Tue. May 21st, 2024

We originally planned to hire someone to come and rebuild our stairs – both in the basement and the handrail on the second floor. But as our basement work progressed, we decided to hold off on installing new basement stairs (mostly because of cost) and do the second floor stair work ourselves.

But to install a new handrail and spindles on the second floor, we had to decide what we wanted to install in the basement and first floor so we had a consistent design.


I really wanted to contrast the Victorian-style existing staircase with a modern look.

But finding modern stair parts is actually pretty challenging. And figuring out what things are called it part of that challenge. I found this resource useful. I’m pretty sure that most really great looking staircases are custom designed and made. So we had to do the same.

Because this stair project was super time consuming and we needed to get our floors done, we installed the baserail and trim first and did the handrail and spindles later. But we had to figure out the entire thing beforehand so that we knew exactly what dimensions things needed to be.

Understanding Stair Parts

The handrail is pretty self explanatory. It’s the part that you hold on to as you either walk up the stairs or that acts as a barrier from falling down the stairs to your death. 

Balusters, or spindles, are the parts that keep the structure of the stairs and prevent you (or someone very short) from falling.

The edging around the stair opening is called a stair nosing (although I’ve seen it called other things) and usually has a rounded edge (usually because the stair tread is also rounded). See left picture below.

The baserail is the piece of wood that the spindles fit into. Because we were going for a modern look, I didn’t want the normal baserail style, which usually includes a plow (a notch in the wood for the spindle to sit in). I find them too traditional for my taste and I don’t like that they sit above the finished floor height. See right picture below.

All of these pieces had to come together in a way that made sense around our stair opening. Alex and I spent a lot of time figuring out exactly what these pieces would look like and finally came up with a plan that would hopefully work.

Designing Stair Parts

Designing each part of the stairs was complicated and took a long time. We started with the handrail and spindles because everything else was based on them.

Our existing handrail was pretty traditional but I wanted something more modern (like in our design inspiration photo). I decided that I wanted a handrail with pretty sharp edges (at least in look), so we planned to buy a piece of oak and cut it to the right width and thickness. We landed on a 2½”-wide handrail (the old one was 2¼”) and about 1¼” thick.

I wanted square spindles and we managed to find some at Rona, of all places. And they were fairly cheap: $3.89 each, on sale.

Finding edging pieces that I liked was also nearly impossible. Most edging is rounded (to match traditional rounded stair treads) and I really don’t like the look. So I had my dad make a few pieces with sharper edges to see what it would look like. It looked much better!

Finally, I wanted the spindles to go directly into the floor, so creating the baserail was fairly simple. The plan was to create a baserail piece that was exactly the same width as the handrail (2½”) and would sit directly below the handrail so the spindles fit in the middle of it.

Stair Construction

Because we were constructing our new stair pieces at the same time as our hardwood floor installation, we had to time the construction in a certain way so that we could finish all of the parts of the stairs that would be sanded as part of the other floor work.

Stair Tread

We started by installing the top step of the stairs so we could frame around it.

We purchased a solid oak stair from Rona and made some complicated cuts to fit it in place. Unfortunately we didn’t follow the measure-twice-cut-once rule, so we ended up having to buy a new tread and start again.

We cut a new hole into the stringer so the step would have some extra support.

Because of the thickness of the stair tread, we decided to remove the subfloor so that we didn’t have to plane the tread very much. And when we planed it, we made sure that it would sit exactly flush (or very very close to flush) with our new hardwood.

And we made sure that the stair was securely fastened so there would be no movement. Ever.

Baserail and Edging

Next we created the baserail and edge pieces.

Before we could install the baserail and edge pieces, we had to square up our stair opening. We removed the drywall around the opening and shimmed it until it was square.

Instead of drywall, we used a thin plywood (which we painted) to finish the wall.

Once we knew exactly where the edge of the wall would be, we could figure out where the edging piece and baserail would sit. In our design, we planned to have a small overhang (sort of like an upside down L). But when we actually went to install the piece, we decided to simply have a piece of 3/8″ oak (to be flush with the hardwood) that went straight out into the stair opening by 1/8″ (so no upside down L shape). We knew where the baserail would sit and then calculated how wide the edging piece needed to be. Then we cut and planed our oak. 

The turn in the stair opening was created by mitering the pieces.

We how have to wait until our floors are finished to install the rest of the stairs.

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