A big thank you to Home Depot Canada for sponsoring this tutorial. We shop for our renovation materials almost exclusively at Home Depot so I always love partnering with them to bring you detailed tutorials! You can find my full disclosure and policies here.
I am so excited to be nearing the end of our renovation. When we bought our home it was almost completely original 60s and not in the most charming way. One of the spaces we still are working on is our entry way (also, our bathroom and the exterior!). The entry way is such a small space since we’re a split level but the more we do the more I’m amazed how big of a difference it really does make. We have a couple more projects before I’m ready to share the reveal BUT I’ll give you a reminder of the before…
So what was our handrail before? Wrought iron which can be lovely, but it had tulips and was partially gold (?). But more than the look not being my thang, it wasn’t safe. I’ve had to stop my kids from sitting in the spindles (literally, my heart can’t handle the stress) like a bicycle. Their heads and their entire bodies fit through those old spindles and I don’t see how that was ever safe! We thought we’d make do with that railing and painted it a flat black and added a new wooden base for it to sit on to match the stair caps we put in… we were honestly planning on leaving it that way but when our kids started doing stairs on their own, we realized how unsafe it really was and had to make a change.
We’ve actually done a bit of updating since this ‘before’ other than painting the metal railing. Here’s our phase 1 if you will. You might notice that we already restrung and faced the stairs (hello hardwood!), tiled the landing and replaced our door (#heckyes) but today I’m excited to share the DIY tutorial and tips to install your own wooden handrail using supplies from Home Depot.
We did a lot of research and actually had a hard time coming up with enough information to feel totally confident doing it ourselves. We had to call in backup on this one and had Shane’s brother (contractor) come in and give us the run down on current code and how to make it completely safe. WHY was it so hard to find information online? Well, it seems like every tutorial out there assumes that you will be running your spindles onto your stair treads (like this) NOT onto a runner beside your stairs (like our lovely 60’s home).
We chose to mix oak elements with white just like we did our stair caps and risers. I really love the mix but understand if you’re more into solid white or solid wood. The oak is more pricey so keep that in mind when you’re choosing- mixing it up cuts down on cost!
Okay so that’s the preface now, I’ve roped Shane into giving the detailed instructions to you since I mostly sat this one out after I did the budget and design- losing naps with our three year olds (twins) has meant we rarely get to work on projects together and since it’s a lot of math (angles!) I though this one was best in his hands #mathishard.
*Disclaimer!* These are the instructions based on how we installed the stair rail. As we mentioned, there wasn’t much literature we could find on this process. This is probably not textbook but it worked great for us and is completely safe now that it’s all finished. Every set of stairs is NOT the same and building code varies from province to province/state to state. Make sure you check yours out before moving ahead! As an aside- this kind of railing will be called a guard rail in building code. As always with any DIY, use the proper safety equipment and precautions. And always ask for help if you need it (we did!).*
These are the supplies we used (it will vary depending on your stairs):
- Full Oak Newel Post (for bottom)
- Half Oak Newel Post (for top)
- Balusters / Spindles (we chose fluted white)
- Oak Top Rail with Fillet, Coordinating Rail for lower handrail
- Lower Handrail Brackets
- MDF Cap (measure your space, we used primed 5/8″x6″ flat MDF)
- Quarter round molding to trim MDF cap if needed
- Oak plugs
- Stain (we used leftover floor stain to match the floors we refinished)
- Clear coat (we use this one for all smaller projects -not our floors, but the handrail)
- Paint (Trim/Door paint is best for this)
- Paint brushes, mini roller, and foam paint brush
- Paintable caulk (this is the one we always, always use) and applicator
- Stainable wood fill
- Tools & Hardware
1. Install full Newel post at bottom
- Step zero would be to pull all the previous handrails and mounting plates off
- “Mock up” the post where you want it to be placed. Ensure it is plumb in all directions and centred evenly on the face of the mounting surface. Mark desired mounting hole locations
