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fabricating 'standard' handrail fittings

jamien Member

I finally recently opened my own shop, and as life does, it has thrown me into the fire quick and in unexpected directions. Within a year i have somehow become the go to guy for shop fabricated stairs of increasing complexity. I like the challenge of them and the endless variety is fun. Basically each one is custom in every way. I just secured my first continuous handrail job after pushing it several times - and it looks like lots more are coming. The tangent handrail stuff i'm diving into headfirst and trying to wrap my head around. (If anyone has the townsend book, or a reprint it is the one i keep getting recommended but cant find) But for all my stairs i want to begin fabricating all the rail and fittings myself -partially because every rail is a custom profile or material, or both. And partially because i have been less than satisfied with the stock rail quality. The projects that have been appearing have no real cost constraints - but have to be perfect. Which brings me to my specific question: what is the best method you have found to fabricate 'standard' upeasings and overeasings, preferably with a shaper?

I have seen, and can imagine using curved saddles to cradle easings as they pass the cutter with repeated light strokes to form the profiles on the shaper. The term 'swing jig' is not unfamiliar, but i have never seen one, so i'm not sure i am imagining it correctly. A friend tried to explain how he puts the top profile on after with fittings flat on the shaper table after profiling the sides, but i'm not seeing an advantage to that unless i am missing something. Level 90s i think i can figure with some hand work. Goosenecks seem straightforward once the up easing is tackled, though i hope to move away from them to continuous rail wherever possible. Volutes and other more complex fittings will likely be hand carved. So how have you found it best done? preferably with a picture of the setup for my feeble mind.

This is a first time post for me, but i am a long time reader of woodweb. Countless helpful hints on here for sure -always the place i check first. I have read just about every stair and handrail post on here, and my question is never directly addressed in a meaningful way here that i can see.

8/2/19       #2: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
David R Sochar Member

You said it - stairbuilding is fun. Each has its challenges and they are very satisfying project. We sold them as "the best example of craftsmanship most people will ever own or see."

Swing jig - think metronome. Pivot point 12- 20" above the table, with the swinging part passing by the shaper to be profiled. The parts must be long and uniform, the jig must be rock solid, and you need to have a heavy handle attached so you can feed properly at a distance. I can't find a picture just yet....

I make most of our upeasings and over easings at a 13" radius so I can turn

I build mostly curved stairs, so they have their particulars. We profile straights on the shaper, and curves when we can. Mostly those are flat curves. We will often profile the twisted rails on the stair where they were formed, using a single large router bit, or 2-3 smaller bits.

I learned profiling on a shaper with a split collar and loose knives, 40 yrs ago. Today, it is almost all router bits. 150 - 300 for the custom bit, but it makes things much easier.

Jim Baldwin knows tangent rail and has taught it. He is an expert on tangent rails, tho he would try to be modest. Here he is part of a good conversation:

View higher quality, full size image (1944 X 2592)

View higher quality, full size image (900 X 675)

View higher quality, full size image (900 X 675)

Jim B and Others, Talkin' Rails

8/2/19       #3: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
Pat Gilbert

The only think I know about building curved stair cases is that I don't know anything about building curved stair cases.

I did find it interesting that some body posted a long time ago about making curved hand rails by drawing the stair case in 3d and then laying flat and routing it on a 3d router.

I wonder if Rufus Cooke knows anything about this.

I do not intend to slight Dave or Jim at all

8/2/19       #4: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
jamien Member

David, cool looking stairs! i hope to do that type of work at some point, but up until now it has been more standard landing/winder arrangements.

How does the router jig in the picture work? is the long arm with clamped on ledger allow the router to ride up the existing nosing line for stabilization?

Your description is sort of what i was imagine a 'swing jig' to be. i just want to see a couple before i try to inefficiently reinvent that square wheel.

Your comment on using a custom router bit also convinced me to go that way, not my usual custom shaper cutter. i can run router bits in my (industrial) shaper.

I already extensively looked at the thread you linked. it is the best one on here i think. included there is an example of precisely the hand carved fittings i am currently signed up to produce.

