How to Install Stair Railing

Children running up stairs

 David Sacks / Getty Images

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.

The materials you will need are cheap and easily available.

Materials

  • Handrail bracket: Handrail brackets mean that you do not need to invent a method of attaching the railing to the wall.  ​
  • Railing: Unless you are a fine woodworker, buy pre-made railing—not raw lumber. You can find long, continuous railings at home centers. Buy about 24 inches longer than you will need to account for potential mistakes and to give yourself a short sample piece to work with.
  • 2 1/2-inch screws: While drywall screws can be used for many projects unrelated to drywall, this is one area where you do not want to risk having these brittle screws snap off. Instead, use stainless steel screws.

Tools

  • Cordless drill: You will need both a Phillips-head driver and a set of bits.
  • Chalk line: If you do not have a chalk line handy, don't worry. Anything resembling a chalk line (minus the chalk) works great: string, twine, fishing line.
  • Pencil
  • Laser level: You can get by without this, but it really helps the process out.
  • Measuring tape
  • Stud finder

First End of Railing: Determine Height

Drive Helper Screws
Lee Wallender

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. 

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 bottom of your handrail bracket.

Mark Drill Points on Bracket

Mark Drill Points on First Bracket
Lee Wallender

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

Drive Screws to Hold Handrail Bracket

Drive Screws on First Bracket
Lee Wallender

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.

Attach Railing With Sleeve

Install Rail and Sleeve on First End
Lee Wallender

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

Second End of Railing: Measure Height

Measure Height for Other Side
Lee Wallender

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.

Screw Second Bracket in Place

Install Bracket at Other End
Lee Wallender

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

Middle of Railing: Determine Dip With Your Chalk Line

Determine Railing Dip with Chalk Line
Lee Wallender

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.

Elevate Railing to Height of Chalk Line

Elevate Middle of Rail
Lee Wallender

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.

Install Middle Staircase Railing Bracket

Install Middle Bracket
Lee Wallender

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

Test the Completed Stair Railing

Stair Railing in Use
Lee Wallender

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.