How to Install Stair Railing

Children running up stairs

 David Sacks / Getty Images

Overview
  • Total Time: 3 hrs
  • Skill Level: Beginner

Stair railing does not seem all that important until the moment you walk down a rail-less set of stairs. Should you stumble, you have no recourse. Your body becomes a bobsled all the way down.

As it turns out, installing stair railing is easy and well within the skill set of even the most basic DIY home remodeler. By following the 10 steps below, you'll be well on your way to adding an aesthetic appeal to your stairs as well as keeping yourself and other loved ones in your home safe. You don't want to risk a preventable injury if you have the time and resources to this project.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Chalk line (or string)
  • Measuring tape
  • Cordless drill
  • Stud finder
  • Pencil
  • Laser level (optional)

Materials

  • Handrail brackets
  • Pre-made railing (about 24 inches longer than you will need to account for potential mistakes)
  • Box of 2 1/2-inch stainless steel screws

Instructions

  1. First End of Railing: Determine Height

    Municipalities' requirements may vary, but staircase code tends to dictate that railing is 34 inches to 38 inches high, as measured from the nose of the stair tread directly upward to the top of the railing. The nose is the very outer projection of the stair tread. 

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    Watch Now: Understanding Stair Railing Codes for Your Home

    You're only doing one end of the stairs right now. You need to find a good spot to attach your first handrail bracket. It must be attached to solid wood: a newel post, for instance, or into a stud located behind drywall.

    Cut off a very short piece of railing, only about 3 inches long.

    This is where the laser level (or plumb bob or bubble level) comes in handy: so you know that your tape measure is perfectly vertical. Measure up to your intended railing height (top of the railing). Mark the wall.

    Place the short sample piece of railing on top of your railing bracket. Tilt it in the general angle that the railing will go. Place the bracket on the surface and move it up or down until the top of the rail reaches your mark. Again, the laser level is great for determining this.

    Mark the bottom of your handrail bracket.

    Drive Helper Screws
    Lee Wallender
  2. Mark Drill Points on Bracket

    With the pencil, mark the holes on the handrail bracket.

    Mark Drill Points on First Bracket
    Lee Wallender
  3. Drive Screws to Hold Handrail Bracket

    Attach the handrail bracket with included screws. You will probably need to first drill pilot holes to make it easier to draw in the screws.

    Drive Screws on First Bracket
    Lee Wallender
  4. Attach the Railing With Sleeve

    Underneath your railing, attach the U-shaped sleeve with the included screws. This sleeve will straddle the handrail bracket.

    Install Rail and Sleeve on First End
    Lee Wallender
  5. Second End of Railing: Measure Height

    Go to the far end of the railing (not any of the middle points). Your railing is now hinged at the first end with the bracket/saddle combination. This makes it very easy for you to raise and lower the railing to the intended height.

    Drive a 2 1/2-inch screw to hold the railing in place.

    One way to double-check that height of your railing matches at both ends is to measure diagonally from the stair nose.

    Measure Height for Other Side
    Lee Wallender
  6. Screw Second Bracket in Place

    As you did with the first bracket, drill pilot holes, screw this second bracket in place, and attach railing underneath with the sleeve.

    Install Bracket at Other End
    Lee Wallender
  7. Determine Dip With Your Chalk Line

    Now that you've got a stair railing attached to two staircase brackets, the railing will likely droop a little in the middle. Even the hardest of the hardwoods will do this; it's just physics.

    Run your chalk line across the top of your railing. Somewhere in the middle, the railing should be drooping down the farthest. In this example, the railing is drooping about 1/2 inch.

    Determine Railing Dip with Chalk Line
    Lee Wallender
  8. Elevate the Railing to Height of Chalk Line

    Use a piece of scrap lumber to elevate the railing until the middle part touches the chalk line. You can jam the lumber in place, one end under a stair tread, the other end underneath the railing. By gently tapping the lumber sideways, you can make the railing go incrementally up or down.

    Elevate Middle of Rail
    Lee Wallender
  9. Install the Middle Staircase Railing Bracket

    With the railing in the correct position, install the middle bracket(s) in the same manner as you did with the end brackets.

    Install Middle Bracket
    Lee Wallender
  10. Test the Completed Stair Railing

    Test your stair railing out with family members or friends of different heights to make sure that it is ergonomically correct. Also, you can remove the railing and stain, coat, or paint it.

    Stair Railing in Use
    Lee Wallender