- Drill pilot holes (two) in the front of the post. We used a 1” auger bit for two reasons: this made the hole large enough for a socket to fit when tightening the lag bolts. 1” is also a common size for plugs required to fill these holes after
- We only drilled the 1” hole about 2” deep into the post and then drilled a 5/16” pilot hole in the centre of this 1” hole right through the remainder of the post and into the 2 x 4 stud where the post was to mount. I did this to ensure that I could not tighten the bolt too far and that an appropriate length of the bolt would still rest in the post when tightened
- Apply PL construction adhesive to back of post and the surface to which it will mount
- Line up the post, place bolts in holes with a washer on each bolt (we used ½” x 6” lag bolts)
- Tighten bolts, alternating between each bolt so that the post stays as plumb as possible and so one bolt is not completely tighten while one is still loose
- Check that the post stays plumb on all sides as you tighten the bolts
- Once post is completely solid and bolts are tight, let sit for 24 hours so that the PL has time to set
- If any PL oozed out from behind the post, wipe promptly with a warm, damp rag
2. Prepare MDF Cap
- Measure length of MDF cap to which spindles will mount (length from wall at top of the railing to the bottom of the framing that this cap will mount on). Note: you will also need to measure for notching the MDF to fit around the post. We used primed 5/8” x 6” flat MDF for this piece
- Use a protractor to determine the angle where the top wall and MDF cap meet; rest one protractor arm flush along the wall and the second one flush along the surface where the MDF cap will mount (in our case, the angle was 40 degrees)
- Cut each end of this MDF cap at the 40 degree angle, to the length determined. Again, ensure you notch for the bottom post
- “Mock-up” this MDF piece to ensure proper fit and that the notching around the post is clean. You will need this MDF piece to stay in place to determine the measurements for your top post
3. Prepare top half Newel post
- At the bottom post, measure from the floor to the top of the MDF cap piece; this amount should be the amount you need to trim off to bottom of your top post to ensure your handrail will mount at the same location on the top and bottom posts, and that the height from the MDF cap to the top of each post is equal
- Measure and mark your top post (1/2 newel post) to trim off the amount determined in step 6. Due to the angle of our railing (per step 3, we know this to be 40 degrees for our railing), the bottom of the top post needs to be cut at this angle. Your measurement from step 6 will be the long end of this mitered cut
- Once cut, test-fit your top post to ensure the mitered cut and overall height are accurate (of course, better to cut long in step 7 and have the ability to trim if needed). Measure from the MDF cap to the top of each post to ensure they are the same height
- Determine stud location on wall; measure and mark top post to drill pilot holes according to stud location
- Drill two holes using 1” auger bit, about 1” depth. As with the bottom post, drill through the remaining of the post using a 5/16” bit in the centre of the 1” hole. Also drill a 5/16” pilot hole into the corresponding locations on your stud
4. Measure spindle spacing
- Now, before fastening the MDF runner or the top post, leave them “mocked-up” and determine the location of your spindles (I will explain shortly why this should be done in this order). To do this, you need to first measure the true horizontal distance between your top and bottom and post (ie: do not just place your tape measure on the MDF runner and measure between the posts. Your tape should be level to the ground so you find the accurate horizontal distance between the two posts). Because of the physical height difference between where the two posts are, I found it easiest to have someone hold a level along one side of the bottom post (plumb with the face of the post facing the top post) and then measure from the top post to the level
- Mark the line of one side of the spindles using painters tape to make lining up your marks simple
- To determine spindle locations and number of spindles needed: take the measurement found in step 11, and divide by “desired spacing plus spindle width”. The maximum spacing should be such that a 4” sphere is not able to pass between the spindles (according to local building code here). So, if your horizontal gap between the posts
5. Install MDF runner & top post
- Once you’ve determined your spacing and marked out the spindle locations on the MDF runner, remove the top post and MDF runner. Apply PL construction adhesive to the underside of the MDF runner and to the top of the surface to which it will be mounted.
