Install a New Stair Handrail

Updated: Sep. 25, 2023

So strong it's kid-proof! We'll show you how to do it.

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A full day






If you have a loose stair rail, a weak stair rail or no rail at all, fix the problem by installing a solidly anchored railing like we show here. Would your stair rail hold up to three energetic youngsters hanging on it like this? If you're not sure, or if you have stairways with missing rails, now's the time to fix the problem. More accidents happen on stairways than anywhere else in the house, and a strong stair rail goes a long way toward making stairs safer and easier to use. In this article, we'll show you how to cut and assemble your rail, how to mount it solidly to the wall framing and determine the proper handrail height.

Tools Required

  • 4 ft. level
  • Drill bit set
  • Drill/driver - cordless
  • Hammer
  • Magnetic driver bit holder
  • Miter saw
  • Nail set
  • Stud finder
  • Tape measure

Materials Required

  • 150-grit sandpaper
  • 4d finish nails
  • 90-second epoxy
  • Masking tape (1-1/2-in. wide)
  • Railing brackets
  • Railing material
  • Wood glue

Measure the stair and purchase the stair railing

The design we chose to replace stair railings lightly exceeds the building codes in many regions. We extended the stair railing beyond both the top and the bottom steps. While this isn’t always possible, it allows you to grasp the stair railing sooner and hold onto the stair handrail longer to maintain good balance. While you’re it, read about the important residential stair codes.

Before you go shopping for your handrails for stairs, measure from the nosing of the top landing to the floor at the bottom of the stairs and add 2 ft. This is the length of stair railing material you’ll need. You’ll find code-approved handrail and the other materials you’ll need at lumberyards and home centers.

Hardwood handrails for stairs like the oak stair railing we’re using are more expensive. Pine and poplar rails cost less. In addition to the stair railing, you’ll need wall mounted handrail brackets, a package of two-part, 90-second epoxy, and about 4 ft. of 2×4. Buy enough brackets to install two at the top, one at the bottom and one every 48 in. between the top and the bottom of the stair railing.

Check out these 100 home improvement hacks you’ll wish you knew sooner.

Project step-by-step (17)

Step 1

Mark the studs and standard railing height

To replace stair railing, start by finding and marking studs. In order to be safe, handrails for stairs must be anchored securely to the wood framing behind the drywall or plaster.

Here are a few tips for locating the studs:

  • Start by inspecting the skirt board to see if you can detect a pattern of nails that may indicate studs. Then use a stud finder to verify the locations.
  • Most studs are 16 in. on center, so once you find one, you can try measuring horizontally to locate the next one.
  • When you find a stud, mark it with a strip of masking tape. We used blue tape for photo clarity, but easy-to-remove (low tack) masking tape would be a better choice to avoid damaging the paint or wallpaper.
  • Mark every stud along the stairs plus one beyond the top and bottom risers. You’ll decide later which ones to use. Studs aren’t always where you want them.
  • If no stud is available at the top, use metal toggle anchors to mount the bracket under the short horizontal section of rail.
  • If the wall ends close to the top or bottom step, you won’t be able to extend the rail. Instead, simply return it to the wall.

In addition to finding the studs, you have to make marks at the top and bottom of the stairway to indicate the standard railing height of the rail above the stairs. To meet building code requirements, the stair railing should be mounted so that the top of the handrail height is 34 to 38 in. above the front edge of the stair nosings. We chose 36 inches.

Step 2

Locate the studs

Locate the studs in the wall above the stairs. Use a stud finder and mark the locations with strips of 1-1/2 in. masking tape centered about 36 in. above the stairs.

locate studsFamily Handyman

Step 3

Plumb up from the front edge

Plumb up from the front edge of the top stair nosing and stick a piece of tape to the wall. Make a vertical line even with the front of the nosing and a horizontal line at 36 in. Do the same at the bottom tread.

Later you’ll align the top of the rail with these handrail height marks and locate the rail brackets. Then you’ll use the mark at the top to position the rail before you attach it to the brackets.

plumb the front edgeFamily Handyman

Step 4

Cut the rail to length and fit the joint

The next step is to cut the stair railing and glue on the short horizontal section at the top. Since the rail runs parallel to the stairs, you can use the stair noses as a guide for cutting the rail to the right length and figuring the top angle.

Step 5

Cut a 45-degree miter

Start by cutting a 45-degree angle on one end of the stair railing and rest this end on the floor. This cut is for the short return to the wall.

Cut a 45-degree miterFamily Handyman

Step 6

Close-Up: Cut a 45-degree miter

With the rail resting on the front of the stair treads, mark where the rail contacts the top stair nosing.

stair railingFamily Handyman

Step 7

Power miter saw

Set your power miter saw to cut a 16-degree angle and saw the rail at the mark. Cut the opposite 16-degree angle on the remaining rail piece. Use it for the horizontal top section. This is an approximate angle. You’ll test the fit.

miterFamily Handyman

Step 8

Test the fit

Test the fit of the rail joint. Adjust the cutting angle and recut both pieces until the joint is tight. Don’t worry if you lose a little length on the rail. It’ll just reduce the distance the rail extends at the bottom, which isn’t critical.

