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Building a Custom Staircase and Handrail

Building a Custom Staircase and Handrail

This custom staircase and handrail is made from Hickory and stained to go with the wood flooring that was installed at the top of the stairs. The Craftsman style design was derived from some of the architecture in the house.

Here are some of the specialty tools I used on this build. (affiliate links)

•IRC Residential Code Book
• Domino 500 –
• Assorted Dominos –
• Incra HD 1000
• Jet Parallel Clamps
• Porter cable router

For a list of some of my typical consumable products I use in my shop, please visit my amazon page. (Yes, this is an affiliate link and funds raised help this channel grow.)


Recount of the Build Video


Today, I’m building a staircase with a custom handrail.

But before we get to the build, let me get you up to speed about what needed to be done on the jobsite before we could install the stairs and handrail.

Here is the before picture which the clients felt was a dated design and was not going to go well with their new hickory floors being installed at the top of the stairs.

Not only did the client want to change out the stain color, they wanted to update the style of stair case to an open ended tread.

To change it to an open ended step I needed to modify this wall.

So I drew the rise and run of the stair case on the drywall.  I then took my saws all and carefully cut the shape out.

Unfortunately the treads where dado’d into the skirt board so I had to demo them and cut new stringers.   I only demo’d half the staircase so I had something to stand on while I worked on the other side

After the demo was done the corners on the drywall where just flapping in the wind ready to snap off with a little pressure.  To solve this I reframed the wall by framing up sections, then I slide them t between the stringer and drywall and nailing them off to the existing studs.

But before I demoed anything I fabricated all the components back at the shop.

While I could order custom sized treads, the millwork shops in my area didn’t offer the customizations I needed to wrap around the existing walls, so I just fabricated my own.

For the treads themselves, it was your basic milling to thickness and gluing together operation,

But for the nosing I milled up some 8/4 stock and chucked a stain nose bit in the router.

Before I ran the stock through the router I clipped off the corners at the table saw.  This helped reduce the load on the router especially using a huge nosing bit.  It also considerably reduced chatter and tear out on the hickory which is prone to having a lot of tear out when routing.

Then at the router table I used several feather boards to help keep the stock tight to the fence and tight to the table resulting in a bullnose that needed little standing.

Once the all the pieces where bullnose, I cut the miters for the open ended treads at the table saw

For most of the treads, it was your basic edge banding operation with mitered corners.  But for the bottom tread I had to make a notch for the new post.  I first attached the center nosing with dominos and glue.  I then went back to the table saw, and for safety I cut a miter on a longer piece of nosing and then cut the piece to length.

I pre glued the mitered corner before attaching it to the tread.  This made assembly a bit easier so all I had to do was tack the return in place with some brands.

I milled a test block the same width as the newel post and did a quick test fit to be sure I had a nice fit.  It’s much easier to adjust the edge banding before the glue fully sets

Now on to making the newel post itself.  I ripped down some 8/4 stock and laminated 2 pieces together.

Once the glue was dry I ran it through the plainer until it was down to the thickness I needed.

To give the newel posts the elution that they have floating panels I milled up some stock and ripped a miter down one edge.

I set a stop block up on the table saw so I could quickly cut them all to the same length.

Then glued the miters together to create the corners for the newel post.  These where long and skinny, to skinny to clamp so I used blue tape to hold them together while the glue dried.

Once the glue had set up enough to take the tape off, I used a card scraper to remove the excess glue squeeze out so the corners would fit tight to the post.

Before installing the corners I pre finished the posts themselves.  This would be a lot easier to do before the corners are installing and also help prevent any raw wood from showing along the edges if the wood shrank during seasonal movement.

Then as an extra precaution, I ran my block plane down the sides chamfering the corners to be sure the corner trim would sit tight to the post.

To install the trim I used a headless pin nailer, it was big enough to hold the trim but small enough not to have to putty a bunch of holes.

There are three rail elements, one at the bottom, one two thirds up, and one at the top. This design element came from the doors in the rest of the house that had the same panel design.   I started out marking and cutting each piece as I worked my way around and up the post.

When installing the middle rail I used a spacer block to be sure they would all be placed in the same spot, and to save a bunch of time not having to measure for each one.

The last detail for the newel post was to build the cap.  There were a few test cuts involved and a bit of math to get all 4 sides to meet in the middle at a nice clean point

I didn’t record it because at the time I thought it would make for boring video.  If there are enough people interested, maybe I’ll go back and recreate it for a future video.

But the operation itself is pretty straightforward.  I used my shop made vertical sled to clamp the work piece and with the blade raised to the correct height and angle I made the cuts.

I cut the cross grain 1st as it is more likely to blow out, and then cut with the grain 2nd removing any tear out form the cross grain cut.

