Synthetic handrail installed on deck stairs. No-Maintenance Exteriors:

Installing Synthetic Handrails
On Deck Stairs

Part 3 In A Series Of 3 Articles

In This Article:

The stair nose angle is determined and the wood posts are cut to length. The sections of handrail are assembled. Top mounting brackets are modified but the bottom brackets have to re-invented. Much agony ensues as sections of railing are installed.

Related Articles:
Skill Level: 4+ (Advanced) Time Taken: About 8 Hours

By , Editor

Continued From Part 2:

The stairs before the handrails were installed.

These two treated 4x4 posts are 8 feet long, and go about 2½ feet into the ground. I purposely used extra-long posts here, knowing that any post for a stair handrail will likely be a bit longer than ordinary posts for "flat" or horizontal handrails.

Click here to read about building the stairs and the installation of the posts shown above.

The posts for the flat handrails (the long horizontal railings along the edge of the deck) are all 8-foot 4x4's cut in half and bolted to the rim joist of the deck frame. Those posts all stood about 40 inches above the finished deck surface. Click here to see the installation of those posts.


Determining the "nose angle":

  • The "nose angle" is the the angle above horizontal of the "nose line".
  • The "nose line" is the imaginary line that connects all of the overhanging points of the stair treads.
  • The nose line can be obtained by laying a straightedge across the stairs, like the level in this picture.
I laid a 2-foot level across the stair edges and marked a line on the post.


I used a speed-square to measure the angle of the line. The red arrow points to the angle mark.

I measured 34 degrees above horizontal.


Tips On Measuring Angles:

If you are even slightly confused about why the angle is measure on the vertical edge, I don't blame you. I have an engineering degree, most of a math degree, and a decade of experience working with carpentry, and sometimes I still get turned around when measuring angles.

Here's how I visualize it... It's kinda goofy:

Imagine the picture above, but the speed-square is rotated until the left-hand edge is all the way against the post. I align the pivot heel at the point where the red line meets the left edge of the post (i.e. the red line seen in the picture below). That's my starting point. (I know... I should take a picture to explain this...)

When the speed-square is in this starting position, the vertical edge of the post is aligned with the zero degree mark. That means that the bottom edge of the triangle is zero degrees above horizontal.

Now I rotate the speed-square, keeping the pivot heel against the end of that red line. I imagine the lower edge of the speed square is a cannon, and I'm ordering the gunner to raise the cannon skyward. As the gunner tilts the speed-square counter-clockwise, I call out the angle that the "cannon" has reached, because I'm looking at the marks that align with the left edge of the post. When the lower edge finally aligns perfectly with the red line, the gunner stops and I read the angle, in this case 34 degrees.

That means that my red line is 34 degrees above horizontal. The line is also 56 degrees from vertical, because 90 degrees (a right angle) minus 34 degrees is 56 degrees. It is REALLY EASY to get a  wrong measurement if you hold the speed-square the wrong way. That's why I go through the whole cannon-elevation silliness, I can see the rotation of the "cannon" as it goes from horizontal (if that's the reference "line" that I want) up to the line that I've drawn.

One of these days I'll write an entire article about tips and techniques for measuring angles.



I drew a line along the bottom of the level (blue line). This is the "nose line".

Then I made a mark one inch higher than the nose line. This will be the bottom of the handrail. The bottom of my handrail should be one inch above the nose of the stair steps.


King-Sized Mistakes:

Monarch's instructions say "Make sure the minimum spacing allowed by local code (4") from the nose of the stair tread to the bottom of the rail is maintained." Yes, their instructions say minimum... but you should know that the building codes are concerned with MAXIMUM openings around handrails.

Unless the codes have been totally revised, the requirement is that the triangle-shaped area below a stair handrail shall not allow a ball or sphere to pass through that is greater than 6 inches in diameter.

The space between balusters or under a railing cannot pass a ball or sphere that is greater than 4 inches in diameter. This rule would be very difficult to maintain for the triangular opening below a stair handrail, so the codes make an exception.



The flat handrails are about 32½ inches tall (not including the gap below the bottom rail).

I marked 32½ inches above the previous mark, to indicate the top of the handrail.


Then I marked a point 4½" higher. This will be the top of the plastic post sleeve.

This mark is 42½" above the step, but this dimension could be different for other handrail situations.


To double-check my layout, I placed a 4-foot level on the layout mark for the top edge of the handrail, just to see where the top cap would intersect the end post.

This should work fine.


I cut the 4x4 posts with a circular saw, which requires two cuts because the blade can only cut about 2½" deep.

Actually, I cut these posts about ½" higher than the mark shown two photos back, because the post cap needs that much wood protruding beyond the sleeve. Alternatively, I could have cut the sleeve a half-inch shorter.

Then I slipped the sleeves over the posts.


Cutting The Retainer And Bottom Rail:

Without thinking about the consequences, I began by cutting a 34 degree angle on the upper ends of the retainer and bottom rails.

