House Woodworking


Strictly speaking, I didn’t make a banister…

A banister is a handrail with supporting posts at the side of stairs, there to help people move up and down and stop them falling off. When I first moved to this house in 2001, I quickly came to hate the banister that was here. It was a winding metal thing screwed to the stairs and painted over a dozen times or more to make it look well worn in. To cap it off, there was a plastic cover over the handrail that had the look and feel of a 1960s school corridor or municipal building. It would have to go (and so would the carpet.)

My woodworking skills were minimal at that point, but I could read and learn, and drill holes in things. Plus, we had a Wood Store in walking distance, so I could put some ideas together and get them to help. The Hall, Stairs and Landing hence became the first place to feel the effects of my carpentry aspirations.

First, I needed an idea. I wanted something very big and very simple. I didn’t want to get into manufacturing lots of separate posts, or buying prefabricated bits. So, I thought about having a series of planks running parallel down the length of the stairs, with the top one rounded off to provide a nice hand grip.

There are rules and regulations concerning banisters. They’re a safety feature, so have to conform to safe standards. In simplest terms they must be usable by children under 5 years of age. This means a small child must not be able to get trapped in any gaps. If I recall, the standard is that a 100mm sphere cannot pass through any openings.

Time for a bit of maths.

The stairs rise at an angle of 40°. The top of the handrail is to be 88 cm above the skirting board that lines the steps. Trigonometrically speaking that means the gap that needs to be filled is about 67.4 cm. If I form the banister from 3 planks, then there will be 3 gaps between them. So, a Plank+Gap should be no more than, say, 22.5cm. If I make the planks 12.7cm wide then the gaps will be 9.8cm, which is a little less than the required 10cm.

The stairs rise out of the hall and up to the landing. They’re mostly in a stairwell, formed by the outside wall of the house and a partition wall of a dormer bedroom. The wall of the bedroom doesn’t come all the way down to the ground floor level. Instead it forms a corner with the ceiling of the hallway. The banister will hence be part flush with a wall and part in open space. The foot of the stairs has a Newel post that the banister pieces will attach to. Further up, the pieces can attach to the joist in the floor of the bedroom, and to the studs inside the bedroom wall. This should provide four sturdy fixing points for each plank in the design. I would buy planks a little longer than I had measured for, so that I could cut them to fit neatly against the Newel post.

I needed to allow for a horizontal section of banister at the very top of the stairs. I wanted to make this of the same planks, which necessitated some further maths to understand how to join them. I would have to bisect the angle of intersection. A sketch revealed I needed the planks to be cut at an angle of 70°. So this became my submission to the wood store:

I chose a softwood for the planks, as this would be straight, sturdy and light. I found pieces that were not too knotty, that I could disguise with a stain to look like a more substantial wood. The wood store people were able to cut and mill the pieces as I required. They also put biscuit joint cuts into the pieces for me so that I could glue the sections together.

Next challenge; how to fit the pieces to the wall and Newel post. The original banister had a curious wiggle in it, to take into account the point where the hallway ceiling became the wall of the bedroom. This was necessary because the handrail attached to the end of the Newel post which was partly under the ceiling. If I attached my pieces to the side of the Newel post I could have them running straight up to the wall and avoid the wiggle. I would however need something to offset the planks a little way from the wall to keep this straight line and to give space for fingers to go around the handrail. This required a little lateral thinking…

In my previous house I had had cause to run a waste pipe through a kitchen cabinet. To achieve this, I bought a Hole Saw Cutter kit. This is essentially a saw blade wrapped into a circle around a drill bit. The kit I had had several saw sizes that could be slotted into a disk to deliver the right sized hole. What I noticed about this cutter is that it removed a nice neat circle of wood from the hole. I wondered if I could turn this cutter around and use it to cut wooden disks to make up the spacers…?

My approach was to cut, sand and polish several of these disks, and to secure them to the wall with wood screws. I would then fit Threaded Wood Inserts into the holes that were left in the centres of each disk by the cutter. That would allow me to use decorative bolts to secure the banister planks to the disks.

Of course, the wall itself had been hand-plastered and the plaster thickness varied a little from place to place – enough to mean that the banister planks would not line up nicely if the disks were all the same thickness. In the end I created disks of various thicknesses, from 3.5cm to 4.5cm, and selected appropriate ones for each place to ensure the planks were straight and in a neat, vertical line.

I then used some more Threaded Wood Inserts in the Newel post to secure the bottom ends of the banister planks.

And so, it was done. I had taken the stairs out of the ‘60s and, well, I’m sure everyone has their own idea of what looks dated these days. But I certainly like the look and feel of the wood compared to the metal and plastic stuff we had before.

By nickcnickcnickc

I spend my working life staring at computer screens, so in my spare time I look for things to do with my hands, preferably involving wood. It's a little ironic then that I've now starting writing a blog about my woodworking, and thus introducing computer screens to my main hobby..!

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