An attractive staircase can add a lot to a home’s appearance. Stately homes were often known for the grand staircases they had off the entry foyer. While most of us don’t have those stately homes, many of us do have a staircase and it might even be located off the entry foyer.
The design and style of any staircase helps set the tone for a home’s décor. Styles change through the years, just as other architectural items that affect a home’s appearance. Some people decide to go with the newer style, while others stick with tradition. In either case, the staircase and the railing help reflect what the owners want their home to look like.
Every once in a while, someone decides it’s time to replace the spindles or balusters on their stair or the entire handrail. This may be due to damage and wear on the original or because of wanting a new style. In either case, removal and replacement is pretty much the same thing. While a process that requires knowing what one is doing, replacing the spindles or even the handrail is not that complicated a job.
So what’s the difference between a spindle and a baluster anyway? Most of the time, the two terms are used interchangeably. However, there is an actual difference between the two. Balusters are the turned pieces which go between the step tread and the handrail. Spindles are similar, but don’t go down to the step tread; rather, they are supported by a horizontal rail at the bottom. Even so, the term spindle has become more common and is used for both, mostly because it is easier to remember.
So, just how expensive a project is this? That depends on several factors. Some spindles are more expensive than others, either due to their design or their material. Spindles which are made to be painted will be less expensive than those intended to be stained and varnished, just like with architectural wood trim. How long the handrail is can affect the cost as well, with a longer railing requiring more work and more materials. Finally, there’s the cost of labor, if a contractor is hired to do the job. Hiring a contractor for the project will usually cost between $1,200 and $1,600.
One important consideration, when replacing the spindles on a stair is that the building code has changed since some homes were built. If the staircase currently has only one spindle per stair, it will probably be necessary to add an additional spindle between each of the existing ones, closing the space between them to less than four inches. This change to the building code was made so that small children could not fit between the spindles.
Replacing Wood Handrail Spindles with New Wood Ones
Generally speaking, replacing wood balusters on a stair handrail with other wood balusters requires removing the handrail itself. However, this is not true if the wood balusters are being replaced with metal ones. But for the moment, we’re talking about wood ones.
To remove the railing, without causing damage, it is first necessary to figure out what sort of hardware was used to install it. The spindles will most likely be set into holes in the handrail, and then held in place with one or two brad nails. At the bottom, they will sit into holes drilled in the step treads. But the handrail is a bit more complicated. It is probably attached to a newel post on the bottom and a rosette that attaches to the wall at the top.
The attachment between the handrail and the rosette can be one of two ways. The rosette could have been attached to the end of the handrail first, and then screwed to the wall. Alternatively, it could have been attached to the wall first, then a single screw run through the bottom side of the handrail, into the rosette. In either case, the thing to do is look for the screws used to attach them together, removing those screws.
Please note that screw used in the assembly of a handrail may very well be hidden by plugs, glued into the wood, covering up the threaded fasteners. If that’s the case, then the plug will need to be carefully drilled out and then replaced later. It’s important to ensure that the drill bit (preferably a forstner bit) is properly aligned with the plug, especially in cases where the plug will be visible. Poor alignment will make the new plug more visible than the old one was.
At the newel end, the handrail was most likely attached to the newel post with a barrel nut and bolt. If that’s the case, there should be a plug somewhere, either on the side of the post or underside of the railing. However, some carpenters install them by angling screw through the bottom of the handrail, right into the newel post. In that case, no plugs have to be drilled out, just the screws removed.
Once the handrail is disconnected at the top and bottom, simply lift it out of position. The spindles probably aren’t glued in, so they should pull out. If they don’t pull out easily, assume they were nailed with a brad nailer and pull harder, drawing the brads out.
Adding Additional Spindles
If additional spindles are going to be added, it may be necessary to plug the existing hole in the step tread and handrail. This can be done with ¾” dowel rods in the bottom side of the railing, gluing pieces of dowel rod in place, and then cutting them off with a flush cut saw once the glue has dried. For the step tread, more care is needed, as the repair will be more visible. Round wood plugs to match the type of wood the step tread is made of should be used.
It may be that it is necessary to use larger wood plugs, than the hole that already exist in the step treads, due to the perfect size being unavailable in the type of wood needed (using 1” plugs for ¾” holes). In that case, the existing hole will need to be widened out, to a depth of ¼”. But trying to use a 1” forstner bit to do this, on an existing hole, is not only impossible, but will probably result in messing up the surface of the step tread around the hole. Instead fill the hole with a plug cut from a dowel rod, drill the hole out, and then pull the dowel rod plug out so that the matching wood plug can be installed. Be sure to align the grain of the wood plug with the grain of the step tread, to make it less visible.
