Installing Over-the-Post Handrailing, continued
Fitting the Handrail
Once the posts are installed, the real fun begins.
Over-the-post handrailing requires the use of special railing
sections, or fittings, to flow gracefully through its turns and
rises. There are three basic types of fittings to work with:
starting fittings, goosenecks, and transition fittings.
Fitting tangents. Starting
fittings connect to the main railing with an upturn, or easing.
For a smooth transition to the straight rail segment, the
starting fitting must be trimmed square to the rake angle of
the stair. Although you can buy a handrail miter jig for this,
I establish the correct angle with my pitch block.
I begin by laying the starting volute or turnout flat, with
its curved section sweeping upward (Figure 4). I then slide the
pitch block under the curve, tread edge down and parallel to
the section. At the exact point where the hypotenuse of the
pitch block contacts the curve -- the tangent point -- I make a
small pencil mark on the side of the fitting.
Figure 4.The correct cut location on a curved
easing is established by positioning the pitch block beneath
the curve and marking the tangent point (top). Rotating the
block 90 degrees from its original position defines the cut
line across the face of the easing (bottom).
Standing the pitch block on its riser end alongside the
fitting lets me align the hypotenuse with the pencil mark. At
that point, I trace the hypotenuse across the face of the
To make the resulting cut accurately, I first make a jig from
the diagonal cutoff from the pitch block, screwed to a matching
piece to double its thickness and mounted on a 1x2 base (Figure
Figure 5.A simple tangent jig, clamped to the
fence of a miter saw, makes for accurate cuts in curved
easings. The 1x2 base of the jig is allowed to run long at
first, and the tangent point from the easing is marked on the
base of the jig, which is cut off square at that point (top).
The tangent point marked on the fitting is then aligned with
the end of the 1x2 as the saw blade is dropped slowly through
the stock (bottom).
Goosenecks. At landings, or at the end of a flight,
over-the-post handrailing commonly transitions over the newel
post with a gooseneck fitting. The fitting has a cap, drilled
to fit over the newel's pin top, that's mitered to a trimmable
vertical section equal to two risers. A separate, curved easing
piece -- which is cut to the rake angle in the same manner as
the starting easing -- connects the vertical section of the
gooseneck with the run railing below.
Making connections. Most
rail easings come with one end already squared to a horizontal
or vertical railing transition and predrilled for the rail bolt
used to connect adjoining segments. The site-cut end of the
fitting must also be drilled for a rail bolt. An inexpensive
rail-bolt wrench, available from the stair manufacturer,
simplifies this job considerably (Figure 6).
Figure 6.A built-in gauge on the proprietary
rail-bolt wrench provides necessary drilling centers for bolt
and access holes. Drilling the access hole before the bolt hole
prevents the access-hole bit from wandering when the lead spur
intersects the bolt hole.
Figuring the railing run.
Before you can connect the gooseneck easing, the run railing
must be cut to length. I've found that the best gauge for
determining the segment length is the staircase itself. With
the volute or turnout dry-connected to the lower end, I lay the
railing section directly on the steps, over the layout line. I
make a temporary support for the volute to hold its bottom
flush with the first tread (Figure 7). The final step is to
position the trimmed easing alongside the railing at the
correct offset from the landing newel, then mark and cut the
Figure 7.The staircase itself provides the best
way to measure railing runs. With the starting newel removed
and the volute fitting connected and supported on a temporary
rest (top left), the author marks the run railing for length,
measuring back from the landing newel to the easing fitting
(top right). The offset distance for the easing is already
determined by the cap fitting (bottom).
Vertical transitions are easiest to mark for cutting when
dry-mounted and leveled on the landing newel. With the railing
resting in position on the steps, measure up from the top of
the easing a distance equal to the height of the starting newel
and mark the vertical section for cutting.
Don't drill for the rail bolt until you've checked the entire
segment assembly for fit. The starting and transition newels
must be both parallel and plumb. If the newels lean toward each
other, you've cut the run railing or the vertical fitting too
short; as always, it's better to measure strong and have to
trim a little off.
I assemble fittings with a generous application of adhesive.
In the center of the bonding area, I use PL400. Around the
edges, however, I use common yellow wood glue, because the
squeeze-out cleans up more completely -- essential for an
unblemished clear finish. And I don't touch any squeeze-out
until the glue has dried; this saves a lot of unnecessary
I have one unvarying standard for spacing balusters: Viewed
from the side, the face of the first baluster (at the front of
the tread) aligns with the face of the riser (Figure 8). The
first baluster location determines the positions of the others.
Whether I install two or three balusters per tread, I maintain
a uniform spacing between them.
Figure 8.The face of the first baluster aligns
with the riser face. Other balusters are spaced by equal
division of the tread from the face of one riser to the
Wood balusters come in two types, pin-top and square-end, and
in several lengths. The top of a square-end baluster is first
cut to the rake angle, which fits into a matching plow in the
underside of a proprietary handrail. The plow between balusters
is capped with a fillet strip that's included with the
Pin-top balusters self-dowel into 5/8-inch site-drilled holes
in the underside of an unplowed rail. After marking and
drilling the baluster locations on the stair treads, I
temporarily insert and plumb it and mark its location square
across the underside of the rail, which is dry-fitted to the
posts (Figure 9).
Figure 9.With the assembled railing dry-fitted to
the newels, balusters are inserted and plumbed to establish the
positions of the holes in the underside of the
Once I've marked the positions of the balusters, I remove the
handrail from the newel posts and lay it upside down on the
stairs. Positioning the railing like this lets me drill the
baluster holes plumb (Figure 10). To ensure accuracy, I use a
drill with a bubble vial built into the handle, but you can
also do this by eyeballing the angle of the drill bit against a
try square standing on the tread. I wobble the bit slightly
while drilling to ream the edges of the holes. This simplifies
fitting the balusters into the holes.
Figure 10.Drilling accurate holes for pin-top
balusters is most easily done by turning the railing upside
down on the stair. In that position, plumb holes will lie at
the correct angle to the railing.
After a complete dry-run test fit, I put a squirt of PL400 in
every dowel hole -- treads, railing, and fittings -- drop the
railing into place, and set the balusters singly, beginning at
the bottom and working up. The top end of the railing is left
loose, allowing me to lift it as needed to insert a stubborn
baluster or add a dowel bolt. But when I drill the underside of
the railing, I make the holes deep enough for some vertical
play, so that I can lift and then drop the balusters into the
Unlike yellow glue, PL400 is forgiving stuff, with a
sufficient open time to work a rail run without dripping or
forcing me to rush. It also fills small gaps around dowel ends,
making a rugged, permanent connection.
Ken Reisis a freelance carpenter in Brewster,