Pat, i don't believe you know nothing about curved stairs. your experience obviously overflows into any complex woodworking task. I've seen lots of cnc carved wreath videos etc. it looks like an interesting way to go, and i'm not averse to trying that method too. i'd be interested in pricing from anyone capable. fundamentally however i want to learn how it is done by hand so i know the process intimately enough to understand the benefits and limitations of any alternative methods. I suspect in the end i will enjoy the handwork aspect enough, and be able to sell the 'art' of it to continue with those methods. I like the comment that a stair is the highest form of craftsmaship a typical person will ever own or see. It can be true, i'm not one to rate a painting or watch over a wood project. they all can be art, just depends on which you are into.

i still need a well tested for making the basic parts though!

8/2/19       #5: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
Pat Gilbert

Dave's method is intriguing. He had a picture a while back of them loading the who staircase on a truck and then delivering it. To me that is magic.

I would have to see it to begin to understand it. Let alone the milling of the curved parts by hand or otherwise.

Rufus Cooke used to draw these is Solidworks. This is his website. Check out the dome he did (under projects), and the one Dave did too more magic.

Rufus' website

8/3/19       #6: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
MarkB Member

Every time these posts come up either stair related or door building related I wonder what the demand would be for a book, to the tune of $500-$1000 a copy, for someone who was willing to invest the time and could find a publisher, or would self publish.

I personally will never build a customer stair like these in question. In my area I will never be able to be profitable as a custom door builder. But I would more than likely break off the funds to strip off the details and techniques throughout the process that pertain to what I do regularly.

These threads always read somewhat cryptically as though those who have put in the effort are only going to share "just so much" but unfortunately, to me at least, this craft is dying if not already dead other than a handful of people.

We cut for a local residential cabinet maker who is an old-guard type. Is 70 years old, and still believes everyone is trying to steal his knowledge and his ideas and his design prowess when the simple reality is he is squandering sharing that knowledge because other than a select few individuals no one who buys, reads, or receives, his knowledge, is really going to implement it and carry it forward. So it would seem best to share it (and sell the books) with the knowledge that perhaps one person is actually going to do something with it which means at 70, sharing it with reckless abandon threatens him in no way but he still insists on taking it with him to the grave unless he lands on some individual who will "buy" his knowledge (i.e. buy his business and hope they can persevere through working around is neurocies and peculiarities long enough to extract the data before building him a box to put him in the ground).

In this global economy I could easily imagine an individual taking a year, or perhaps two, to write a book, take the time to make and photograph mockups and jigs that they never had the time to document over the years, and either having a publisher or self-publishing that information for a seemingly ungodly sum, would profit handsomely as well as leaving some form of perpetual revenue stream for whomever they choose.

$750 a copy, sell 10,000 copies over x years globally equals 7.5 million dollars. Wouldnt seem unrealistic in this internet/youtube/world. I would bet you'd sell half that to people in the US who think they'd buy the book and sell at 50K stair for the investment and never get through the first one and there would be a line behind them.

8/4/19       #7: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
jamien Member


i have done quite a few shopbuilt stairs that ship out complete, finish and all. I've done a coulple with winders integrated into a maximum code allowed rise so far. but they are getting more complicated every time. it is stressful the day the truck goes to the site - until they plunk into place. But what a magic moment! it blows most of the carpenters minds every time. I never suffer for lack of a few extra hands to set them. I have not yet begun pre-cutting or isntalling newels, but that is on the horizon.

The Parametric stuff is amazing! i love that kind of work and have been lucky enough to begin to be the go-to guy for that sort of thing. i keep pushing shopbuilt eyebrow dormers interior to exterior trim complete, but haven't had any takers. hoping to get into the parametric/geometric stairs starting with this project.

Mark B your idea is an intersting one. despite being fairly young i do find books the best method (if i can't corner someone with more knowledge than me). I am entirely self taught and books got me past what the locals could or would teach me. For stairs the best texts have been out of print for about a century it seems. there are some that have been re-printed, and the modern era of on demand printing has made a few more available. But i agree, a modern book with modern techniques, no secrets held back would be a game changer. properly done i suspect it could bring a lot of projects and craftspeople up several levels. There are plenty of motivated, interested, and self-driven learners out there who just cant find the info. fewer still like me who are willing to search out and pay a lot for antique books. I do think your price point is rather high, i don't pause for a $100 book. at $200 i definitely think about it and want to know it will offer a lot of value. Over that i'm not sure how many would be sold. But at $200 with your numbers it is still a $2m book. more realistically i see this kind of project as the labor of love by someone who loves passing on the craft as much as doing it. I doubt the actual sales would ever amount to much more than an opus of dedication. But i would definitely buy one.