I reset the sawblade to 90 and cut the decorative shoulders.  On the jobsite the cap will be pinned in place with a little glue and the underside trimmed out with some ¼ round.

While the stain and finish was drying on the newel posts. I moved on to prepping the stock for the spindles.

I jointed, planed and cut each spindle square, there are 20 spindles in this project plus some extra stock to create the little cross braces between each spindle so this took some time.

Next was to cut the little angled cross braces that where going between the spindles.  Since my table saw is old school and doesn’t have a proper riving knife.  I clamped a shim just so it rubbed the back side of the blade.  This way as I cut the little parts they were pushed away from the blade preventing them from becoming little kick back bullets.  A stop block clamped to the miter gauge made the cuts accurate and quickly repeatable.

While I had the miter gauge set up at the right angle I cut the tops of all the spindles.  This angle is going to go against the handrail

Then I re squared the miter gauge to cut the lower cross braces that are going between the spindles.  I set up a stop to make the cuts repeatable, but I took it one step further.  I set the red arm as the stop so the metal bar would act as a hold down.  This made it a little safer and more comfortable to cut these little parts

Now it’s time to cut the joinery.  I know a lot of people poo poo the domino because they think it’s not real woodworking or it cost too much or they just love to hate something.  But for a small custom shop like mine when I need to finish a job before the next mortgage payment is due, this is the way to go.  There were 72 of those little cross braces; I think the domino paid for itself that day.

To set up my jig I screwed it down to the table and set up some angled stops to hold the work piece in place and a stop block to my right to register the domino against so the mortises would all be in the same place.

For the spindles themselves I reset my jig so I would have something to clamp to.  Then I set a stop block to the left and right to register for both the upper and lower cross brace.

Then for the very bottom cross braces I reconfigured the jig one last time to cut the mortises on  both sides of them.

You may have noticed that these parts look stained and finished. I wanted to pre finish the inside edges before assembling them as it would be really difficult to stain and finish after they were assembled.


To assemble the spindle units, I screwed yet another jig to the table.  The stop block at the top of the jig is cut at the same angle as the rise and run of the stairs to help me quickly align all the parts.  Now all there is left, is to add the dominos, glue and claps.

I clamped it in a way so I could simply lift the assembly off the jig, set it aside, and start clamping the next set up.

To attach the spindles to the treads I simply doweled them, so once the assembly dried I routed out a slot in the bottoms of the spindles to receive the dowel.

To do this I screwed a jig to the side of my assembly table to clamp the spindle assembly upside down so I could rout an oblong hole in the bottom of each spindle.  The reason for the oblong hole is it gave me a little wiggle room in case one of the dowels in the tread was off.  Once the glue set on all three dowels it was a solid assembly.

The reason why am blowing out the hole with air, is my spiral up cut bit was so dull it made more smoke than sawdust so I’m using a spiral down cut just to get the job done, and it is driving the chips to the bottom of the hole.   I should also mention that the big chuck of walnut scrap is only there to take up the extra space in the clamps so I was easier to clamp the work piece without the bars sticking way out in the way.

Then the last step before installing was to sand the joints flush, and apply the stain and finish

Once everything was installed I had one more detail to take care of, and that was the cove on the back side of the treads and risers.  My local millwork shop did not stock cove in hickory and they charge a $200 set up fee to do a custom run.  I only needed a few sticks so it was back at the shop to mill some up.

Since Hickory is a splintery wood and the router will often tear out a big chunk of wood instead of cut it, I did a similar operation as the stain nosing.

To prevent tear out and reduce the load on the router I used a dado blade to remove the bulk of the material then set up the feather boards on the router to rout out the cove.

Since thin pieces will chatter when milled I used a wider piece of wood than I needed to make the cove.  I then ripped the cove free at the table saw.

This lets the router cut a cleaner cove and is much safer to waste a little wood than to try to route a little piece.

I should mention that the actual handrail profile, I did have my local millwork shop custom cut it, That was large enough and complicated enough to justify a custom run over my labor to mill it in house.

So here are some shots of the finished staircase and handrail.

If you are going to take on a project like this I highly recommend you pick up a code book.  In my 20 plus years of working in the trades I have had all kinds of people tell me what the building codes are and more often than not they are wrong to one degree or another.  You will save yourself all kinds of headaches if you get your information from the source.


I’m the owner of Benham Design Concepts, a mixed media art studio where I design and build custom furniture and other works of art using wood, glass, stone, and various metals.
In this blog, I talk about the art I create, my journey, and the things I learn along the way.

1 comment

  1. This is amazing on haw to build a custom handrails. Thank you for sharing this one. This help to those people who want to build their own stairs.

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