Q&A / 

Preassembled Staircases & Handrail Systems

By far, one of the toughest carpentry tasks I have ever tackled is installing a staircase handrail system. It requires immense patience, the proper tools, and precision. Conversations with manufacturers and other carpenters lead me to believe that less than one percent of the finish carpenters in the USA can install such a system.

That probably explains why so many staircase handrail systems out there are loose. When installed correctly, a handrail system is incredibly strong. I know of handrails that have been in heavy use for 50 years that do not wobble or shake. The carpenters who installed these handrails probably worked without the benefit of power tools. I have the utmost respect for these craftsmen and women.

The Foundation

Handrail systems derive their strength primarily from the decorative posts to which the handrails are attached. These are called newel posts. You usually find these at the top and bottom of a staircase, at landings, change of direction and around balconies. Do not confuse newel posts with their baby brothers and sisters, balusters. I will talk about balusters in just a few moments.

Newel posts are often three to four inches in diameter and some have an integral large diameter dowel pin at their base. When installed you cannot see this dowel pin. It is deeply buried in the starting step or in the subfloor framing. There are various other methods used to attach newel posts, but the dowel pin is my personal favorite.

Handrails

There are two basic types of handrail systems: post-to-post and over-the-post. The over-the-post systems are the ones that kids like. These are the ones where the handrail runs uninterrupted from the top of the staircase to the bottom. In other words, if you wanted to slide down the handrail you could do it without hitting a post.

The post-to-post handrails incorporate taller newel posts. The handrail runs from post to post. Often the newel posts have decorative turnings or finials at the top of each post.

It is generally accepted between finish carpenters that an over-the-post system is harder to install. Should you be contemplating this task, BEWARE. Do not underestimate the difficulty of this task!

Stair Parts/Staircases

Decorative open staircases are almost always built in a woodworking shop specifically for your house. The only exception might be tract houses where all of the houses are practically identical. In either case, the staircases come to your house ready to set in place.

The difference in height between the floors connected by the staircase is critical. The stair maker uses this measurement to custom build your steps. As long as this individual does the math correctly, your steps will be comfortable to walk up and down.

Staircases and stair parts have their own language. I think this is done on purpose to telegraph how difficult the entire process really is. For example, words like volute, gooseneck, rosette, pitch block, turnout and balusters are common nomenclature.

If you think learning all those names are tough, just wait till you start working with the actual parts!

Correctly installing a staircase, with a full set of stair parts, can consume a week's worth of labor for a master carpenter and a helper. Just think how long it might take you!

Preassembled Systems

Out of sheer frustration, I believe, staircase and stair parts manufacturers began to completely assemble the entire systems in their factories. Having installed several systems the old-fashioned way, it makes perfect sense. As long as the measurements are accurate from the field, the manufacturer can assemble the entire system at a remote location. They have the tools and expertise.

When shipped to a job site, these systems require a person who can read, who has patience and who can apply glue. Now this sounds like something anybody can do.

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