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Tangent Handrail

Listing #4203   Listed on: 09/07/2013

Company Name: 18th Century Handrail

Contact Name:  

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I only furnished the curved handrail for this job but that was (as always) a bit of a challenge. The rail had to make an ascending, geometric turn through 180 degrees, with pitch-changing transitions between the curved and straight flights.

The walnut rail was cut and shaped from flat, solid planks with no bending or strip laminating required. No forms or jigs were necessary. The cutting patterns were developed from the floor plan only, using tangent handrail, geometry from the 1800's. The fit and installation was by others, 2000 miles away. (I never see the jobs but rely solely on the submitted plans.)

I do it this way because it's easier than re-sawing, bending and twisting wood and in some cases, the only practical approach. No CNC machinery were employed either although that would be the modern method of today.

I've been doing this for many years and on occasion, teach and lecture on the subject: "Tangent Handrail".


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Tangent Handrail

Viewer Comments:

Posted By: Ken Havinga     [09/07/2013]
Hi Jim. This is an incredible skill you possess. I am humbled.

Regards, Ken.

Posted By: David R Sochar     [09/09/2013]
Jim- Was this the rail you mentioned in a Woodweb post where the radius of the treads would not allow smooth rail transitions in plan?

If so, you pulled it out well. Very well. You made everyone else look good with your work.

Thanks for posting.

Posted By: Jim Baldwin     [09/09/2013]
Dave, sounds like one of my tirades and certainly applies here as well.

It's not the radius but the position of the risers which forces the handrail easements.

I'm proud of this job as I believe it's the best anyone could do with this layout. A change however, from "balanced winders" to "dancing winders" would have eliminated the noticeable easements altogether.

Either way, the handrail for this stair should be considered way beyond the limits of any factory bender-rail (although I've seen it hashed out often enough.)


Posted By: Brian     [09/29/2013]
Very well done Jim,
I often wonder how that is accomplished. How do you shape a handrail like that with such drastic this done by hand- carving/scraping...shaping.....?

Very nice craftsmanship!


Posted By: Greg van Nurden     [09/30/2013]
That looks real good Jim. You have a lot to be proud of. The future of the stair industry looks a lot better with you involved the way you are.

Posted By: Jim Baldwin     [10/01/2013]
The cutting and squaring is done primarily by bandsaw but finished with spokeshave and rasp. The profile milling however, is all machine, of my own design. There was no handcarving required here.

Posted By: Alick Munro     [10/01/2013]
I had Jim do a descending/twisted rail for me twenty years ago. It was gorgeous. by now he has had a lot more practice. and no he won't show you the shaper.

Posted By: Mark Slafkes     [10/02/2013]
I wish I could remember the math you've used here. Too long ago. Clearly, you are very smart and very skilled. Wonderful work.

Posted By: bob d.     [10/03/2013]
Great looking job only done by a professional. -Bob

Posted By: Kelly     [10/05/2013]
You are truly an artisan. How does one learn the geometry required to do this type of work in today's age of CNC?
Also, are any of your lectures online?

Posted By: Jim Baldwin     [10/06/2013]


There are now a few old books available on-line and in reprinted format. The most contemporary author is perhaps, George diChristina "A Simplified Guide to Custom Stairbuilding and Tangent" Handrailing

Here's a link to an article that may also serve as an introduction.

I can tell you however, that trying to grasp and learn this subject without some assistance, is very difficult (as there is nothing simple about it). I suggest findimg someone with practical experience to help. This may be easier said than done but it can litterely cut "years" off the learning curve.

I've just completed a four-day seminar in Martha's Vineyard, MA but may do this again next year.

Either way, I try to make myself available to help others as my schedule permits. Look me up online if you're interested.

Thanks (and thanks to all for the many kind words)

Posted By: RJT Designs     [10/31/2013]
Beautiful job! I know exactly what goes into making a complex handrail like this. I design high end stairs for a stairbuilder and have to create 3D models of high-end elliptical and radial stairs. The geometry involved is very complex. I have worked out my own methods to create the geometry, which has to be spot on because the files are either sent to a cnc shop to cut the parts, or templates are printed off my drawings to cut the parts by hand. Very nice work!

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