Hand rail with turned balusters or spindles. Old House or New House:

Building Traditional Handrail
With Turned Balusters

In This Article:

Spindle spacing and layout is determined. The spindle locations are marked on the top strip and bottom rail. Spindles are fastened to the rail and strip with deck screws. Sloping handrails are built.

Related Articles:
Skill Level: 4-5 (Serious Stuff...) Time Taken: About 6 Hours

By , Editor


Building handrails from turned balusters (also called spindles) is one of the more challenging jobs I have done. Flat horizontal handrail sections are a moderate challenge, but the sloped handrails for the stairs are the tricky part. The only way I approach something like this is to draw it out on a sketch pad and figure out the geometry. Warning: This article contains trigonometry and may be hazardous to the sanity of some people.

Turned handrail posts before installing handrails. This was the destination for the handrail sections I built. There were two sloping sections, two short flat sections, and two longer (about 4') sections.

Before leaving this job site I made careful measurements of the distances between posts. 

To me, the only sensible way to build this type of handrail is to fabricate sections in the shop and install then with metal brackets. There are other types of handrail, more contemporary designs, that can be built "stick-by-stick" on the posts. See page 2 of Building A Basic Deck for more information.

Note On Cutting the Handrail Stock:

I used a block of 1x4 (red arrow) to provide a firm backing for the handrail. This was necessary because the fence on the miter saw was not tall enough to reach both "legs" of the U-shaped handrail molding.


Flat Handrail Sections:

The most important element to this project was making a diagram showing the layout of the balusters. It was also crucial to make accurate measurements of the baluster widths. I set 10 balusters side-by-side and measured the cumulative width, and divided by 10. 
Once I knew the spacing between the balusters I cut several small pieces of cover strips (or whatever they're called) from the 7/16" treated stock that I bought at Home Depot.

Of course, the simplest way to cut these is to set up the miter saw with a stop block so you don't have to make measurements all the time.

These little square blocks are off-cuts from the balusters that I cut to length earlier. More on that later.

I set these baluster blocks and cover strips into place in the trough of the bottom handrail section. As each piece was set in place I marked the end of the block. Note: None of these pieces were nailed in place yet.


As I was setting blocks in place, I used this home-made template to locate the hole that will be beneath each baluster.


I just set the block in place and marked the center. Then I replaced the template with a larger block and continued.


The results of this marking escapade. One benefit of making this "mock-up" with small blocks is that any mistakes in spacing will be noticed before assembly gets too far.


I drilled a clearance hole at each center mark.


I flipped the board over and drilled a countersink. This will keep the screw heads hidden on the bottom handrail board.

Laying Out The Top Strip:

I cut a piece of that 7/16" thin strip, the full length of the handrail section, and laid it against the bottom handrail board, being careful to align the ends. I then transferred the layout marks to the strip.


These marks will control the location of the balusters at the top of the handrail section.


This segment required 6 balusters, and I laid them side by side, against my previously cut "template" baluster, to mark the cut lines.

Note how both near and far ends are cut. This is necessary to ensure that the turned section of the spindles is centered between the upper and lower rails.


I used the edge of my 12" Speed Square to align the turned areas of the balusters.


I drew a line across to mark the ends of the balusters.


I cut each baluster on the miter saw. I was careful to mark the top end of each piece to avoid problems later.


I simply placed a baluster with its top end next to the top strip. I used some pieces of paper as a shim to keep the heights correct.


And then I tacked each baluster with 2 or 3 brad nails.

A pneumatic nailer really helps here, otherwise I'd have to hold the balusters vertical, which would be unwieldy.


I drilled a pilot hole (with countersink) and drove in a 1¼" galvanized deck screw to secure each baluster to the upper strip.


The assembly so far... 6 balusters attached to a piece of thin wood, accurately spaced.

Attaching the Bottom Board:

I began by tacking the first filler strip in place with the brad nailer. But the balusters were a bit (perhaps 1/8") narrower than the channel in the handrail board. To keep everything centered, I used a piece of plastic wire tie as a spacer.


While holding everything together, I drove in a 2" deck screw from below.


As each baluster was attached at the bottom, I added another piece of filler strip and nailed it.


With the bottom handrail board attached, all that remains is to attach the top handrail board.


I clamped the top rail to the upper strip and drove in a 1¼" deck screw at each space. I pre-drilled and countersunk each hole.


The completed handrail assembly. Once I got the hang of this procedure, the work went quite fast.


The Sloping Handrails:

The key to making these handrails work was knowing the angle of the "nose line", that is, the line I got by resting a straight board across several stair treads. In this case it was 37 degrees above horizontal.

I pre-cut the filler strips on the miter saw, using a stop block to make numerous cuts of the same length.


I cut one baluster to the proper length and angle. Then I transferred those dimensions to the other balusters.


Using a speed-square, I drew a line at the 37 degree angle (measured from the horizontal) that the handrail lies at.


Just for giggles, I used the lower filler strips to act as spacers for laying out the upper strip.


I tacked the upper strip to the balusters.


And I drilled holes for deck screws. Note how the screws are perpendicular to the upper strip, rather than parallel to the baluster. This will keep the screw heads sunk below the surface.


The assembly so far, just three balusters attached to a thin stick of wood.


Using the same filler strips as spacers, I laid out the bottom handrail board. Assembling slanted or sloped hand rails for deck stairs.


With everything temporarily clamped in place, I drilled holes and drove screws to attach the balusters to the bottom rail. The length of screw and position of hole must be figured carefully or the screw point could poke through.


The handrail assembly with the bottom rail attached. It looks weird standing like this.


I drove screws to attach the top handrail board to the upper strip. Getting these screws to sink below the surface wasn't easy because of the angle.


The completed handrail. I held the camera on an angle this time.


The handrail sections appear to have a nice coating of white stain, but that's only because the camera does no pick up detailed flaws.


The dark areas are thin spots where the stain covered poorly.

The homeowner applied a second coat of stain later.




Tools Used:

  • Cordless Drill/Driver
  • Power Drill
  • Miter Saw
  • Pneumatic Brad Nailer
  • Basic Carpentry Tools


Materials Used:

  • Handrail Stock
  • Turned Balusters
  • Deck Screws
  • Thin Wood "Cover Strips"


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Copyright © 2001-2003  HammerZone.com

Written June 12, 2001
Revised June 4, 2003