbing or descending stairs. The same principle applies here as on the triangle bracket. There are two screws on each side of the horseshoe bracket, one on each side of the arm, penetrating up through the bracket and into the bottom of the stair rail. Use the drill/driver to remove the screws from one bracket at a time. Replace the original screws with screws that are 3/4-inch longer than the originals using the original screw holes. To make the job easier, use a padded clamp to add pressure to the bracket and stair rail before screwing the bracket back on.
Add More Brackets
Some stair rail bracket spacings are over 72 inches, which is way too far. If the spacing on the triangle brackets exceeds 32 inches, add more brackets as needed to strengthen the rail. Spacing problems are typically due to installers who work in haste or because the rail initially seemed secure with only a few brackets. Or perhaps the wall studs have been placed at odd intervals. Use a stud finder to locate all of the studs along the length of the rail behind the wall and mark them. Add additional brackets to as many of the studs as needed strengthen the rail. Some of the brackets may have slightly different configurations. Remove one of the brackets and take it with you to the home supply store to make sure you get the right one.
It's rare, but splits or cracks can seriously weaken your rail. It's likely that the problem is only a single split along grain lines. This type of split originates as a flaw in the grain pattern. Strengthen a rail like this by removing it from the brackets. Pry open any cracks or splits with the tip of a putty knife and inject wood glue into the crack. Place clamps across the split and tighten them until glue oozes out. Allow the glue to dry overnight and remove the clamps. To prevent the damage from reoccurring, cut a strip of 1/4-inch-thick hardwood the same width and length as the base of the handrail. Apply glue and hold it to the bottom of the rail with as many clamps as you can find. Space them side-by-side if possible. Allow the glue to dry overnight and sand and finish the strip if desired. Screw the rail back onto the horseshoe brackets using screws that are 1 inch longer than the originals.
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