Make sure handrails are there when you need them

By Tom Phelan - ReminderNews
Featured Article - posted Wed., Dec. 19, 2012
- Contributed Photo

We got so used to going up and down the stairs of our house without using a handrail that, after a while, we didn't realize that it was missing. In fact, I can't remember why it was removed. I do know that the areas where it was fastened to the wall have been repaired and painted. So perhaps that was the reason.

With family coming home for Christmas, though, it really needs to be installed again. Building codes require that there be a handrail on one side of any flight of stairs with more than three steps. They are, in fact, quite necessary for small children, as well as older occupants and those with mobility issues. Teenagers' feet seem to never even touch the steps anyway.

Banister is another name for the handrail on a staircase. When installed for proper functionality, a banister must be continuous from top to bottom, and should extend another 6 inches beyond the top and bottom risers. The riser is the vertical part of a stair; the step is the horizontal surface. The handrail should extend no more than 3 and a half inches from the wall. Thirty-four inches is a good height, but something between 30 and 36 inches is also acceptable. A handrail should be 1 and a half to 2 inches in diameter, and there should be at the very least 1 and a half inches between it and the wall.

Fastening a banister directly to the wall is adequate, as long as the screws that secure the hardware are long enough to extend well into the studs behind the wallboard. Often, though, these screws are not quite long enough to stand up under the wear of constant use and occasional abuse.

When my son was young, he somehow learned to slide down the banister even though it was fastened to the wall. I never actually witnessed that, but I had to deal with the result of that unintended abuse. That's when I installed rosettes. Those are round or oval wooden plaques that can be mounted to the studs in the wall behind the rail's mounting hardware. The handrail hardware is mounted on the wooden rosettes, which should be fixed to the wall studs first with 2-and-a-half- or 3-inch screws or nails. Remember that the first 1 and a quarter inches of the material the screw passes through will not support much. Don't skimp. Drill holes through the rosettes first. To hide these screws from view, center the mounting bracket on the rosette, trace around it, and drill your screw holes within that area.

The alternative mounting method is to run a painted or stained board the length of the stairs, securely fastening it to several studs. It not only provides much greater stability for the handrail, but also a buffer between the wall and the hands of the people who use the handrail.

Use a stud finder to determine where the potential support points are. Mark these verticals with masking tape spanning the height of the banister. Mounting brackets should be installed on every third stud, leaving 48 inches between them.

Starting on the steps below the studs you will use, measure up to the height you have selected (30-34 inches), and mark the tape on the wall. That should be the height of the bottom of the rail or the top of the rosettes.

Hardware for mounting a handrail is inexpensive ($2-$4) and is made of cast zinc or aluminum. It is usually coated with a brass finish. But for a little more money, you can buy one with a baked enamel finish. You can find solid brass hardware as well. Remember that the bracket itself should be mounted perpendicular to the step, not the handrail.

Any home improvement store or lumberyard will have a good selection of handrail material. For about $3 per linear foot, you can buy rail that can be painted or stained. You will spend about twice that if you want something a little more decorative. Unfinished oak, hemlock or cherry are some of the optional wood selections.

Check the handrail on your stairs, and repair or replace what you have - for safety's sake.

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