To your point about selling half of such a book to people who will never complete their first project; does this sort of thing happen a lot where you are? Were i am, if you promise the moon and cant complete you are such a black sheep your stuck back to vinyl siding. If you can do the work you basically write your ticket to the most demanding work imaginable. I don't think that there are many architects, customers or contractors foolhardy enough to consider hiring someone for this type of extreme high end without some proof of competence. Yeah, i talked my way into this job. but everyone involve, including me, knows it is going to be done how they want it or better. Its not hubris, it is a slow creep of confidence based on experience.

8/4/19       #8: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
Rufus Cooke  Member


if you're serious, pick up the book: A Treatise on Stairbuilding and Handrailing by W & A Mowat.
It's a turn-of-the-century apprenticeship trade manual which although the techniques have evolved, the concepts remain which allows us to adapt new techniques (even 3D modelling and CNC).
Your idea for a book is an interesting idea, but having moved across the ocean, I've been humbled by a skill level over here. I'm not saying its better, but it's definitely a different approach built upon formal apprenticeship programs. The discipline is substantial and most joiners over here can handle varying levels of detail building staircases to furniture to millwork as well as cabinetry (and generally speaking, the Polish joiners tend to be even more skilled).
The only concern I have about a how to book is that it's so black and white while it's the training/experience which enables us to navigate the gray areas of a job and to build something in a profitable/cost effective manner.

8/4/19       #9: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
jamien Member

Rufus, beautiful work on your site.

Ive never had the luxury of seeing the European apprenticeship model firsthand. it is an intriguing approach. Friends who have seen and experienced both that and the American system say both have strengths and weaknesses.

Mowat is the book i have been finding most useful, but the most recommended (Townsend and another that eludes me this moment) i have not been able to acquire, or find any digital versions of. I definitely see a place for a modern book with less endless specific variation than mowat or the others, and more practical modern fabrication techniques from hand carving to CNC. The math and geometry of this work is fairly well covered in the available literature (though i do see a place for improvement and simplification to address the most likely scenarios). The middle ground of fabrication is my interest right now, and seems like what most small bespoke shops would be looking at doing. There just isn't any information on those techniques.

8/4/19       #10: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
Keith Mathewson

I would steer you away from Mowat and to di Cristina. It is not going to be quick and easy but it will get you there. Google tangent hand railing and you will find a few guys who have been doing this for years. Jim Baldwin did some on line classes back when JLC was active

8/5/19       #11: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
Rufus Cooke  Member


Di Christina/Mowat "to-MA-to" /"to-ma-to", the choice is yours. I've been doing tangent handrailing for 20 years, using Mowat's book as a foundation. After the 1st 3 years, I started to use SolidWorks to generate my falling lines on wreaths for hand carved fittings and 3 years thereafter started cutting them on a 5 -axis. For me, Mowat's was indispensable for adopting my current layout strategies.

8/5/19       #12: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
Rufus Cooke  Member


Here's one of my favorites (c/o Bob King).
This goes back a few years, but in this, we used the SolidWorks/AlphaCAM combo to not only 5-axis machine the rail and buttress stringer, but to cut the mortises for the balusters, so all that was needed was to square out the mortise corners.

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View higher quality, full size image (1836 X 3264)

8/5/19       #13: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
jamien Member

Rufus, that is a pretty good looking project. I currently use sketchup for my CAD, but i'll look into solidworks.

Keith, what resources would you recommend specifically?

Again, i am fumbling through the tangent stuff, but the information i am actively searching for here is practical advice on making more simple stair fittings like over easings and up-easigns without a CNC in custom profiles.

8/5/19       #14: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
MarkB Member

My price point comes from personally being in the trades for the last 30+ years. I have had to purchase exam text books to take license exams that easily cost $250 and are poorly written, regurgitated content, merely to test for a contractors license exam. In a world where Im paying far more than that monthly for CNC, Cab design software, accounting software, etc., a book at 3x that cost offering me tangible, useful, well written and outlined data, that would pertain to far more aspects of shop work than just door and stair making, would be worth several times the cost of a crappy text book. It would be a tool, not a book.

