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Building Basics for an Open Rail Balustrade

Construction How-To, Stairs April 24, 2015 Sonia



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Larry Walton, Photos by Mark Walton

If you’ve ever seen a saloon gunfight in an old western movie, it more than likely involved a couple of cowboys falling through a handrail. In their search for revenge, the next of kin should begin with the carpenter whose guardrail couldn’t withstand some rousing piano music let alone the lean of a wounded cowboy. We must build better open rail systems if we are going to keep cowboys and our own family safe.

Open rail balustrades often occupy prominent positions front and center where guests are greeted, which is why the intricate woodwork they require are well worth the time and expense. They also perform very important safety functions.

The project shown in this article is a simple handrail system that makes a great primer on open rails. The knee wall requires that all of the balusters are the same length. The one newel post has a good location to be strongly anchored into the face of the knee wall and into the riser of the landing.

The project shown in this article is a simple handrail system that makes a great primer on open rails. The knee wall requires that all of the balusters are the same length. The one newel post has a good location to be strongly anchored into the face of the knee wall and into the riser of the landing.

Open rail systems come in lots of styles and sizes. In broad terms, the systems are either open tread (where balusters sit directly on the tread) or knee wall (where balusters sit on a little curb wall that covers the ends of the treads). Both of these styles can be over-the-post systems, which provide an unbroken handgrip throughout all of the landings and turns of the staircase. Or they can be post-to-post systems, which end each rail section at a newel post and resume on another side of the post.

We had to remove drywall and corner bead from the end of the knee wall. Drywall can break down over time and get too squishy for anchoring a newel post in this location.

We had to remove drywall and corner bead from the end of the knee wall. Drywall can break down over time and get too squishy for anchoring a newel post in this location.

Regardless of the style, there are important safety standards that open rail balustrades must meet. These have to do with strength to prevent failure, rail-size guidelines to provide usable grip, opening sizes to stop little heads and torsos from passing through, and proper elevations that prevent bodies from falling over the top.

After getting to bare framing at the end of the knee wall, we measured the thickness of the knee wall in several places to determine the width of our wall cap.

After getting to bare framing at the end of the knee wall, we measured the thickness of the knee wall in several places to determine the width of our wall cap.

With these major considerations addressed, there are plenty of stylistic options to consider in newel post designs, rail shapes and baluster types. Rails can terminate into a wall, into a rosette or into a half-newel fastened to the wall. Balusters can be dowelled at the base on a flat wall cap or sit in a plowed shoe rail, which itself can sit on the wall cap or be suspended parallel with the handrail. Baluster tops can be in a plow on the underside of the rail or they can act as dowels that penetrate the drilled bottom of a rail.

After taking a rough measurement for the length of the knee wall and the knee wall face, we ripped the wall cap material to width on the table saw and cleaned it up with a planer, sander and router.

After taking a rough measurement for the length of the knee wall and the knee wall face, we ripped the wall cap material to width on the table saw and cleaned it up with a planer, sander and router.

In many ways, our featured project is about as simple as an open rail balustrade can get. This post-to-post balustrade (with only one post) has square balusters, a plowed handrail and a shoe rail built on a knee wall.

A jigsaw was used to cut the bevel at the top end of the wall because it had to match the drywall corner bead on each side. For most of our staircases this angle is about 37 degrees.

A jigsaw was used to cut the bevel at the top end of the wall because it had to match the drywall corner bead on each side. For most of our staircases this angle is about 37 degrees.

When it comes to baluster spacing, be sure to make it according to code. This generally requires spacing tight enough that a 4-in. ball must not be able to pass through at any point.

After fitting the wall cap to the vertical wall at the top end of the knee wall, we tacked it into place and used a level to mark where the bottom edge of the wall was plumb with the front face of the knee-wall framing.

After fitting the wall cap to the vertical wall at the top end of the knee wall, we tacked it into place and used a level to mark where the bottom edge of the wall was plumb with the front face of the knee-wall framing.

Layout

I use two methods to calculate baluster layout. In Method One, you can calculate the baluster spacing by measuring the level run, and dividing it by the desired spacing plus the thickness of a baluster (e.g. 4″ space plus 1-5/16-in. baluster = 5-5/16) to get an estimate of the number of balusters. Then, multiply the number of balusters by the hypotenuse of a rake cut of a single baluster and subtract that number from the total length of the rail (measured on the rake or along the bottom). This is the total space filled by the fillet blocks. Divide this total by the number of fillets, which is the number of balusters plus one. This gives you the fillet lengths.

We cut the end of the wall to bisect the angle where the knee-wall face meets the wall cap. The cut is usually about 27 degrees. You can cut some scrap material to test the angles ahead of time.

We cut the end of the wall to bisect the angle where the knee-wall face meets the wall cap. The cut is usually about 27 degrees. You can cut some scrap material to test the angles ahead of time.

For an odd number of balusters, start installing with a baluster at the center. For an even number of balusters, start at the center with a fillet. Use the fillets to space the next baluster. Keep testing the balusters as you go to see that they are plumb and adjust as needed.

