Dangerous deck (C) Daniel FriedmanStair Railing / Stair Guardrail Construction & Installation
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Stairway guardrail construction & installation. This article describes how to assemble & install guardrails along a stairway. We explain where guardrails are required along stairs, the difference between a guardrail and a handrail, and we explain how the top of a stair guardrail might serve also as a graspable handrailing.

This article series describes construction details for decks and porches, deck stairs, guardrails, and hand railings.

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Stair Guard Railing Construction & Installation

Pier installation details (C) Daniel Friedman

How to Assemble Guard Railings along a Stairway

A stairway guardrail will prevent users from falling off of open stairs and a hand-railing will make climbing and descending any stairway easier and safer.

Except for low stairs in some jursidictions, a handrail and guardrail along stairs is required by building codes as well as good sense.

Even if your local code is lax on the issue, consider adding a railing to at least one side of the stairs leading to your deck.

Stair guard railings should resemble the deckguard railing as much as possible, with matching baluster and rail shapes and spacing.

The primary difference is that stair railings require a handrail that can be grasped. In some building code jurisdictions you are permitted to build the stair guardrail at a lower total height than required for the guardrail, so that the top of the stair guardrail can also serve as a handrail. Where taller guardrails are required along stairways you will need to add a handrailing at a the normal handrail height so that it can be grasped without having to reach "up" too high.

Stairs that are built alongside the house look fine with a single railing, but stairs in any other location are likely to look odd unless both sides have a railing.

Lay Out the Stair Railing Posts

Stairs should be designed to be evenly spaced between two posts supporting the deck railing. With careful planning, you can use the deck posts as top posts on your stairs. With some railing designs or stair locations, however, it is preferable, or even necessary, to use separate posts for the deck and stair railings.

Stair railing posts should be bolted to the stringers in the same manner as posts for the deck railing. Wherenotched posts are permitted, you can notch stair railing posts to match the posts on the deck railing, but the notch will have to be cut at an angle. Use posts a little longer than you need, then measure and cut them to length after they are installed.

Connect the Stair Rails to the Posts

Lay a 2 x 4 across the tread nosings and clamp it temporarily to the top post. Determine the height of the top rail (typically between 34 and 38 inches, although building codes often allow a range of 30 to 38 inches).

Measure straight up from the bottom of the 2x4 on the bottom and top posts, and mark the distance on the outside edge of each post.

Depending on your railing style, use the marks to determine where to cut the posts or where to align the upper edge of the top rail. With most stairs, the bottom rail can be installed about 1 inch above the line established by the bottom of the 2 X 4 and still be acceptable by code. Cut the rails to length and fasten them to the posts. Balusters can then be cut and installed as they were on the deck railing.

If you plan to install a cap rail flat across the tops of the posts, you will need to cut a corresponding angle on the posts to match the top rail. Fasten the cap rail to the stair railing posts in the same way as the cap rail is fastened on the deck railing.

What's the Difference Between a Stair Guardrail and a Stair Handrail?

Handrail and guardrail combination at the CIA (C) Daniel FriedmanA guardrail is a closed or balustered barrier placed along a walking surface to keep people from falling off. Guardrails are required along decks, balconies, ramps, and other elevated walking surfaces. Decks, balconies and similar horizontal walking surfaces do not require a handrail, just a guardrail.

The current guardrail recommended height requirement is 42-inches or higher above adjacent surfaces. More specifications are

A handrail is a graspable component run along stairs and ramps to assist walkers and to help arrest a trip or fall hazard along the stairs or ramp.

Handrails are required along most steps and ramps though in some jurisdictions it is permitted to omit a handrail along low stairs and ramps. More specifications for hand railings along stairs are

The photo (above-left) shows a combination guardrail (red arrow) and hand railing (blue arrow) installed in a stairway observed at the CIA - the Culinary Institute of America in NY.

Importance of Graspability of Handrailings Along Stairs

If the top of your stair guardrail is serving as a handrailing as well then it must be built using dimensions that give a graspable surface. The handrail is the critical component of a stair railing. Building codes all require that the handrail be “graspable,” by which they mean that a person could grip it securely enough to keep from falling.

Details about handrail graspability are at GRASPABILITY of HANDRAILINGS,
and details about handrailing requirements & construction begin

Using 2x lumber is just fine for the top of a balcony, deck, or porch guardrailing (installed on level walking surfaces or ramps to keep people from falling off). But this same material is not suitable for use as a graspable handrail. For a stairway guardrail just nailing up a 2x4 or 2x6 flat or on edge to serve as a handrailing will not meet building codes and worse, is unsafe because it does not meet graspability descriptions of any building code we have examined.

Hand sizes differ, of course, so it is best to use a handrail that is small enough to be grasped comfortably by as many people as possible. While codes may allow a handrail to be larger, the most sensible width (or diameter) is I 1/2 to 2 inches.

Few people could grasp a flat 2x6, but most people could benefit from the same 2 x 6 on edge. Where 2x lumber is used to make a handrail by placing it on edge, codes require grooves that allow the fingers to curl around and grasp the handrail. Or you can rip down 2x lumber to an appropriate size and cross section.

Another good choice is to use a standard round handrail, attached to posts with metal brackets. This approach allows you to build the stair railing to look exactly like the deck railing (with, for example, a 2 x 6 cap rail), and then attach the handrail, somewhat inconspicuously, to the top rail or the posts.

When can we Omit a Stair Guardrail? When there is a wall.

If the stairs to your deck are adjacent to the side of the building it won't require a guardrail along that side. You may still need a graspable handrailing however.

Can we Omit Guardrails on Low Decks & Porches?

If a the deck is low enough that it does not require a guardrailing nor a handrailing (less than 36" or 3 steps in some jurisdictions), you will still make the few steps up and down easier to maneuver by attaching a handrail with brackets to the structure itself. Just be sure that fasteners for the bracket are driven into the house framing or foundation.


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