If your stair railing is old, dysfunctional, not to code, or simply not to your taste, you may have considered changing it for something new, safe, and stylish.
This might seem a daunting task, but for a straightforward stair railing, you can DIY a new one yourself with a few basic tools. This tutorial will take you through the step-by-step process of removing your old stair railing, building your new one, and installing and securing it.
Of course, you can (should!) customize your own stair railing (a benefit to any DIY project). You’ll need to check building codes in your area and plan accordingly. This tutorial shows a straight stair railing that is less than 8’ long (thus requiring no center support), with balustairs/rails that are spaced 4” on center. Finished, it is nearly 40” in height.
This is how the stair railing looked before. It is original to our early 1980s home.
Rails are wooden and generic in style.
The railing was painted white and shows every knick and speck of dirt and splash of raspberry jam. I suppose the latter is forgivable…but only just.
All of those cosmetic complaints would be nothing, though, were it not for the significant safety issue facing this original railing: spacing between parts of the rails exceeded 4” (sometimes by almost a whole inch), and we have had infants’ and toddlers’ heads get frighteningly stuck between the rails. Not good.
So, let’s get to it. You’ll want to measure the length of your railing, from wall to the outer edge of where your post will be. In this example, we built the new railing to precisely replace the original railing footprint.
The bare-bones plan for this new railing is this: 4x4s for the two side posts, 4x4s for the top and bottom rails attaching between the vertical posts, and a 1×6 as the top surface of the railing.
Measure and mark the length of your top railing (minus the width of your two posts) on the 4×4. Tip: Choose the best 4×4 for the job of your top and bottom railings. Remember that the top side of your top railing will be covered with the 1×6 piece, so you can use your worst side for the top of the top railing. Same for the bottom of the bottom railing. The sides and the top of the bottom railing are going to be most visible, so choose the best 4×4 faces for these positions.
Use a miter saw to cut your 4×4 precisely. Repeat this for your bottom railing.
Now it’s time to measure your posts. You’ll want to work backward on this. The length of the pipe spindles/rails (standard are 26” and 32” rails) plus the height of your top and bottom railings PLUS the 1×6 cap piece must be to code. In this example, we exceeded code, with a 39-3/4” handrail height, floor to top. (32” rails + 3-1/2” nominal height of 4×4 top railing + 3-1/2” bottom railing + 3/4″ nominal height of 1×6 cap.) So, in my example, the posts themselves are 39” (the height of everything except the 1×6 cap).
Measure, mark, and cut your posts. At this point, you should have two identical-length top and bottom railings and two identical-length side posts, all out of 4×4.
At this point, I like to take stock of all the pieces and decide which pieces will go where. In a place that will be covered or hidden, I write the piece’s orientation to my space so that I keep my favorite lumber faces exposed and front-and-center (and the worst faces tucked away).
It’s now time to prepare all the joints that need to happen on this handrail/railing. Because you’re using 4×4 lumber, you’ll need the Kreg HD jig (the regular jig doesn’t fit 4×4 lumber). Good news: It’s impossibly easy to set up and use.
First, adjust the stop collar on your HD drill bit so it is 4-3/4” away from the shoulder of the bit. Tighten the stop collar into place.
Next, attach the stop block to the drill guide. Place the drill bit through the drill holes, and make sure that the tip of the drill bit is 3/8” away from the stop block. Adjust if necessary.
Take one of your vertical posts and, on the bottom end of the side that will be facing you when the handrail is installed (opposite the stairs), center and clamp the drill guide in place.
I ended up using two clamps with each placement (only one clamp is shown here) for a more secure fit. Notice how the stop block butts up against the bottom edge of the post.
Drill into the two guide holes to create two pocket holes.
When you’re drilling into 4x4s, you don’t have to adjust the drill guide to get two perfectly spaced and centered pocket holes. That’s a bonus.
Turn your post over, and drill two more holes on the exact opposite side of the bottom of your post. At this point, you should have four pocket holes drilled into the two opposite sides of one vertical post. These drilled sides will be the sides that face the stairs and the room; the two non-drilled sides will face the railing and wall (or whatever else lies along that handrail axis at your house). Repeat this step on the bottom end of your other vertical post.
If you’re mounting the handrail to a wall, you will drill pocket holes into the top end of ONLY the post that mounts to that wall. In this example, one vertical post mounts to a wall, and the other is a freestanding post in the center of nothing, at the top of the stairs. So, toward the “wall” side on the top of this vertical post, I will drill two pocket holes.
Place the drill guide accordingly; it’s going to look strange. Drill your pocket holes through the top edge.
This post is now ready to be installed on the wall via the top, and attached to the floor (on the two sides 90-degrees from this wall-mount side) via pocket screws on the bottom sides. Perfect.
Before any installing is done, however, we still need to prepare the top and bottom railings. Label these accordingly. You’ll notice that the top of the top railing is a bit chewed up; this is okay, because it will be covered with the 1×6 cap piece. I also label which way each end of the railing is facing.
