A DIY Guide for Installing a Wood Handrail


Whether you’re finishing a basement and want to upgrade the existing handrail or a member of your family needs a little more assistance getting up to the top floor of your home, there may come a time when you need to install a wood handrail – fortunately it’s a very DIY-friendly project that can often be completed in one or two hours.

Wood handrails are available in all sorts of styles and wood species that can range from a simple inexpensive oval that’s perfect for the stairway down to an unfinished basement to a highly styled oak that can complement the most elegant settings. Regardless of which style you choose, the key is purchasing a handrail that’s long enough for your stairway – coming up a few stairs short in length is not a good thing!

The parts of the stairs that you need to know for your handrail installation are the riser, the tread, and the nosing. The riser is the vertical back part of each step that provides height as you go up the stairs and the tread is the flat part your shoe comes into contact with when going up or coming down. The nose or nosing is the part of the tread that extends out past the riser below it –normally it has a bull-nose or rounded shape. The rule of thumb when installing a handrail is that it should extend from the nosing of the last tread at the bottom of the stairs to the nosing of the floor or landing where the run of stairs ends at the top. Here’s what you’ll need for the installation:

  • Handrail – available from home improvement stores, millwork shops, and specialty retailers
  • Handrail brackets – available from most hardware and home improvement stores – choose the two piece type as they are much easier to install
  • Wood screws – length can vary depending on your handrail and finished wall surface
  • Tape measure
  • Level – at least four feet long
  • Drill with bits
  • Hammer

You may want to add a miter saw to the list as it’s nice to miter the ends of the handrail and add a small return, but it’s not absolutely necessary.

Installing the Handrail

Just about every jurisdiction has codes that dictate how a handrail should be installed. If all you are doing is installing an interior handrail, in all likelihood you will not be getting a building inspection, but the railing should still be installed so that it meets code. While the measurements mentioned in this guide will probably work for your jurisdiction, you should still check with your local building department to be sure.

Depending on the length of your handrail, you’ll probably find the project is much easier if you can enlist an extra set of hands to provide some assistance. Here’s what you need to do:

  • Measure – if your stairway is against a wall (most are), the top of your handrail should be between 30 to 38 inches (remember to verify with your local building department). Decide what height you want to use and measure straight up from the nosing on the bottom tread and make a mark. Place your level against the nose of the tread when measuring to ensure you’re tape measure is plumb. Work your way up the stairs doing the same thing at every third or fourth tread until you reach the nosing for a landing or the top of the stair run.
  • Locate framing members – using the tap method or a small finish nail, locate the vertical framing member closest the bottom tread, but still in the stair run. Make a mark close to the anticipated height of your handrail. Hold the level between the marks already made at the nosings adjacent to your framing member and mark the stud at the exact height of the top of your handrail. Interior framing is normally 16 inches on center so you should be able to measure up from your initial framing member mark to locate other studs in the stair run – mark a stud every four feet and use your level to mark the exact height of your handrail at that mark.
  • Install brackets – handrails should be at least 1 ½ inches away from the wall to allow for fingers, but not extend into the stairway more than 4 ½ inches. If you’re using brackets specifically designed for installing handrails, they should take these measurements into account. Place one of the brackets on the underside of the handrail and measure from the top to determine at what height the brackets should be installed so that the top of the handrail is at the height you have marked. One you’ve determined a dimension, measure down from the marks you made on the framing members and secure the brackets to the wall. The brackets should be vertical – ensure that you hit framing with your screws.
  • Install the railing – cut the railing to length (top nosing to bottom nosing) and miter the ends if you wish. This involves cutting the ends at a 45 degree angle and cutting a very short piece of railing at a 45 degree angle and attaching it to the end of the handrail with finish nails. It gives a finished look to the ends. Lay the handrail on the wall brackets and after ensuring it’s in the right position, install the straps that hold it to the brackets. Drill pilot holes for the screws to avoid splitting the wood.

Check to ensure the handrail is secure to the wall and the brackets by giving it a good tug – if it doesn’t budge, your project is complete.


oak handrail — image courtesy of stairplan.co.uk

two-piece bracket — image courtesy of tools2parts.com