Wooden Handrail

While the wife spent a week in England last month, I decided to fix one of those nagging thing about the house that’s been bugging us since we moved in.  The stairs to the second floor never had a hand railing.  The home inspector poited out that it wasn’t up to code, but we were already making the homeowners fix a lot of other things, so we left that one off.  Now, with a pregnant wife who might struggle to get up stairs at some point and a baby on the way, I figured a handrail might be a good idea.

Problem is, my house has no garage and no basement, so I have no place to do woodworking.  And from what I understand you don’t want to be staining inside, as the fumes can get really bad.  So this is my adventure of doing simple woodwork without the proper tools, time or space.

So, I take some rough meaurements, take note of the color of the existing wood at the top and bottom of the stairs (so I can match it) and I’m off to Home Depot.  I bought 9’ of unstained hand railing (similar to this, although I don’t think my store had oak, I think mine was pine.. it’s that shape though).  I only needed about 7’, but from what little I know of woodworking, always buy more than you need. From memory (not smart, should have taken a sample) I choose a stain that closely matches the existing colors in the house, and I bought some polyurethane protective coating.  I also pick up a small wooden hand saw, since I didn’t have one.

Once I got home, though, I realized it’s nearly impossible to hold 9’ of wood againt a wall yourself to get exact measurements.  Plus, I really needed a chalk line to get a straight line between the two points… so I conned a friend who had a chalk line into coming over and giving me a hand for 30 minutes while I market up the wall and the wood.  He also told me to take back the polyurothane I bought and get a water based one instead, because it would be easier to clean up.  I market up the wall so that the chalk line represented 3’ railing height.  As far a I could tell, that was up to building code… if code even applies to interior stairways.

Next part was to cut the wood.  It had been raining all week so I wound up just doing that inside, and vacuuming up the sawdust.  This is where I made my first mistake.  I had planned to make little “wall returns” at each end of the handrail.  That way, the wood appears to come out of the wall and go back into it, so you can’t snag things on the end of the railing.  Of course, I cut the angles wrong.  Instead of making a trapezoid /___\ , I made a parallelogram /___/.  Crap. Well, I could either get a new railing and start all over, or just live with it.  A new railing would cost me about $30, and the whole wall return thing was making this way more complicated anyway, so I decided to just leave the railing as is and see how it came out.

Next I needed to stain, but it had been raining all week.  But come the weekend, the weather report was for sunny skies all weekend.  Saturday morning I set up two of our deck chairs back to back on our deck, cover them and the deck with a drop cloth, and balance the railing on the back of both chairs.  They made pretty servicable sawhorses.  I sanded the wood lightly, and applied one coat of stain.  I was -very- surprised at how little stain it takes to coat a 7’ railing.  A little goes a -very- long way.  I made sure to cover everything evenly, and went over it again with a lint-free cloth to even it out.  I let it dry in the sun for 4 hours, and then sanded lightly and applied another coat.

I was very worred, as the stain is sticky, and since I was outside, dust, pollen, and everything else could just fly through the air and stick to it.  And because of the rain all week, time was short (Katy was coming home on sunday), so I couldn’t keep applying new coats indefinitely.  Plus, I still needed the clear protective coat.  But, at least the rain had stopped so I could leave it out overnight and letit dry before applying the clear coat…

..except I awoke sunday morning to the sound of pouring rain a 6am.  So, not only had my railing been outside, with the stain still drying, now it was getting soaked, and would need to dry out before I could even think about applying the clear protective coat so keep it protected from things like… well…moisture.

Luckily, by 9am the rain was gone and the sun was peaking out.  I was due to pick katy up at 7pm.  So I moved the railing into the sunlight and let it dry out for a few hours.  Then I applied the polyurethane, and waited an our or so to sand and apply the next coat.  I applied two or three coats, I forget, and while the wood looked great, the clear coat is still lumpy and and grainy in spots.  But by then it was 5pm, and I had to get it hung if it was going to make it before Katy got home.  So I let it dry until it wasn’t too tacky to the touch anymore, and brought it in to hang.

I measured where the studs were in the wall, and measure where the first bracket should go.  I then installed the first braket into the wall, and then attached the rail to that bracket.  Using the railing itself and the chalk line as a guide, I was able to tell where the second bracket should be mounteded to get the right height and angle.  My wall only really had two studs I could use, so I only used two brackets, but once installed, it seems very solid.  Hopefully it will stay that way for a long long time, and the screws won’t work thier way out of the wood.

In the end I think it came out pretty well.  It’s not as smooth as I would like, but I would attribute that to the moisture in the wood when applying the clear coat and the fact I had to do everything outside where I’m sure it picked up dust and pollen.  But, now that I’ve donei t once, I’m sure the next time, it will work out much, much better.