Handrail Code for Stairs and Guards Deciphered

Most of us, when remodeling our homes, do not have a building code book hanging from our tool belts.  Much of it is logic and informed guesswork.

Guesswork on something like door width may go against code, but in most cases it will not be lethal. Guesswork on stairway code? Bad idea.

This guide provides you with highlights of stair handrail code and guard requirements as derived from the 2009 International Residential Code for One-and Two-Family Dwellings and 2009 International Building Code.

  • 01 of 07

    Handrail Code: Logic Made Law

    children sliding from staircase
    Mieke Dalle / Getty Images

    When you start looking at stairway code regarding handrails, you begin to see the logic behind it.  Code, despite the way it may seem at first, is not an arbitrary thing.

    For instance, the requirement that handrails be continuous all the way down is good common sense. Switching from one rail to another may be just the thing that causes you to lose concentration and fall, mid-switch. How ironic, painful, and dumb that your railing would be the thing that causes you to fall.  Code is the thing that helps you avoid this.

    Because communities often adopt and then adapt model code, you do need to check with your local permitting agency.  Staircase railing and guard construction (new or remodel) may also trigger permit requirements.


    • Railing:  Railing runs on the stair incline, up and down.
    • Guards:  Guards run horizontally along a landing or other flat area, with a drop on the other side.  They do not protect stairs but are often used in conjunction with stairs (as with landings).
  • 02 of 07

    Handrail Height: 34" to 38"

    This Is:  The height of the handrail in relation to the stairs.

    Requirement:  34" - 38"

    Details:  Railing height on stairs should be between 34 and 38 inches. The way you measure this is from the very end of the stair nosing upward completely vertically.  Measuring at a different part of the stair tread will give you an inaccurate measurement and may be a code violation.

    Reason:  Railing needs to be at a height that can be reached by most people.  The 34" to 38" range will not accommodate all users, but it will cover the large majority.  When measuring, be sure to run the tape vertically from the nose--or leading edge--of the stair tread.

  • 03 of 07

    Maximum Projection of Railing From Wall: 4.5"

    This Is:  How far the railing is away from the wall that it is mounted on.

    Requirement:  4.5" maximum

    Details:  The outer edge of the railing should not project more than 4.5" from the wall on which it is mounted.

    Reason:  Railing that projects farther than this will crowd the walking path, especially when the opposite railing also projects very far outward.  The problem is intensified when the person is carrying large items up or down the stairs.

  • 04 of 07

    Minimum Hand Clearance From Wall: 1.5"

    This Is:  The space between the handrail and the wall--the area where your hand goes.

    Requirement:  1.5"

    Details:  Provide at least 1.5 inches of clearance between the wall and the railing for easy grasping by the hand.

    Purchasing handrail brackets ensures that you maintain the perfect distance from the wall.

    Reason:  You need to provide the hand with a clear, continuous pathway for the entire length of the railing.  Also, while not specified by code, make sure that the handrail brackets do not interfere with hand movement.

    Continue to 5 of 7 below.
  • 05 of 07

    Minimum Railing Distance From Each Other - Two Railings: 27"

    This Is:  The walking space between two handrails.

    Requirement:  27"

    Details: When you have two railings--one on each side of the stairwell--those railings must be at least 27 inches apart from each other.

    Reason:  Note that this code requirement works in conjunction with the requirement about maximum projection of railing from the wall.  This code is important because it ensures that there is enough room for a person to walk and carry items up or down the stairs.

  • 06 of 07

    Minimum Railing Distance - One Railing: 31.5"

    This Is:  The walking space between a handrail and an adjacent wall that has no handrail.

    Requirement:  31.5"

    Details: When you have just one railing on a staircase, the outer edge of the railing must be at least 31.5 inches away from the wall on the other side of the staircase.

    Reason:  When you have only one railing, you have more walking path width available than if you had two railings.  The 31.5" minimum distance a full 4 1/2" more width than the double railing minimum.

  • 07 of 07

    Guard Railing Minimum Height: 36"

    This Is:  Guards are the rails that protect people from falling off of high areas, such as landings.

    Requirement:  36"

    Details: When the drop-off is more than 30 inches down, a guard must be installed on horizontal walking surfaces.

    Minimum height for this guard-railing is 36 inches.

    Reason:  As with exterior decking, no guards or rails are needed if the surface is close enough to the ground--in both cases, 30 inches or less.  The idea is that a person may injure themselves falling off of an 18" deck (for example) but nowhere near as severely as if they fell down 8 feet.  However, if you can add a guard even to those surfaces that are lower than 30", so much the better.  Injuries can happen at any height.