- Once this MDF runner is installed, measure out the required strips of MDF to mount on either side of the bottom post; attached with brad nails to post or surface behind
- Drill 1/8” pilot holes in the MDF, centered in the marked location of each spindle, and fasten the MDF using 2” screws (I used #8 construction screws). The reason for installing these screws in the same locations as the spindles is so that the installed spindles will hide these mounting screws and prevent the need for filling/sanding exposed screw holes
- Next, install your top ½ half newel post, using the same process as the bottom post
6. Handrail time
- Once your posts are both installed, the next step is to install the handrail. As found in previous steps, we know the railing angle to be 40 degrees; measure the distance between the top and bottom posts and cut your handrail to this length, with parallel 40 degree mitered cuts at each end.
- Test fit the railing and determine its mounting height on the posts to achieve your desired handrail height; we mounted ours at 34” (as measured from the stair tread)
- Apply a small amount of PL construction adhesive to the ends of the handrail and install in location marked in step 17. Toe nail the handrail to the posts using 2” nails (ensure you nail at such an angle that the nails do not protrude out the sides of the handrail). You can also toe nail through the sides of the handrail into the posts, as these small nail holes are easily filled and concealed with a stainable wood fill
7. Install spindles
- Measure the height between the MDF runner and the bottom of the handrail. Cut spindles to this length, with parallel 40 degree mitered cuts at each end
- We cut a spacer to make installation quick and painless
- I installed spindles with a small amount of PL adhesive on the top and bottom, and toe-nailed the spindles to the MDF runner at the bottom and the handrail at the top (fill these nail holes with a paintable caulk prior to final painting)
- Once all spindles are installed, measure and cut the fillet strip (supplied with the handrail) and fasten to underside of handrail between each spindle using 1” finish nails.
- Fill all nail holes (with caulking or wood fill, depending on the surface). I also ran a thin bead of caulking around the base of each spindle and also where the MDF runner butts up against the bottom post
- Install 1” oak plugs in bolt holes on top and bottom posts; stain to match the posts and handrail
8. Lower Handrail
- If you have a split level entry like us, you will also need a handrail on the lower set of stairs. You can choose a wallmounted handrail for this in a coordinating wood.
- Find your studs and mark before cutting your handrail (we cut first but the stud location makes the hang over the brackets seem short!)
- Mount your brackets on the studs and set the handrail on top to measure length. After you cut it, give the ends a light sand and stain. We chose to clear coat this guy in place.
- Okay, so Shane skipped this so you get me again (heeeey!). As he mentioned in that last step, fill any holes you might have from nails with appropriate filler. Also caulk any gaps or joints for a really clean look. Honestly- this is a total pain on spindles. But it’s soooo worth it. You can read more about caulking (I even have a little video!) right here.
- Let it dry completely before you paint. We used trim/door paint- this is more durable than wall paint. We found it easiest to paint in the spindles by using a foam brush in the flutes (the indents), then a fuzzy mini roller (we like those way better than the foam ones!). We had started with a paint brush but abandoned it after 2 spindles… trust us ;)
- You may also notice that we trimmed out that MDF board the spindles are mounted to. There was trim there prior to our renovation and the drywall edge is pretty ratty- caulk wouldn’t do it justice! We used a quarter round.
Ta-Da! Biggest tutorial ever? Maybe? We are SO happy with how it’s transformed our space. And I really love that I don’t have to stress about letting my kids on the stairs without supervision. If you have any questions at all, you can leave them below and I will do my best (or get Shane!) to answer them.
I can’t wait to share this whole entry way makeover with you all. We still have some projects on the go, then need to paint everything (can you tell? ha! look at that trim) BUT it’s really coming together so nicely.
PS. Little helpers with tool belts are the cutest ever.
LIKE IT? PIN IT!