The statement about someone not making it through the first job was not that people in my area bail out on a project. I have no idea if they do or not. The point was that inevitably a percentage of individuals will see a grand staircase and naively think its a 30' tall stack of hundred dollar bills they can capitalize on once they read the book but will likely realize its not that easy before they even begin.

My main concern would be as mentioned already the technology factor. While there will always be the applications for the truly crafted work, at least in my observation, things are simply moving in the tech direction. Architects, designers, and more than ever, the homeowners at every level are moving more and more towards the cost savings of I guess you'd say mass produced even as it pertains to a custom stair. Ive said this before here, your now seeing Kuka robots with routers in low level shops, "maker" shops (gag at the term maker), and so on. Programming is getting easier and easier. I know its still a ways off but I look at even the CNC world in the last 5 years and its moving exponentially faster.

Was all just a thought. 10,000 copies of anything in this global world doesnt seem like a lot to me but maybe it is.

8/5/19       #15: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
David R Sochar Member

MarkB - You can be the first to pre-order both of my new books! The price is a bit higher than you hoped, but I assure you, once the books are written, you will be happy. Just send me your check for $2,000 for each book - $4,000 total - and you will be the first on your block to have all the best info in your hands, once it gets written.

When? I dunno. I get fired up to write, and then get busy in the shop. Up and down. I need to semi-retire so I can have 4 hrs a day to write, with the rest of the day setting up camera shots. Meanwhile, I still need to make a living......

I think your numbers are optimistic, though I do like them. I think there are 5,000 that might buy the stair book, and the same for the door book - maybe more like 10,000 on that. Now, if it takes me 2,000 hrs to produce a final manuscript for one book, then I am in for 200k - falling back on my manufacturing costs. That makes a book selling for about $100 to $200, depending upon who is retailing.

All very doable, but the fact we are now defined by online activity will require complimentary websites that help sell the books.

I like the image of this aging, bent, half deaf old man with a wireless mike on his head, hawking the books at the traveling tool shows. Better than Ginzu knives and Miracle Mop! "Step right up folks!...."

8/5/19       #16: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
MarkB Member

Your getting your head around it now David. You've just outlined the kickstarter concept. Pre-orders. Investments in your intention funds your getting it done. Listen to a few of the "How I built this" podcast. Gobs of young "entrepreneurs" getting rich being funded while they "fake it til' they make it". You have no faking to do just need the cash flow to do it. Its a crazy new world. Kids with gobs of debt (in the millions), startup, fail, sell, get bought, until they finally land on a lillypad that floats.

2K is getting on the steep side but I'd consider it for the door book as it would be the one area I might have a remote possibility of re-coup'ing a little of the investment. In my area the stairs will never fly.

8/5/19       #17: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
Pat Gilbert

Just out of curiosity, is the stair industry growing or shrinking?

8/5/19       #18: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
Pat Gilbert


Are you able to get your data to a CAM software using Sketchup? I think it works with Alphacam and Enroute

I started using SU a few months ago, it seems pretty good to me. I'm not sure Solidworks would do anything SU won't for woodworking.

8/5/19       #19: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
jamien Member

no idea about growth in the stair industry. i'm just one man who started a shop with a local reputation for being quality and competent and it took off like a rocket.

Mostly i use setchup for kitchen designs, so i haven't tried to export to any files other than dxf for machinists to make custom profiles. i know there are ways to go direct from sketchup to cnc. i'm not quite there yet in terms of need or desire.

8/5/19       #20: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
MarkB Member

We come out of SU to 3 axis almost daily. Some of the parametrics in Fusion seem interesting given the price but Autodesk has done me wrong enough times to be wary and its CAM is geared towards the exotic metal market.

The stair industry on-mass would seem so location dependent. There are stairs in most every home. But even on a reasonable scale there is zero stair industry in my area. None. There is not even a shop to contact if you wanted a wildy custom stair. It would come from a shop outside the area thats willing to travel. Large homes in there area (even up into the mid multi-million dollar range) are populated with purchased component parts cut up and put together on-site. There is a region or two catering to some in the private jet range that may buy in a large pre-fab stair built off site and shipped in but it would not be a remotely regular occurrence.

