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Installing Stair Railings

- Continued Fascia. The next piece I install is the fascia under the landing tread sections that edge the opening. This piece stabilizes the landing tread itself, and also helps lock in the posts. Again, it will hide any shims behind the post where the posts attach to the wall. I install the landing tread, then the fascia so I can make sure that the landing tread is perfectly level all three ways: out from the floor, side to side, and front to back. When the balusters are put in place, if the landing tread is not level, a crack will show at the joint where it meets the baluster. The landing tread extends 2 1/8 inches out over the opening, so it could easily sag or rock. So to prevent this, I set a small level on the landing tread, hold the fascia firmly up under it with one hand, and nail the fascia on with 8d finish nails. I don't use glue here because I'm fastening to drywall. The drawing in Figure 5 shows how the landing trim is built up.

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Figure 5. Landing tread and fascia are fastened in place before balusters are set. Cove molding and base cap are nailed on last.

The little pieces of cove and cap molding I save for later — for now I move to the rails.

The Rail Deal

I start with the rake rails (the sloped ones). These have a pitch cut at the bottom that has already been done in the shop. In case of some discrepancy, the other end has been left long. In the field, I set the rail down on the stairs and butt that bottom cut to the bottom post, then mark the top of the rail where it meets the top post (see photo, page 1). This method is more accurate and quicker than using a tape. I use the same method on the level railings: I take the actual rail (first checking to make sure again that the posts are plumb), cut a square cut on one end, butt that to one post, mark the other end on the next post, then cut at the mark. In my experience, the more you measure, the more chances you get to mess up. If you take out the tape, measure between posts, and then go down and measure the railing, there is always the chance that you'll cut it an inch short. Marking the piece in place, how can you go wrong? And since some custom railings cost $14 or more per foot, I don't want to make any mistakes.

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Figure 6. The author uses glue and screws to fasten the rake rail to the post from below. A block clamped to the post steadies it in place.

After cutting the rake rail, it's time to fasten it in place (Figure 6). This particular rail is placed in the center of the space between the bead and the cove on the post. I mark the center point; then, measuring across the face of the pitch cut and dividing the measurement in half, I come down that distance and make a mark. I cut a temporary block to fit between that mark and the piece of bead molding below, and clamp the block in place. This gives me a place to rest the rail. When I set the end of the rail against the post (after applying glue to the face of the cut), the top end rests against the upper post, and the rail stays in place while I drill it and fasten it with screws. Again, the rail has not been predrilled for the screws in the shop — that's left to be done on site. That's because some other installer might want to attach the rail some different way; in that case, they wouldn't want the holes. But this is the way we recommend fastening it — screws and glue make a strong joint. I fasten the top of the rake rail with finish nails, nailing down through the rail into the post. This is a paint grade installation, with poplar rails — if it were a harder wood intended to get a clear finish, I would generally screw into the face cut from the back side of the post. You can see in the photos that the rake rail has been predrilled for the balusters. It's hard to lay out and drill those holes on site, so we do it in the shop ahead of time. The level rails, however, are not predrilled; that leaves the customer some flexibility in laying out those balusters. Level rails. From the top of the stairs around the landing opening, we set rails level from post to post. Again, as I set these rails I use a block to support the rail in place.

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Figure 7. For efficiency and accuracy, the author holds the actual rail in place to mark the cut. Using a measured block to support the rail, he fastens it with screws through the back of the post.

How we fasten rails to posts depends on the location (Figure 7). At corners, we drill and screw through the post into the butt end of the railing, offsetting the screws slightly so they don't interfere with each other. Where a railing butts to a wall, we apply a rosette to the end of the railing and screw the rosette to the wall (Figure 8). At center posts where railings attach on opposite sides, we drill and screw through the post on one side, but on the opposite side we use a rail bolt.

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Figure 8. At the wall, the author uses a rosette to attach the rail. He screws the rosette to the end of the rail, then to the wall.