On both ends of the top of the TOP railing (I know that probably sounds complicated, but take it slowly in your brain), drill two pocket holes. These holes are for attaching the railing to the vertical posts. Then, spin your TOP railing over 180 degrees so you’re looking at the bottom of the top railing; drill two more pocket holes into each side. At this point, on your TOP railing, you should have four pocket holes at each end; two on top, and two on bottom. Tip: The bottom holes on your top railing will technically be visible, but because they’re on the bottom of the railing, you won’t actually see them. The top holes on your top railing will (you could recite this in your sleep by now) be covered by the 1×6 cap piece. On only the bottom side of your BOTTOM railing, drill two pocket holes on each end. DO NOT DRILL POCKET HOLES INTO THE TOP SIDE OF YOUR BOTTOM RAILING, as these will be totally visible and will be ugly.
On the facing sides of your railings (e.g., the top side of your bottom railing, and the bottom side of your top railing), use a guide to drill light holes to mark the spindle/rail placements. This example shows rails spaced precisely 4” on center, which means the actual space between the rails is less than 3-1/2” because the rails themselves are 3/4″ in diameter.
Mark these rail points in the same direction on your top railing as on your bottom railing; that is, orient your railings so the two left sides align and the two right sides align, then use your template moving in the same direction on each railing. This will facilitate perfection in vertically aligned rails/spindles.
Use a medium grit (120) sandpaper, and sand everything. Don’t forget the corners.
Wipe away the dust.
Apply wood filler to cracks, splits, knot holes, or any imperfections that you want to seal up on the sides of your 4x4s that will be visible.
Smooth the wood filler, but don’t stress about getting it perfect at this point. You’ll sand it down after it dries thoroughly.
Let the wood filler dry completely. Tip: Place your 4x4s on a slightly raised surface to allow maximum air flow and circulation while they dry.
When the wood filler is completely dry, use a fine grit (220) sandpaper and have at it.
The directions on my wood filler recommends hand sanding (as opposed to a higher-speed orbital sander). I did both and noticed no difference in the wood filler; the only difference I did notice was that the orbital sander was much faster. So. Choose the level of risk you’re feeling up for, and go with it.
With your railings sanded and smoothed out, you can do one of two things. You can finish (paint, stain, seal, whatever) the wood before doing anything else, or you can install the baluster connectors. Because we weren’t sure what finish we wanted at this point, we went ahead with the rail/spindle connectors.
The most important thing with screwing these connectors in place is, aside from their actual precise placement along the board itself, to screw them in exactly straight up-and-down.
With everything sanded and ready to go, it’s time to move inside and begin install. To begin, we’ll attach the bottom railing to the vertical posts via the two pocket holes on the bottom side of the bottom railing.
Use a right-angle clamp to hold the pieces in place and together, after double-checking the positioning of the vertical post.
Use 2-1/2” HD pocket screws to attach the railing to the post.
Repeat for the other vertical post. Your handrail is held together at this point with four pocket screws on the bottom (two on each end) and now resembles a “U” shape.
This step is optional, but I recommend it. Dry-fit the rails/spindles/balusters (whatever you want to call them) onto your connectors, then place your top railing onto them. Use a rubber mallet to gently tap the top railing down so it is flush with the top of your vertical posts.
Don’t worry if it doesn’t side exactly square at this unconnected point; you’ll square everything up when you install the handrail.
You can position the handrail where it’s going to go; check it out for size, look, fit, whatever. Now is the time to make any obvious adjustments. (Although hopefully you have none to make because it’s perfect!)
Next step is to remove the existing handrail. Every railing is probably a little bit different, depending on who installed it/how it was installed. But we began by removing any existing trim pieces and visible screws.
Next came a pounding out of the spindles.
The top railing came off next…
…followed by the bottom “railing.”
Because the wall that we’re connecting to has baseboards, we’ll have to cut that out in order to fit our handrail flush against the wall itself. Use a square to mark precisely where the baseboard needs to be cut.
Use a multi-function (Dremel) tool to cut it out.
A file or chisel and hammer should remove the baseboard chunk pretty easily.
There we go. Flat wall for our vertical post.
Except, of course, the bolt that held the original top railing to the wall. This was installed inside our wall from the nearby closet. Instead of breaking through walls to try to remove this thing, we decided to leave it there.
Holding the vertical post level and straight next to the wall, we marked where this particular bolt would hit our post, then drilled out a hole for it to live in for the next 40 decades. You’re welcome, little bolt.
We then turned our attention to removing the rest of the post. Ours was attached into the floor itself. So we used a reciprocating saw to carefully cut the post at the level of the sub-floor (or whatever level the rest of your handrail will be sitting on), then flattened and smoothed the surface as needed with a file and hammer.
Some of the hardwood (about 1/4″ on two sides) had to be cut out as well. To be honest, that hurt a little because it feels so, I don’t know, permanent. But it enabled a secure and beautiful fit for our new handrail post.
With the handrail fitting into its perfect footprint, it’s now time to mount it. We slid the wall post to be flush against the wall, keeping the rest of the handrail also aligned. Tip: This is definitely a two-person job, as you’ll want to ensure level at all three dimensions before you install.
If you recall, we don’t currently have a method in place to attach the bottom part of the vertical post to the wall. Don’t worry. This is where 6” timber screws come into play.