Rural area. One of the last non-home-center electrical showrooms in the area is closing this month because nearly everything comes either off the net, or from the home center. Speaking with local subs (plumbing and electrical) they have all moved to home center supply and now as its all they have to offer they are purporting to their customers as the norm and acceptable. They have no other option. The last local fairly decent fixture showroom for plumbing is populated with uber high end (2.5K kitchen faucets) because there is no point in competing with the chinese delta knockoffs they have in the racks that dont sell because of lowes and home depot).

I dont like to sound pessimistic but the home center/big box have done a masterful job of generating a parking lot where a $95,000.00 Jaguar is parked next to a '78 Chevy Chevette. Great in some senses, odd in others. In our area the "high end" homes are buying their furniture from the same box stores as the single wides.

The option is to relocate, which I would imagine a lot of people who are unwilling to shift their work will wind up concentrated in the markets that support that work and unfortunately wind up saturated.

8/6/19       #21: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
David R Sochar Member

Mark B - Heading off track here.....but I see the same thing in my market - affluent, well0educated Republican county near urban center.

They buy the same stuff online that the single wides do, but they buy 3-4 times as much, and are just as fast to throw it all out (Goodwills are overflowing) and git more. They may have a degree and good job, make 180k a year or more, but they know nothing about architecture, design or history.

The personal monument had the greatest design effort exerted in trying to make it not look like a McMansion. But they failed. The acres and acres and room after room after room of white drywall is unbelievable. No imagination whatsoever.

These folks don't know craft, quality, history, or even enough to fein knowledge in those areas. Why pay 8,000 for a door when you can get one for 800? or 80? How can they be that different? They suspect a ripoff, yet they are making 180k a year and can't compose a simple sentence.

Sorry. You hit a nerve. Rant over.

8/6/19       #22: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
MarkB Member

Doesnt sound of track to me. A question in the thread was asked if the stair industry was shrinking or growing. Was just a direct response to that question.

I have been in several new construction jobs recently that are not even buying from the home centers. They are sourcing from Wayfair and numerous other online options. As an aside a couple of these were Amish jobs so I guess that says a bit.

The world is changing. Its refreshing to hear of someone who is able to be profitable across the manhours required for a custom stair. That it exists is a good thing.

8/7/19       #23: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
jamien Member

All of my stair projects are the extreme of high end. As in the big kurfuffle on the job one time i was there was that the chandeliers (plural) were not right and needed to be re-ordered (at the interior designers request) and it was going to put the schedule all out of whack. FOR A HORSE BARN. these stairs i have been doing are not for the 1%. more like the richest 500 people in the country, whatever percent that is. I think at this level houses are an active competition. if owners can show off a handcarved rail to their friends because it shows an exceptional level of craftsmanship way above the ordinary they will often do it. so yeah, i sort of live in a fantasy world.

my other projects, kitchens, custom doors, whatever, are for more normal well off customers, and at that level i do see those customers questioning prices based on what a box store can give them for a similar sized kitchen or whatever.

But i still need practical advice on now to fabricate stair easings.

8/7/19       #24: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...


Congrats I believe your last post was the most inflated blowhard diatribe in the history of the Woodweb. Just to put it context from a 3 second Wiki search:

As of 2018, there are over 2,200 U.S. dollar billionaires worldwide, with a combined wealth of over US$9.1 trillion,[5] up from US$7.67 trillion in 2017.[6][7] According to a 2017 Oxfam report, the top eight richest billionaires own as much combined wealth as "half the human race".[8][9]

We’ve been playing this game in CT(one of the wealthiest states in the country) for decades. Just when I think we are doing top notch work in “high end” houses, we get a job in a much nicer house(owned by a real Billionaire). Read the WW for a year and you will see projects that will blow your mind. Over the last 15 years I’ve been humbled by many of David’s projects let alone countless others by other craftsmen. One of the guys Has been commissioned by the Smithsonian.

Also keep in mind the best work is never seen and those guys don’t have time to spend playing on WW.

Humility will get you some help here. Egotism will not.

8/8/19       #25: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
jamien Member


congrats, that is the nastiest comment I have ever received online.