Cutting a notch in the nose of the landing made room for the vertical wall piece.

Cutting a notch in the nose of the landing made room for the vertical wall piece.

In Method Two, I estimate baluster spacing, try it with some scraps to see if the spacing measured on the run (level) is close to the maximum allowed by code. I make adjustments, mark the top edge of each baluster location at even increments, set the balusters and manually adjust each fillet to fit. If you cut them a little oversize, you can hold each fillet alongside where it lives, mark it and cut it to fit. This actually goes pretty quickly and there are no surprises when you get to the end of a run with too big or too small a space at the newel or the wall.

We started the handrail layout by finding plumb from the edge of a stair nose and marking the wall (and the level) where the top of the handrail will be—usually about 37 inches (Check your code requirements).

We started the handrail layout by finding plumb from the edge of a stair nose and marking the wall (and the level) where the top of the handrail will be—usually about 37 inches (Check your code requirements).

Here is an overview to complete this project:

  • Determine the rail height to meet code requirements as a guard rail.
  • Mark two points that determine a straight line that is parallel to the rake of the stairs and is at rail height.
  • Cap the knee wall so it is parallel to the rake of the stairs with a vertical face that is plumb.
  • Use the handrail layout line and the face of the knee wall to determine the length of the newel post.
  • Cut and solidly anchor the newel post so it is plumb in both directions.
  • Fit and attach the shoe rail and handrail.
  • Install the balusters spaced to code requirements and cut to fit the shoe and hand rails when installed plumb.
  • Cut and install fillets and trim boards.
  • Fill, spackle, sand, caulk, prime and paint.
One trick is to put a nail in the wall at the top-of-the-handrail mark and pull a string to the mark on the level as it is held plumb on the stair nosing at the bottom of the open rail run.

One trick is to put a nail in the wall at the top-of-the-handrail mark and pull a string to the mark on the level as it is held plumb on the stair nosing at the bottom of the open rail run.

While one person holds the level plumb at the edge of the stair nose, a second person moves the string up-and-down until it intersects the mark on the level. Once at the appropriate elevation, fasten the end of the string to a nail at the floor or wall.

While one person holds the level plumb at the edge of the stair nose, a second person moves the string up-and-down until it intersects the mark on the level. Once at the appropriate elevation, fasten the end of the string to a nail at the floor or wall.

In our case, the handrail layout line terminated in the wall so we put a finish nail at a very steep angle up into the wall to make an anchor point for the end of the handrail layout string.

In our case, the handrail layout line terminated in the wall so we put a finish nail at a very steep angle up into the wall to make an anchor point for the end of the handrail layout string.

We used a torpedo level to transfer the handrail layout from the string to the center of the wall where the top of the handrail would terminate.

We used a torpedo level to transfer the handrail layout from the string to the center of the wall where the top of the handrail would terminate.

We stood the newel post in place at the end of the knee wall and used a torpedo level to mark where the handrail would intersect the newel post.

We stood the newel post in place at the end of the knee wall and used a torpedo level to mark where the handrail would intersect the newel post.

We measured from the mark on the newel post up to the desired intersection point (where we wanted the handrail to terminate), which indicated how much to cut off the base of the newel post.

We measured from the mark on the newel post up to the desired intersection point (where we wanted the handrail to terminate), which indicated how much to cut off the base of the newel post.

After cutting the newel post to the proper height, we marked where the top of the landing intersected the post and then how much needed to be cut off so the post could slide over to the center of the knee-wall face. We cut the extra wood out of the newel post with a combination of miter saw, table saw and chisel.

After cutting the newel post to the proper height, we marked where the top of the landing intersected the post and then how much needed to be cut off so the post could slide over to the center of the knee-wall face. We cut the extra wood out of the newel post with a combination of miter saw, table saw and chisel.

Wood glue was applied to the newel post where it would touch the knee wall and the landing riser. We positioned it by checking for plumb in both directions and fastened it into place through counter-bored holes into both the knee wall and the landing riser.

Wood glue was applied to the newel post where it would touch the knee wall and the landing riser. We positioned it by checking for plumb in both directions and fastened it into place through counter-bored holes into both the knee wall and the landing riser.

After fitting the handrail, we tacked it into the newel post at the bottom and counter-bored for a long screw where the rail meets the wall. Driving a long screw through the rail and into the framing is an important detail to make a strong connection.

After fitting the handrail, we tacked it into the newel post at the bottom and counter-bored for a long screw where the rail meets the wall. Driving a long screw through the rail and into the framing is an important detail to make a strong connection.

With top of the rail anchored, we returned to the tacked-in-place bottom of the rail and more solidly attached it to the newel post with a long screw through the plow and into the newel post.

With top of the rail anchored, we returned to the tacked-in-place bottom of the rail and more solidly attached it to the newel post with a long screw through the plow and into the newel post.

The shoe rail was nailed with 2-1/2” finish nails in the center of the knee wall. We often use a piece of scrap material as a pattern to test the angles and the lengths of the rails before cutting the rails. Unlike a lot of other material on the job, you usually don’t have additional rail on the jobsite to cover for a bad cut.