Drilling new holes in the step treads for the additional balusters is easy and can be done with either a spade bit or a forstner bit. Take care to ensure that they are all in perfect alignment with each other, as one being offset to one side or the other will be obvious.
New holes may need to be drilled in the bottom of the handrail, either because of replacing the handrail or because of adding new spindles. In that case, a block of wood will need to be cut at the angle that the handrail meets the wall, to use as a drilling guide. Mark the locations of the holes, then use a spade bit to make the holes in the bottom of the handrail. Starting the brad point of the bit in straight; then once it is in the wood, set the block on the bottom of the railing, and use the angled cut on it as a gauge for how far over to angle the drill and bit to put the holes at the right angle.
Assembling the Handrail and Spindles
With all the hole drilled, set the new spindles into the holes in the step treads. Then working from bottom to top, set the spindles into the holes drilled in the bottom of the handrail. Use a rubber mallet to drive the handrail down onto the spindles, if they are tight.
Reattach the hardware holding the handrail to the newel post and rosette. If the screws don’t tighten down, due to threads being stripped out in the wood, fill the hole with a wood matchstick (without the head) and drive the screw back in. The wood fiber from the matchstick will break up and fill the threads, making the screw grab again.
With the handrail in place, check the alignment of the spindles, making sure that none of them are crooked or twisted. Then nail them top and bottom with a brad nailer. If necessary, use a nail set to drive the heads of the brads below flush, then fill the holes with wood putty.
The last thing that needs to be done, before applying whatever finish is going to be used, is to glue in new wood plugs to hide the hardware, replacing the ones which were removed earlier. If the plug doesn’t fit all the way down into the hole, leave it proud, and then trim it flush with a chisel after the glue dries.
Replacing Wood Handrail Spindles with Metal Ones
In the case where the existing wood spindles are going to be replaced with metal ones, the project is made easier by the fact that the handrail does not need to be removed. Rather, each spindle can be replaced individually, leaving the handrail in place.
Keep in mind that it might still be necessary to add additional spindles to make the handrail meet code. If that’s the case, then the information in the section on “Adding Additional Spindles” above will still apply.
To install a metal spindle, first cut the existing wood spindle that is to be replaced. With it cut, it should come out easily, although there might be brads holding it at top and bottom.
The new metal spindle may need to be cut to length with a metal cutoff saw or an angle grinder with a fiber cutoff wheel. If it does need to be cut off, remember that there needs to be enough material to go up into the handrail; but there doesn’t need to be any material to go down into the step tread. Some replacement metal spindles have floor plates, but I’m going to assume that the spindles being used do not. It should be obvious the differences in installation with floor plates.
Cut a 3” piece of dowel rod that will fit fairly snugly, but not tight, inside the new metal spindle. Then drill a small hole near the bottom of the spindle (about ¼” up), so that a finish screw can be driven through that hole, the dowel and into the step tread. Don’t install the screw yet.
The dowel being used will probably be smaller than the existing hole in the step tread from the wood spindle. It can be left that way, especially since the finish screw I just mentioned will hold the bottom of the spindle in place. However, if the hole appears to be too big, compared to the dowel, you may want to fill the hole by gluing in a piece of dowel rod, cutting it flush, and then drilling a new hole in the center of that dowel, which is just a little bit bigger (1/16” to 1/8”) than the dowel. That will make for a snugger fit which will be less likely to move from children pushing on it.
Slide the cast decorative pieces and the cast foot over the metal spindle (if they are used) and the dowel into the bottom of the spindle. It is helpful to put the set screw on the same side; preferably the side where they will be least visible. Then slip the top of the spindle into the handrail, setting the base of the spindle in the correct location.
The section of dowel rod inside the base of the spindle may need to be coaxed down into the hole a bit, especially if it is snug inside the spindle. This can be done with the finish screw or a sharp tool, working through the hole drilled for the finish screw. Take care not to push it down too far and lose it. Once the dowel is in place, drive a finish screw through the hole at an angle, so that it goes through the dowel and into the wood tread.
To finish that spindle, locate the decorative casting and the foot casting and tighten up the set screw. Then repeat the process for all other spindles that are being replaced.