I do not usually participate in online forums for this precise reason. Woodweb offers an incredible amount of information and experience, which I have used and searched through for informed experience. My comment and anecdote above was a direct response to ancillary related questions and comments raised in this thread. I realize I am new both here, and to my own business (but not woodworking professionally), but from my observation the contracts I am offered are the result of luck, honesty and basic competence. Probably in that order.

In the nearby areas there are a pretty limited number of people who have both done custom stair work and are willing to share their insights. Those rare individuals who fit the bill have graciously offered me some of their time; which I appreciate immensely with profuse gratitude and the deference their experience merits. I hoped here I might find some answers to specific questions I have not resolved. While my original question has not been addressed fully, I chose to participate in the more general discussion in an effort to engage the woodweb world. Eventually there may even be a way for me to add value to the conversations, though now I doubt I will.

8/8/19       #26: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
Rufus Cooke  Member


I'm glad you responded. The other's posting was uncalled for. Drop a line if you ever need. Best, Rufus

8/8/19       #27: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
MarkB Member

I personally think its fantastic that you have access to the level of work you do. We dont without a lot of traveling. Im not enough (been too long in the hole) to travel hours and hours or even spend overnights on a job that would pay for it unless it were some insane amount of money.

As you have found it seems stair and door fabrication and construction questions usually seem to be a bit nebulous.

Thread responses will always wander, its inevitable and no different than typical conversation. Other forums try to strictly adhere/enforce "on topic" and politics here has thankfully been nipped a bit but it is what it is and its all good information for a lot of people who probably stay isolated in their shops a bit too much.

Dont let any response get you down or run you off. Add to the forum. It will be appreciate by many.

8/8/19       #28: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
David R Sochar Member

My clients are not all in the 1% or whatever. Some are rather normal people. Some don't care what I do or don't do.

But I often look at them as enabling me and my habit. I get to do what I want to do, the way I want, and for my price. I'm cutting up Honduras planks, turning Wenge, veneering with walnut burls. No plastic laminate! Thank gawd for that one! I am extremely lucky, but I have worked hard for over 40 years to achieve that goal. I do try to stop every day and appreciate my situation.

Lately, I have been getting that nice feeling as I walk the 80' to my shop in the morning, passing the tomatoes and peppers coming along nicely, and looking up at the hawks or the wrens or the hummingbirds: I think I am the luckiest guy in the world. Until my co-worker shows up, and he claims to be the luckiest guy in the world. Damn, we can be giddy.

Humility matters. The wood is here to bring us all down to reality. You. I . all of us will be humiliated by our favorite material. A natural course correction, it will assert itself and anchor me. Again. Just as nirvana disappears as soon as you think you attained it, I am afraid to examine what I do too closely for the same reasons. I sure cannot hand out a formula or witty saying that can be used by anyone to do the same.

I do know I was lucky as a young teenager to be slot racing and building tracks - realizing that I was happiest when I was making things. Hand, eye, brain in unison. It is like a drug. 50 years on, it is still important, outliving almost everything in my life. 43yr marriage and two kids often wonder if they are important, and they are, but that is different from the Work. The Work is what sustains me, feeds me.

Jamien - when you get that swing jig mocked up, post it and you will get some good feedback on your plans. You may get some flak and crap, but this is the internet - anything can happen.

8/8/19       #29: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
Keith Mathewson

Rufus, that is some beautiful work.

From what I have seen CNC is what is coming to the industry. I believe that this is good for wealthy people and highly skilled people like yourself, however I’m afraid it may be bad for the industry.

Producing tangent handrail staircases are almost a thing of the past. They were more common 150 years ago. There were more shops who could produce them, by hand, and more architects who included them. If it becomes mainly CNC driven then the company has to be both skilled in tangent handrail design as well as a good at programming . And obviously the shop has to own a CNC. This will further shrink the pool and reduce demand.

Increasing access to knowledge was the driving force behind why I hosted a workshop for Jim Baldwin to teach a class years ago on the west coast and Billy Dillon did a couple of times on the east coast.

I hope the OP has success in his efforts. There is more to studying design than one might think in the beginning. Spending a couple of weeks with Jim was a source of inspiration and referrals for books to read.

