Filed Under: Do it yourself, Home repair, Remodeling    by: ITC

Of all the sections of the staircase likely to suffer damage, the handrails come top of the list. Yet they play an important safety role by preventing people from falling down the stairs and so must be kept in good repair.

The balusters are the most vulnerable part of the assembly and may become loose or broken.

A loose toe-nailed baluster can be tapped free with a mallet and block of wood, the nails removed and the holes opened out with a drill to accept countersunk screws. Then glue and screw it in place.

If the ends of the baluster are held by mortise joints, you can stop the baluster rattling about by driving narrow wedges into the gaps around the ends, having first smeared them with glue. Cut the ends of the wedges flush with the surface of the string or handrail as appropriate. Sometimes, the balusters are held by thin strips of wood nailed in place between the ends of adjacent balusters. In this case, carefully prise off the strips on each side of the loose baluster and replace them with slightly longer ones.

If the baluster is actually broken, you can either replace it with a new one (assuming you can get one to match) or glue it back together, reinforcing the joint with dowels or screws. Toe-nailed balusters are easily removed as described above, as are those held by nailed-on capping pieces. However, if they are mortised into the string and handrail, you may have to saw through the ends to remove the baluster. Then glue blocks of wood into the mortise, plane them flush, cut the new baluster to fit and glue and screw it in place as you would a skewnailed version.

If a section of handrail is broken, you can make a simple repair by screwing a metal plate underneath across the break. Alternatively, you- can cut out a section and fit a new piece, using special handrail bolts or screws.

These need matching holes in the ends of the old and new rail, and the easiest way of marking them is with a paper template that matches the profile of the rail with the hole center marked on it. Hold the template over the end of each piece and mark the hole center by punching through with a nail. Additional holes must be drilled or cut with a chisel into the underside of the rail so that the nuts securing the bolt can be tightened.

Newel posts are unlikely to break, but if they do, they must be replaced completely. To remove it, you will have to lift the adjacent floorboards and unbolt the base from the joists. Then drive out the dowels holding the handrail and string to it. Finally, tap the newel post free — it may help to cut it into sections with a saw.

Use the old post as a guide for marking out the new one, making sure the mortises and dowel holes are all positioned correctly. Treat the base of the post with preservative and refit it, gluing the string and handrail in place and reinforcing the joints with fresh dowels.

Whether you are installing a new staircase or simply repairing an existing one, the range of components available in kit form makes the task much easier.

The stairs may be ready-assembled and consist of 12 or 14 treads for a full flight or six treads for a half-flight; they are available with or without risers (for closed or open tread styles) and bullnose steps allow extra versatility at floor-level.

The newels, baluster spindles, rails and fittings are manufactured in a wide variety of styles, from traditional to contemporary. The timber, which includes mahogany and hemlock, is usually sanded ready for varnishing or staining.

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