Then I realized I missed something...

... the alignment of the holes.

With conventional wood handrails, I would simply cut the top and bottom rails to the desired length, then go about installing the balusters at the proper spacing. But these holes are already drilled... and not once did I think about the hole layout when I chopped the ends off the first pieces of rail.

I looked at my first retainer and bottom rail and realized that the the hole-to-end distance was not the same at the lower end as the upper end. But they were within an inch.

If I wanted those dimensions to match (which they should) I would not have enough bottom rail stock or retainer stock. I would need to open the extra box of railing (which the homeowner planned on returning for a refund) which would cost quite a few bucks.

The retainers and bottom rails.


It's important that the distance from the top end to the center of the first hole be the same on the bottom rail...


... as the retainer.

It's also good to have this dimension equal to the last-hole-to-bottom-end distance.

I didn't have such luck, and I didn't have the patience to figure it out.


On the bottom rail, I re-drilled the holes at the 34 degree angle required. I cut a piece of wood at the same 34 degree angle and clamped it to the bottom rail. This piece of wood acted as a guide to help me maintain the proper angle. This required an extra-long 3/16" drill bit.

Note that the retainer (which is part of the top rail) did not need to have the holes re-drilled at an angle. That's because the retainer is quite thin, while the bottom rail is about 1½" thick.


I cut each baluster at the 34 degree angle, being careful that the ends were parallel to each other, and all the balusters were the same length.


I screwed the balusters to the retainer. The screws need to be tightened carefully so the top of the baluster gets fully seated, yet the screw does not strip out the plastic.


To attach the bottom rail, I first started a screw in each baluster, otherwise it's impossible to see the center hole in all but the first baluster.


Note the screw head. The original hole is about an inch to the left.


I put the assembled handrail into place to test the fit.

The L-brackets provided won't work for angled railings. Monarch's instructions mention some special-order brackets for stair railings, but I wasn't willing to wait up to a week to get them.

And there was another problem. I was planning to use one handrail section for two short angled stair rail sections. But I needed 8 mounting brackets, and I only had 4.

Not only did I need to bend the original brackets to fit the angled railing, but I needed 4 more brackets in a hurry.

I decided on a two-pronged approach: Customize the original brackets for the top rail mounting brackets, and fabricate my own bracket to secure the bottom rail. 


Top Rail: Customizing The Brackets:

The brackets supplied with the Monarch handrail needed to be modified for the stair rails. One had to be made tighter (more acute, less than 90 degrees) and the other had to be made broader (more obtuse, greater than 90 degrees).

For the acute angle, I cut a scrap of wood to the 34 degree angle of the stair handrails.

Then I clamped the metal bracket between the block and a workbench.


I smacked the bracket with a hammer.

Actually, I initially used a block of wood as a buffer, placing the wood against the metal and beating on the wood. As I got close to the desired angle I didn't use the wood.


For the obtuse-angled bracket, I simply placed the piece of metal on a block of wood and hammered on the corner. Since the metal is narrowest at the corner, it bent there with only slight bending elsewhere.


I checked the bracket against the 34 degree angle cut to verify that I had the correct shape. This was pretty easy... it only took a minute or two.


Bottom Rail: Saved By The Hangman:

When I tested the fit of the first stair rail section, I realized there were going to be some problems with attaching the bottom rail to the posts.

If the mounting brackets were attached to post first, it would be impossible to drive a screw into the underside of the retainer.

But if the brackets were installed on the underside of the bottom rail first, then it would be impossible to drive lag screws into post.

I thought that maybe the only approach would be to pre-drill and pre-install all fasteners, including the lag screws that hold the brackets to the post, then remove those lag screws and attach the brackets to railing. Then I would have to install the lags with wrench. I had enough room for a box-end wrench.

BUT... that sounded like a pain in the @$$.


My solution came while browsing the hardware aisle at the spankin' new Menard's store nearby. I envisioned using the Hangman Products model HP6 aluminum picture/mirror mounting hardware to fabricate brackets to support the lower rail. This hardware is essentially a pair of ramps that keep a picture on the wall, and I thought that I could use them to at least keep the bottom rails from moving sideways or downward. The upper mounting brackets will prevent the railing from moving upward


The Hangman model HP6 contains two 6" long aluminum strips, a plastic level vial (which I won't need) and mounting screws. This package costs $4.98 at Menard's. I bought three packages, although I only needed two.


Using a small scrap of the bottom rail, I made this test piece to see if my idea would work.


I mounted the test piece to the wall of my workshop. It worked.


To make this test piece, I placed a scrap of bottom rail in a vise and marked the location of the pocket that I needed to rout.


I used a Rotozip with a ¼" collet and a ¼" straight-flute router bit.

I adjusted the depth of cut to ¼ inch.


I carefully routed the pocket, being cautious to avoid cutting through the outside wall of the pocket.