When you’re satisfied with the fit, cut the short horizontal stair railing section to length with a 45-degree miter on the end. Make it long enough to extend a few inches past the next stud so you can add a wall-mounted handrail bracket under it.

test the fitFamily Handyman

Step 9

Glue the joint with epoxy

The shallow angle makes it difficult to join the short and long stair railing sections with nails or screws. And dowels or other joining methods require a furniture maker’s precision. So instead we’ll show you a simple method to join the two with fast-setting epoxy.

Cut 2x4s on edge at the same angle as the rail and join them with screws driven at an angle. Then support the rail sections with the 2x4s as you press and hold the joint together. With 90-second epoxy, you’ll be able to hand-hold the joint together long enough for the epoxy to grab. Concentrate on keeping the profiles exactly lined up and pressing the rails tight together to eliminate gaps. Then leave the joint undisturbed for at least an hour. Overnight would be better, since the epoxy doesn’t approach maximum strength for at least 24 hours.

To protect the wood from epoxy that may ooze out, wrap the rail ends with masking tape. Trim excess tape flush to the cut end with a sharp utility knife. Then carefully remove the tape after the epoxy has set for five minutes. The finished joint will probably require sanding to even up the edges. Do this after the epoxy hardens.

glue handrail joint with epoxyFamily Handyman

Step 10

Align the top of the stair guardrail

Align the top of the handrail with the 36-in.-high marks on the tape (see close-up photo, below), and mark along the underside of the rail at each stud location for the handrail height.

position handrailing Family Handyman

Step 11

Double-check the alignment

Align the railing with the joint mark on the wall and pay close attention to the handrail height.

gaurdrailFamily Handyman

Step 12

Center the rail bracket

Center the stair railing bracket vertically on the stud and sight across the top to align it with the mark to ensure the handrail height. Then mark all three screw holes. Do this at the studs closest to the top and bottom of the rail.

Center the rail bracketFamily Handyman

Step 13

Locate the center of the stud

Locate the exact center of the studs. Probe the wall with a finish nail to locate the exact center of the stud. Tap gently to feel when the nail hits solid wood or misses the stud and goes in easily. Shift the bracket if necessary to center it on the stud until there’s solid wood behind both top holes and the proper handrail height is maintained.

This is an important step because the rail brackets must be centered on the stud or one of the two top screws will miss the framing. If you shift the bracket, make sure to adjust the handrail height to keep the top aligned with the mark. You may have to patch a few nail holes, but this beats having a bracket pull loose.

railing studFamily Handyman

Step 14

Drill pilot holes

Drill 1/8-in. pilot holes for the rail bracket screws. You should feel the bit drilling into solid wood. Angle holes slightly toward the center to make sure the screw catch the stud and to have proper handrail height.

drill pilot holesFamily Handyman

Step 15

Screw the bracket to the wall

Remove the masking tape and screw the bracket to the wall. Angle the top screws slightly to follow the angled pilot holes

Be careful when you drive the screws included with the brackets. The heads will break off easily if you don’t predrill pilot holes. If you’re driving the screws with a drill, mount the bit in a magnetic bit holder to extend it away from the drill. This will give you more clearance for driving the angled screws.

handrail bracketsFamily Handyman

Step 16

Attach the rail to the brackets

Install the top and bottom brackets first and mount the rail to them. Attach the rail to the brackets with the screws and strap provided. Then add the bracket under the short horizontal section. Finally, sight down the stair railing and straighten it before adding the intermediate brackets.

mount handrail to bracketsFamily Handyman

Step 17

Add the returns and finish up

With the stair railing mounted, it’s easy to measure for and install the short pieces that return to the wall at the top and bottom of the rail.

Measure from the long point of the 45-degree miter on the rail to the wall and add about 1/16 in. for a tight fit. Then cut the returns on your power miter saw. Cut them from longer pieces (at least 12 in.) to avoid getting your fingers too close to the blade.

These returns are required by the building code, and for good reason. They eliminate the possibility that loose clothing or a purse strap could get hung up and cause a fall. Besides, they create a nice finished look on the ends of the stair railing. We attached the returns with wood glue and 4d finish nails, but you could also use the remaining 90-second epoxy. Predrill 1/16-in. holes, then glue and tack the joint with 4d finish nails. Recess the nails with a nail set.

Once the rail is complete, you can take it off to paint or finish it by simply removing the screws from the U-shaped brackets. Since the screw holes are already drilled, it’ll be easy to reinstall.

Here’s how to install an outdoor stair railing.

Add the returns stair railingFamily Handyman