Safe Stair and Hand Rails
The stair rails in most homes are designed to help steady a person as they go up or down the stairs. Often, the rail is supported by two brackets, held to the wall with small screws. Brackets like the one shown can be picked up at any home center, for as little as a few dollars. Rails with this type of bracket just can't support the full weight of a person who might have a recent hip replacement or may be unsteady on their feet.
Safe stair rails and even rails in long halls and other large spaces can keep a person from falling and being injured. Searching for heavier brackets that use heavy screws to provide adequate support is an exercise in frustration. To solve the problem for my father when he had a hip replacement, we developed a method that is fairly simple to install and looks good too. We started with 2" x 6" keyhole stair rail. Lumber yards carry this, usually in cedar. To space this out from the wall, we attach a "two-by-two;" this piece doesn't show much, so can be standard grade lumber.
The assembly is shown to the right. The stair rail is attached to the wall using lag bolts into the studs. These bolts must be long enough to thread into the studs at least 2" - be sure to allow enough length to go through 1/2 - 3/4" of sheetrock plus the thickness of the stair rail. A recess for each lag bolt should be drilled using a spade bit just deep enough so the the head of the bolt is slightly below the surface of the rail. Be sure to use a flat washer under each bolt head.
Bolts should be installed near each end of the rail, and at every other stud along the length. Pilot holes should be drilled into each stud to make driving the bolts easier and to prevent cracking of the studs in the wall. Tighten the bolts snugly but don't over-tighten the bolts or the sheetrock may crack.
Locating The Studs
The most difficult part of installing this stair rail is locating the studs in the wall. In the US, studs are usually on 16 inch centers, so finding the first one should make the rest easy. An electronic stud finder can be a great help but isn't required.
A typical wall is shown to the right. Outlet and switch locations help us know where to look for the studs. They are usually located adjacent to a stud, so there is a good chance there will be a stud to one side. Tapping the wall with your knuckle will result in a hollow sound over the space between studs and a solid sound when over the stud. When you find one stud, measure over 16" and with a little luck you'll find another.
I like to double check the stud locations by drilling a 1/16" holes that the rail will cover to be sure I've found the center of
each stud I'll use to attach the railing. Mark the center of each stud in pencil on the wall.
The stair rail should be installed so that it's 34" - 38" above the leading edge of each step. It's usually best to install rails on both sides of the stair to have support on the needed side when going up or down the stairs.
For a guide on stair rail installation, let's turn to the pros at This Old House. A video shows the tried and true methods that Tommy Silva uses to get a perfect installation every time.
The finished stair rail will look something like this. A clear poly finish is a great look with cedar stair rail. The mounting holes may be filled with wood filler or left open for an interesting look (Eric has some other adjectives for it!)
These stair rails will support the full weight of a person without deflecting or danger of failing and provide an attractive look in the home.