A Distinctive Stair Rail
How to build a stain-grade and sturdy railing, balustrade, and newel posts on site with stock lumber.
Synopsis: In FHB #214, Joseph Lanza described his process for building a set of housed-stringer stairs. Here, Lanza tells how he shapes everyday lumber (4/4 and 5/4 stock) to build a distinctive railing, balustrade, and newel posts for the stair. Lanza begins by planning the layout on paper. Next, he laminates the newel posts and assembles the balustrade in sections. For the handrail, Lanza makes a sandwich of two pieces of 5/4 southern yellow pine and a mahogany accent strip in the center, then uses a router to shape the profile. After the railing assembly is in place, Lanza wraps the newel posts to finish them. This article includes sidebars on how to calculate evenly spaced balusters and how to hide fasteners.
In my business, I wear a bunch of hats, including that of finish carpenter. Building stairs is a nice mix of design and build, and it’s a challenging job. This particular railing was for a set of housed-stringer stairs that I built. Most manufactured railing parts tend to have a formal, slightly generic look. They are readily available, but they aren’t particularly cheap. If you don’t work with them often, they aren’t always easy to install. I try to avoid them because stairs and rails are one of the great opportunities to express the character of a house. While I want my stairs to have character, my own character tends to be lazy and cheap, so I’ve come up with a few ways to use everyday lumber to make distinctive railings that aren’t any more work and don’t cost any more money than most manufactured systems. The railing shown here is made from dimensional yellow pine. It took me about three days to build and cost approximately $100.
Figure it out on paper first