This is very tricky because the base (or "foot") of the Rotozip tool is so big that there is very little base to rest against the piece being cut. I had to be super-alert to always keep some part of the base in contact with the handrail end.

It seems to me that there would be a market for a replacement base for the Rotozip, one with a much smaller opening. The base can be easily removed and replaced. If somebody made such a base, I'd buy one.


It's kinda hard to see, but there is a one-quarter inch deep pocket milled into the end of this piece of Monarch bottom rail.


I cut a piece of Hangman with a hack saw and a vise. This piece was just shy of 1-3/8" long.


I used a small bench sander to smooth down the burrs made from cutting the aluminum.

This could also be done with a file.


I drilled two mounting holes in each piece.


After drilling each hole, there was a burr on the exit side of the hole. I took a moment to sand down this burr before drilling the next hole, because the burr prevented the part from sitting flat on the drill press table.

Of course, a regular hand-held drill works just as well.

I mounted the aluminum clip to the pocket of the bottom rail.

I used a #6 Vix bit to pre-drill the pilot holes, and #6 x ½" stainless steel sheet metal screws to attach the aluminum clip.


At the job site, I routed the pockets in the ends of the bottom rails.


I attached the aluminum clips.

On the upper ends, the original two screws almost poked through (into the inner void). Not wanting these screws to pull out, I added a third screw at a lower position where there was more material to bite into.


Handrail Section Installation Process:

First I tested the fit of each handrail section. There's no point in fighting with a section of railing that is too tight or too loose.


Upstairs End, Top Rail:

I used flat-head screws here and I tilted the drill so it was parallel to the balusters.


I used a flat-head screw with a washer. Washers are absolutely necessary because the holes in the brackets are too big for the fasteners that Monarch provides.


Downstairs End, Top Rail:

At this end I also angled the drill so it would be parallel with the balusters.


I used two flat-head screws (about 3/4" long) with #10 washers.


I set the railing in place again, resting on a scrap of decking, which is one inch thick. This will give the railing a good height above the stair treads.


I marked the locations of the holes in the brackets so I could pre-drill the mounting holes in the posts.


I removed the railing again, then I removed the brackets from the top rail.

I placed the bracket against the post and pre-drilled the holes and drove in the lag screws. Note how the upper lag screw was angled.


This is kinda piss-poor... but my patience is wearing thin.

I could have just drilled on the pencil marks, without using the brackets as a guide. That would have allowed me to drive both lag screws in straight... although I would've had to use a wrench for the top lag.

This bracket should be made about an inch taller.


The other bracket (the obtuse one) was easy because there's nothing to get in the way.


I put the handrail back in place and I set the custom-clips into position. This was kinda sketchy because I could not be sure the clip was making full contact with the corresponding clip on the bottom rail.

I secured the clip temporarily with duct tape.


Then I removed the railing again.

For the upper post it was easy to secure the clip with 1" long stainless steel sheet metal screws.


The clip for the bottom end proved to be a conundrum. There was only about 2 inches between the post and the step. There was no way I could get any tools into that tiny space to drill a hole or drive a screw.

Then I realized that I could just remove the post sleeve. I pre-drilled the holes using a Vix bit.


Then I used a couple of short #6 screws to hold the clip in place. I drove the screws tight, then I backed them out part way, because the screw points would prevent the sleeve from being slipped back onto the 4x4 post.


I replaced the sleeve on the wood post...


...and I used an offset screwdriver to tighten the screws.


I slipped the handrail into place AGAIN.


I installed screws into the top rail any way I could. Even though I had pre-drilled the holes and already driven screws here, I was not able to replace the screws in the original holes. This was caused by the 4x4 deck posts being twisted and knocking my angle brackets out of alignment.


Screws installed at the upper connection. This end was also difficult, because the screws would tilt at an angle and I couldn't keep the drill/driver aligned with the screw, so the head would strip.


In spite of my careful layout work, the top connection managed to shift to an off-centered position. I think this may have been caused by the sloppy fit the mounting brackets have on the retainer.


Finished handrail. It looks nice, especially from a distance.

Afterwards I applied a bead of white silicone caulk to the gaps between the handrail and the post. This caulking seemed to do a good job of making all the components blend together.


The completed project... after the skirting had been installed around the outside of the deck.

They were a royal pain in the neck to install, but they look good now.

If I was asked to do another set of stair handrails with Monarch synthetic railing, I would charge at least 8 hours of labor for one pair, regardless of size. This should be a 2 or 3 hour job, but Monarch's design makes it difficult.




Tools Used:

  • Cordless Drill/Driver
  • Cordless Impact Driver (Optional)
  • Basic Carpentry Tools
  • Extra-Long 3/16" Drill Bit
  • Miter Saw

Materials Used:

  • Monarch Synthetic Handrail, 6' x 36"
  • Hangman® Model HP6 Picture Hanging Hardware

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Written May 30, 2005