8/21/19       #30: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
jamien Member

Haven't gotten to constructing anything yet. this project is turning into shop drawing hell. i should have passed that to the architects (who are essentially doing it second hand). a problem i have never encountered has come up where the customer is insistent that the structural engineer sign everything. given the original structural drawings (and multiple tippled LVLs with .5x12" bolts) i cannot imagine them seeing my housed stair drawing and saying OK. i have looked around a bit, but cannot find any sort of technical explanation of the strength of a housed stair. which seems moot when it is screwed to a wall, or sitting on one, but whatever. anyone know a source of that info.

also, this stair has a cable rail 'baluster' system. ive done that plenty on decks, and i am familiar with the cable supports needed on runs over 4'. i have put in the required cable supports that sort of look like small intermediate newels, or big balusters. the engineer says these are 'guards' in the stair code and engineered each as if they stand solo and must withstand a racking force at the top that blows my mind. there is no way to give them the required strenth without their big lvl/bolt system. for the life of me i can't figure out what a 'guard' on a stair is in code. insights?

8/21/19       #31: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
Rufus Cooke  Member


If you haven't done so, I'd contact the SMA (Stairbuilders and Manufacturers Association at
They are extremely helpful and know all the issues that pertain to stairs. Many of their members are small shops who are navigating the pitfalls of stairs - such as codes, structural issues, etc). I've seen more woodworkers get their backsides handed to them from stair jobs. SMA is a really worthwhile service and provide workshops all over the country. They might try to sell you on an associate membership - possibly something to consider.
Good luck.

8/21/19       #32: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
jamien Member


thanks for the link. there is a bit on there for sure, but lots of blank webspace too for some reason. From their info i did figure out that a 'guard' is basically the handrail. they define level sections (on landings, etc) and the angled sections of rail as different things, both are considered the guard. not sure why the engineers want to separate my specific component from the entire rail system and make it a stand alone entity, but there it is.

do you have experience with any situation in which the relationship to the first baluster and the starting newel (in this case with custom wreathed turnout) do not meet the 4" opening requirement? it seems like since it is below the 30" (rise of stair) height no restriction would apply. I'm certain i've seen this a dozen times, but of course i wasn't paying attention.

8/21/19       #33: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
Keith Mathewson

Rufus has a good suggestion for you with the SMA. I suspect it will be worth your time to join just took care of this one problem that you have. Ask for Dave Cooper, he has been involved in the stair codes formation for many years

8/22/19       #34: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
Rufus Cooke  Member


Hi Jamien,
no, I've never encountered that issue with the 1st baluster, but then, I always-always-always lay out a stair by the baluster spacing. Forget about the treads and risers layout, it is derived ftom the balusters. That way, I never have half a baluster at the walls/end run. In addition, because winder stairs are always problematic, at least you are taking the balusters into account while laying out the winder pattern instead of trying to shoehorn some random spacing afterwards. Cheers, R

1/2/20       #35: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
jamien Member

The job my original post was instigated by has concluded. It came out great, hand carved turnout, wreaths and all. Everybody is happy. I learned lots.

Figured i'd post a couple pictures and descriptions of what i learned specifically related to my original questions about fabricating standard handrail fittings. The up/over easings turned out to be super simple. i could not figure out how to make a 'swing jig' (and still have not seen such a thing) but made a pattern guide based on a 10" outside radius for both.

To make the fittings here were my steps
1. glued up big enough pieces with grain orientations i liked
2. milled flat
3. cut out the approximate curves on the bandsaw
4. hot glued the pattern to the blanks and pattern routed the curves to exact curves with a 10" outside radius and the needed inside radius.
5. used the jig setup in the pictures using a vertically oriented guide pattern to mill the parts in very light passes.

This worked great after i worked the kinks out. mostly i realized you need a MUCH longer piece of the circle than will eventually be installed so that it rides lots of the shaper fence on both the infeed and outfeed side. I now have a terrifyingly mangled short up easing that sits right on the shaper to remind me to be less stupid. It was partially sucked in and thrown, I was fine. Lesson learned. Unfortunately making the easings much longer than needed does not result in the ability to use a single easing for multiple fittings despite the part being plenty long for 3 or more. This was due to the grain orientation becoming increasingly out of line the further from the center of the easing you move. The picture shows only the trimmed down chunks I brought to the site.

