Once the stairs themselves were finished, I still had to sort out how to build the handrail.
I knew that I wanted it to match the style of what I had done upstairs (with clean, modern lines), but there were some tricky details to sort out.
Because the new stairs were wider and further back than our second floor stairs, the handrail couldn’t simply tie into the existing stairs. The new handrail would have to sit independently.
My inspiration for the handrail (and the stairs themselves) came from another project my architect had worked on.
I particularly liked the waterfall effect of the handrail on both sides, but this was something that couldn’t quite work with my stairs because I had to tie it back into the original stairs somehow.
In the end, I settled on a similar, but slightly different approach.
Making the Handrail
The first step was to actually make the handrail. We bought several long pieces of oak from our favourite lumber yard and made sure it was the right width and thickness. The width was already exactly what we needed: 2.5″. But the piece of oak had to be planed down to the right thickness. Once we planed it, we then used the table saw to cut out a groove on the bottom of the handle where the spindles would go. We didn’t cut the same groove for the vertical handrail pieces.
Once we had the handrail pieces made, I primed all the handrail parts, including the spindles. Luckily I had purchased extra spindles when we did our upstairs railing so we didn’t need to buy any for this project.
Preparing the Floor
One of the most fun bits of this project was figuring out the location of the spindles. It was fun because it involved a bit of math and some precision work (which I find more fun than lugging wood back and forth to the saw). I knew that I wanted at least 2¼” space between each spindle, so I figured out that I needed about 23 or 24 spindles (since my spindles were 1 1/16″ wide. To figure out exactly what I needed, I took 23 spindles, multiplied it by 1 1/16 and then added 24 spaces times 2¼. I then took my total distance, subtracted the total I just calculated, split the difference among the 23 spindles and figured out how much extra space I had to add to the 2¼. See? Easy. And fun.
I marked the centre of each spindle on the floor using painter’s tape just to make sure I had my measurements right.
I then drilled all my spindle holes, careful to make sure that they were as straight and accurate as possible.
Preparing the Spindles
Priming them took forever and when they dried, I had to re-sand them because the wood had roughened up after soaking up the primer. Priming and sanding 30 spindles was not overly fun…
I also took the time to paint 2 coats of trim paint since painting them in place is hard and I only wanted to do one coat.
Installing the Handrail and Spindles
The first step in installing the handrail was to install the vertical pieces. It required cutting holes in the floor and figuring out how to tie the handrail into the basement for support. For most stairs, at least one end of the handrail ties into the upper floor staircase. Since our stairs were no longer aligned (because they were wider and started further back), this wasn’t an option for us. Instead, we had the handrail go into the basement and tie directly into the joist.
Next, we put the handrail in place (still un-cut) and cut each spindle to size. Given there were 27 spindles, this took some time. Since the floor itself wasn’t perfectly level, I used different spindle heights to make the handrail level. I made sure to number each spindle so they wouldn’t lose their place.
Once all the spindles were cut, it was time to make the final handrail cuts. These cuts were important because they made the outer spindles and handrail plumb by pulling the pieces together.
When the handrail and spindles were all cut to size, it was time to install everything. We started at the short end of the handrail and then tackled the main part. We put wood glue in each spindle hole, placed the correct spindle, and then made the spindles plumb by using filler pieces in the groove of the handrail and tacking them in place.
We attached all the handrail pieces together by screwing them together. We later filled the holes with wood plugs.
It was extremely satisfying when everything was in place, more of less plumb and level, and finally done.
The final step was preparing for the final paint. I don’t quite remember the upstairs handrail being so painful, but caulking this one seemed to take forever. It didn’t help that I was essentially working upside down for part of the handrail on the stairs side.
Once the handrail holes were filled and the gaps were all caulked, I could finally paint the final coats. At this point, I was very much done with this project and really wanted to move on with my life.
Painting was just as tedious as caulking, if not more. I used a combination of a brush and roller to paint the underside of handrail (which was the worst) and the spindles. Luckily I had already given the spindles a few coats before they were installed, so I didn’t have to do multiple coats. I also took the opportunity to freshen up the upstairs spindles, which were even more of a pain.
But in the end, the handrail looked great!