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Installing an Over-the-Post Handrail - Part One - Continued

Then I set one stand on the second tread up from the bottom, and one on the top tread, with one or two intermediate stands on a long stair. I screw a 1x4 platform across the stand brackets and adjust them so that the railing, when sitting on the 1x4, will be 34 inches above the nosings, per code, and at the same pitch as the stair. To set the pitch, I use either a digital level or place a torpedo level on my pitch block.

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The author sets the handrail platform angle by putting a torpedo level on his pitch block, made on site for each stair. The triangular pitch block is cut from a piece of 1-by lumber, with the tread rise on one leg and the tread depth on the other; the hypotenuse thus produced describes the pitch of the stair.

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A rough length of rake railing is clamped to the platform.

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He checks for regulation height.

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The author centers the railing on the baluster line using a laser plumb bob for reference.

I clamp a rough length of straight rail onto the 1x4 and check its location with a laser plumb bob, making sure the centerline of the rail bottom is plumb over the baluster centers. If an adjustment is necessary, I shim the stands to correct the alignment. The handrail must remain snug against the vertical face of the stand. Finally, I connect the rail stands with horizontal braces for stability.

Fitting the Volute

The up-easing on a manufactured flat volute has to be cut to the pitch angle of the stair. To do so, I set the volute on a flat surface and slide the pitch block under the easing, with the run edge of the pitch block horizontal, then make a mark on its bottom exactly where the pitch block touches it. This is the tangent point, where the line of rise intersects the easing's radial curve. Use a strong backlight to make it easier to see the exact point of contact.

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With the volute section laid flat and the easing rising, the pitch block is slid into place and its exact point of contact — the tangent point — marked on the easing.

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Then the pitch block is turned to its complementary angle and scribed across the easing at the tangent point to show the cut line.

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The author screws an auxiliary fence and table to his saw to create a more stable base and a higher continuous fence. A kerf in the base makes it easy to line up the tangent point with the blade. Hot-melt glue secures the pitch block to the volute for support during cutting.

Next, I flip the pitch block 90 degrees to mark the cut line across the up-ease through the tangent point. To make the cut, I temporarily hot-glue the pitch block to the bottom of the volute for support and make the cut with the blade set plumb and square on the chop saw.

After cutting, I connect the volute to the straight rail section, clamp it to the stands, and check it for level. If the cut needs correcting, it's a lot easier and safer to do it on the straight rail section. I just loosen the rail bolt enough to raise or lower the volute to level, then mark the correction on the straight rail. But I never glue the connections until I've totally dry-fit the entire railing assembly.

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The volute is drilled for rail bolts and fitted to the rake rail section.

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The assembly is then clamped on the rail platform for positioning.

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To correct for level, the author loosens the rail bolts enough to allow the volute to drop. The reveal at the connection can then be marked for recutting, which is easiest on the straight rake railing.

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The author's preferred rail bolt can be tensioned with a nail set. Bottom holes are later plugged with matching stock.

Locating the Volute Newel

Typically, there's a paper pattern in the box the volute comes in. I scissor a notch in the pattern so that it fits on the bottom bullnose tread. The notch wraps the corner where the second tread's riser and face skirt miter; the volute's centerline aligns with the baluster layout line. I move the pattern forward and back until I like the way the volute falls on the bullnose tread, at which point I punch a reference hole through the newel-post center mark into the tread.

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The paper pattern shipped with the volute is fitted to the bullnose tread. The newel center point is targeted with a laser plumb bob.

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The volute is slid up or down the support platform until its dowel hole is directly centered above the pattern.

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The railing assembly is clamped and marked on the platform for future reference.

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The author punches the newel center mark through the pattern into the finish tread.

I remove the template and set my laser plumb bob over the mark, then move the rail assembly up or down until the laser dot hits the center of the volute's dowel hole. Then I clamp the railing tight to the stand. Now I've got my volute and straight rail exactly where they'll be permanently fixed — both in plan and elevation — on the finished stair.

Before removing them to fit the gooseneck at the upper landing, I measure between the bottom of the volute and the bullnose tread to find the length of the volute newel. I pencil witness marks between the rail-stand platform and the railing so that I can later return the assembly to the exact same spot to fit the gooseneck.

Jed Dixonis a master stair carpenter in Foster, R.I., and a regular presenter at JLC Live.