I also realized in the future I will use cutters that have most of the ‘top’ of the handrail profile on a separate cutter. To minimize the overall projection of the cutters from center. The length of the maximal projection of the cutter significantly alters the profile as the part is ‘swung’ through the jig. Imagine how a cutter cuts a flat piece, at the maximum cutter projection. The cutter basically cuts nothing as it enters and exits the wood. Now imagine the part going through the curve in the jig shown. The cutter cuts starting at the fence – not just the maximal cutter projection - at both the front and back of the part at different points in the vertical profile of the handrail. Its hard to explain this, but readily apparent when you see the setup. I knew this was coming, but it was more exaggerated than I expected. I made it work, but could save lots of carving sanding during install by having essentially just the side of the handrail profile on one cutter, and the top on another next time. I would ‘swing the parts, then make another jig to hold the curved easings flat on the table and make the top profile.

Next is level 90s. I thought these would be easy, but they turned out more challenging. My original intent was to make them out of solid thick stock, with the grain running 45 degrees to the part. I would then use a custom router bit to make the profile (my shaper will run router bits). The reason for using a router bit was to reduce the cutter maximum radius, allowing me to reduce the inner radius of the fitting. I quickly realized the grain orientation made this too prone to failure. I also ruined a very pricey beautiful router bit on my first part. So I made the ‘standard’ glued up version with the shaper head. The large diameter of the shaper head means the minimum inside radius of the parts is about 2” which works some of the time, but not always. Plus I would like to be able to consistently fabricate a tighter inside radius. If anyone knows of a way or tooling to achieve this let me know (I dont have space for a pin router) Vexor led me to ‘lock nut cutters’ which seem like they could work but are an outdated technology and would potentially mean two sets of cutters for one rail profile. Ideally I would like to find a 5/16 corrugated head that is small diameter, or something similar. The custom router bit option is pricey and cannot be flipped in the shaper.

Level 90 Process

1. Glue up stock as needed
2. Cut out and tenon together 45deg sections about 10” long on each ‘leg’.
3. Pattern rout on the shaper to exact handrail level 90 plan view shape
4. Screw blanks to jig. The screw holes are located where bungs for zip bolts go.
5. Use shown jig to shape profiles in successive bottom mounted bearing guided passes. I just kept stepping down the bearing size about .125” at a time. The jig holds an outside and inside piece simultaneously, so once I got going I could do two at once. Cutting that inside radius is still a bit scary, but the giant jig helps stay far away and have control.

As I said, it all came out great in the end. The hand carved parts were definitely the fun part – and way more challenging. I hope to get that type of work more, but just being able to offer standard rail and fittings in non-fingerjointed stock, and unlimited species/profile options will be good. From here I can make any ‘standard’ fitting I can think of.

There were a few people who helped me get this far, some on here and some I call with all my quirky woodwork questions, so thanks! I heard tell of a couple old books with pictures showing stair part manufacturing that they found insigful, but no one recalled the titles. So if anyone knows pleas pass that along. Of course suggestions for improvement are greatly appreciated!

View higher quality, full size image (666 X 375)

View higher quality, full size image (666 X 375)

View higher quality, full size image (4032 X 2268)

1/2/20       #36: fabricating 'standard' handrail fit ...
jamien Member


in response to your last post about the baluster spacing. i get what you are saying . This stair used cable rail instead of balusters. The cascading results of this (and the structural engineer requirements) were a big bummer. I never want to do indoor cable rail again, but whatever. As you can imagine, having an extended and radiused starting tread, with turnout fitting and cable rail 'baluster' system made for a weird starting situation. I'l; try to get a picture next time i am there. Basically there was the turned starting newel, offset from the main rail straight run. The second tread up had a 'cable rail support' (a thin newel of sorts) in line with the rail and other cable supports/components. This resulted in functionally two completely different newels a step apart. Without balusters, the distance between newels was the code compliance issue, which i was able to get to about 5" at the top of the turned newel to 'cable support' at that point the owners signed off on non-compliance. just a weird situation. the 6" sphere rule doesn't apply, because it was between 'balusters' not the bottom rail and treads. go figure.

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