The shoe rail was nailed with 2-1/2” finish nails in the center of the knee wall. We often use a piece of scrap material as a pattern to test the angles and the lengths of the rails before cutting the rails. Unlike a lot of other material on the job, you usually don’t have additional rail on the jobsite to cover for a bad cut.

A scrap of material was used to test-fit a baluster, which allowed us to get the correct angle and lengths. Be sure to test the baluster pattern at both ends of the balustrade. A minor difference in knee-wall or rail-rake angle can affect the baluster length from one end to the other.

A scrap of material was used to test-fit a baluster, which allowed us to get the correct angle and lengths. Be sure to test the baluster pattern at both ends of the balustrade. A minor difference in knee-wall or rail-rake angle can affect the baluster length from one end to the other.

We used the end cuts from a new balusters to test the baluster layout by standing them in the shoe rail.

We used the end cuts from a new balusters to test the baluster layout by standing them in the shoe rail.

We used a 2’ level to test each baluster at its location before gluing and nailing them into place.

We used a 2’ level to test each baluster at its location before gluing and nailing them into place.

After bluing the top and bottom of the baluster and fitting them into the rails at the layout marks, we used 1-1/4” finish nails to toenail the balusters from the obtuse side.

After bluing the top and bottom of the baluster and fitting them into the rails at the layout marks, we used 1-1/4” finish nails to toenail the balusters from the obtuse side.

We measured the fillet lengths to get an estimate of how long to cut the fillets and then cut them about 1/8” longer than needed.

We measured the fillet lengths to get an estimate of how long to cut the fillets and then cut them about 1/8” longer than needed.

We held the fillets up flush with the bottom of the rail and marked where the overlapped the next baluster, then trimmed them to length. It’s a good idea to number the backside of each fillet and put a matching number inside the plow where the fillet belongs on the rail.

We held the fillets up flush with the bottom of the rail and marked where the overlapped the next baluster, then trimmed them to length. It’s a good idea to number the backside of each fillet and put a matching number inside the plow where the fillet belongs on the rail.

When a fillet fits perfectly, we glue the backside, put it in position and nail it at the obtuse angle end.

When a fillet fits perfectly, we glue the backside, put it in position and nail it at the obtuse angle end.

Notice that the stair skirt covers the drywall at the inside of the staircase and is fit to a ¼” reveal on the knee wall cap.

Notice that the stair skirt covers the drywall at the inside of the staircase and is fit to a ¼” reveal on the knee wall cap.

With all the woodworking pieces in place, the trim on the outside of the knee wall, and the stair skirt on the inside of the knee wall, it’s time to fill the nail holes and caulk the seams in preparation for paint.

With all the woodworking pieces in place, the trim on the outside of the knee wall, and the stair skirt on the inside of the knee wall, it’s time to fill the nail holes and caulk the seams in preparation for paint.

Side Note 1

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Ideal Stair Parts

Ideal Stair Parts offers an expanded inventory of staircase products in Brazilian Cherry, White Oak and Mahogany. Choose from hardwood stair treads, classic and wrought iron balusters, a number of handrail options and all the accessories you need for a decorative stair system. Visit www.idealstairparts.com.

Side Note 2

Plugging Counter Bore Holes

We used this plug cutter to cut plugs for the newel post with matching material.

[SB4_01] LDW_A_3244

It’s a bit tricky to learn to use this type of plug cutter without a drill press, but it can be done freehand.

[SB4_02] LDW_A_3248

After cutting the plugs, we used a small screwdriver to snap them off as deeply inside the hole as possible.

[SB4_03] LDW_A_3249

When gluing the plugs into place, we turned the grain the same direction as the newel post and drove them in almost flush. We wait for the glue to dry before sanding the plugs flush with the newel post surface.

[SB4_05] LDW_A_3312

After the glue in the plugs dried, we sanded them flush with the face of the newel post.

Side Note 3

Fine-tune Knee Wall Framing

We made this jig of 1×4 by ripping the vertical piece so it matches the top of the knee wall framing plus the thickness of the wall cap.

[SB5_01] 2LW_4819

 

We used a small scrap of wall cap material to test the knee wall in relation to the jig to see if it ran parallel to the stair nosings.

[SB5_02] 2LW_4822

On all of our jobs you will find a supply of these flat shims that are 1.25″ x 3.5″ of varying thickness.

[SB5_03] 2LW_4824

We used the jig and a scrap of wall cap material to determine which flat shims to use.

[SB5_05] 2LW_4827

We used 1/4″ crown staples to fasten the flat shims to the knee wall framing.

[SB5_06] 2LW_4828

We then used a straight edge to bridge between the flat shims at both ends of the knee wall. The gaps between the wall framing and straight edge were filled at 16-in. increments. The result is framing that is flat and parallel with the stair nosing.

[SB5_07] 2LW_4832

We also used the jig to mark the top edge of the stair skirt, which will serve as the trim board along the inside of the knee wall.