Remove the top railing and several (if not all) of your spindles.
Determine the level/height at which you want your timber screws to be installed, then pre-drill holes into your 4×4 at that/those positions. Tip: Be sure to check for framing stud presence first, or the timber screws won’t be much help.
Slide and hold the handrail in place, flush against the wall and level every other direction, then screw the timber screws into the wall.
Use 2-1/2” HD pocket screws now to attach the bottom of the now-wall-mounted vertical post to the floor, two screws on each side through the pocket holes.
Also, double checking the flush and level lines, attach the top of the vertical post to the wall via the two top-edge pocket holes.
This end is now secure.
We move on to the “floating” post side of things. Because the vertical post here is only connected to the bottom railing via two pocket screws on the bottom, we’re going to add support with two more 6” timber screws. Predrill through the vertical post into the top part of the bottom railing, taking care not to aim too high, which will expose the screw end and be ugly.
Now, because the trim piece will hit in the middle of these screws’ heads, we have to counter-sink them with a 1/2″ drill bit.
Screw the timber screws into the vertical post all the way, so their heads fall at or below the vertical post face. They’ll be tucked away here, actually hidden completely from view when we’re done with them.
At this point, before the post is mounted to the floor, we wanted the railing to be one seamless piece to ensure that it will all fit and work together as planned. Replace all your spindles and the top railing. When the railing is flush with the top of your vertical posts, use 2-1/2” HD pocket screws to attach the end of the railing to the wall-mounted vertical post via the top pocket holes.
Do the same on the bottom pocket holes.
And repeat for the “floating” post end, top and bottom pocket holes of the top railing into the vertical post.
Because screwing into pocket holes can sometimes (not always, but sometimes) move the entire piece a fraction of an inch, we wanted the floating end to be secured to the floor before attaching the pocket screws. So, we centered and marked where we wanted four sets of timber screws along/through the bottom railing.
Predrill these holes for the 6” timber screws.
Install the timber screws, taking care with the first one especially that the handrail is precisely in place and level everywhere.
Here is one set of timber screws.
I like how these match the black balusters without being overt and obvious.
We did four sets total along the bottom railing, evenly spaced, to secure the bottom railing more thoroughly to the floor. Now, use those 2-1/2” HD pocket screws and secure the floating post to the floor via the four pocket holes.
With everything completely installed and secure, it’s time to think about trim. Measure and mark your 1/3 trim boards to lie flush against the wall, the bottom railing, and the floating vertical post. Use a miter saw to cut a 45-degree angle that leads OUT AND AWAY from the measured distance.
Repeat for both sides of your handrail, then cut the top piece with two 45-degree angles to fit perfectly against them.
Fill the tops of your pocket holes with wood filler, because these will be visible above your 1×3 trim board. Let them dry, then sand with 220-grit sandpaper until they are smooth and the wood filler perimeter disappears.
Measure, mark, and cut your 1×6 board to extend 3/4” or 1” longer than your entire top surface (vertical post end to vertical post end). Sand this board until it’s perfectly smooth. Run a bead of wood glue along the top of your vertical posts and top railing.
Center, then lay your 1×6 on top of your handrail. Clamp into place.
Use 1-1/4” or 1-1/2” brad nails to nail cap board into place.
These nail holes will be visible, so you’re going to want to fill them to re-create your smooth handrail top.
Fill with wood filler, let it dry, then sand it smooth.
Your pocket hole wood filler sands easily and will look something like this.
Your handrail cap board will be perfectly smooth and delightful after sanding. Wipe away all sanding dust.
Stain if you want. In this example, we skipped the stain and simply applied a few coats of matte clear Polycrylic.
Even without staining, the clear coat brings out the wood’s natural beautiful wood grain. We absolutely love this.
There is a richness in the wood grain with a simple clear coat. Apply, then sand with fine grit, then apply a second coat. Repeat sanding and application for a third coat.
Let it dry. Congratulations! Your new contemporary-industrial handrail looks gorgeous.
Black pipe rails (aka balusters or spindles) are both straightforward and chic.
The contrast of the black spindles of this stair railing and the blonde wood is striking. When you have other wooden elements in your space (such as a stained hardwood floor), consider contrasting your handrail wood with those other elements to let it stand out.
You can see here the overhang of the 1×6 cap board. This adds some substance to the railing, as well as hides the holes and flaws underneath. It does have a bit of craftsman flavor, too.
Here is a closeup of the half-filled pocket holes, covered with trim and sealed up. At this distance, the wood filler might look a little overt…
…but you can see here that, visually taken in with the overall handrail, the pocket hole filler becomes nearly invisible. In addition to the aesthetic improvement, I like the idea of having the holes filled and flush with the rest of the wood, so they don’t collect dust, grime, and/or bugs.
The stair railing here becomes more of a statement piece than the painted builder-grade handrail that was here before. This is a huge bonus for the stair railing that lives in the entryway, for sure.
Better yet, the less-than-4” spacing between each rail is up to code, and the increase in railing height is more comfortable and safe for our household.
We hope you find this DIY stair handrail tutorial helpful and useful. Happy DIYing!