Stair Rail Bending Methods

This discussion of bending wood and curved laminations benefits by the addition of some excellent old book recommendations. February 23, 2010

Can anyone point me in the direction of bending rail stock for staircase handrailing/balustrading? Is there any company in the US that supplies the UK? Trying to find the stuff over here is like looking for rocking horse manure. I cannot understand why something that you guys can walk into a shop and buy over the counter simply isn't to be found over here.

Forum Responses
(Architectural Woodworking Forum)
From contributor C:
You could use compressed hardwood if it would be a benefit to use thick laminations or you want to avoid steam. It is usually used for more extreme bending needs, but will certainly handle the job. I manufacture it in Washington State and ship worldwide, but overseas shipping can get pricey.

From the original questioner:
Thanks, but the quantities I'd be looking for wouldn't justify shipping such a small amount from the US. I was hoping there was somewhere in the UK that imported the stuff and retailed it over here. Could you explain what compressed hardwood is, because it's not something I've ever heard of?

As you say, the idea is to avoid steam. Currently, the shaping of curved rail is done by solid section and moulded in the traditional manner (but this is workshop based and longwinded and therefore expensive), although I have started to use a homemade bending rail by cutting 10mm thick lengths, and running a slot along both sides into which a slip is glued one side to form a sort of t&g. You then build the sections up to the width of rail needed and router it down once in position. It works (just) but it's not ideal.

Needless to say, all this was inspired by your excellent "Fine Homebuilding" magazine's "Building Stairs" book, in which I first saw bending rails being used - to my utter amazement! In fact, the bookshelf in my workshop is crammed with US books because you guys are so inspirational in that you just get on with it, whereas British authors seem to take you all around the mountain to get you to where you want to be.

From contributor R:

I take it that you're in the UK. All the major rail manufacturers in the US make bending rail (5-7 laminations usually). It would seem that some also do business in the UK. Have you tried to google for distributors in your country?

From contributor D:
First, if no one else is doing it in your area, and it is needed, that sounds like opportunity knocking. If not for you directly, then perhaps a partner vendor in your area. It is certainly not rocket science. You need a reliable molder and a knife service, and a way to join for length, and Bob's your uncle - you have it.

Secondly, you appear to have found a good get-over that is working. I will say that I have used official bending rail once in a 30 year career of making curved stair work. If we don't need it, neither do you. In fact, we used to make all our cores in thin laminations of white pine, then added the selected hardwood (laminations of 1/4" or less) to the sides and top, profiling last on a shaper. We now typically use the same species throughout, since the world has come to accept the look of laminations on the top surface of the rail - due in part to the preponderance of bending rail. The laminations do not have any sort of spline or t&g, so are very easy to make, and the lay-up and lamination are what count anyway. Several pairs of hands and glue rollers and more clamps than you need.

I got a copy of Mowat's book - "A Treatise on Stairbuilding and Handrailing" when I was first learning the craft, and it nearly scared me into a career of selling life insurance. Fortunately, the methods I learned were doable and realistic, and that mathematical wreathing of rail has almost no bearing on what we do. The book is still handy for its excellent line drawings, good basic information, and helping demonstrate to a customer why curved stairs cost what they do.

From contributor W:
Try Brosco; the profiles might not be the fanciest, but it's a start.

From contributor L:
I think you're on the right track making your own rail. (I haven't used stock bending rail in years although I have a bunch of 16' solid (no finger joints) 6010 bundles still in stock.)

These days I normally make my own bending rail. Here are a couple of clues for you. First, you don't need the T&G. Just use small blocks on the top and bottom of the rail, and squeeze them with small clamps. This keeps the pieces lined up and does a much better job than the T&G. Cover the blocks with cellophane tape so they won't stick.

Second, run the profile on the outside two pieces before you bend, not after. And for goodness sake, use a two part glue, not something like white or yellow woodworking glue. Over here we call it urea or plastic resin.

I second contributor D's comments. About all I could understand in Mowat is how to draw a volute. It's the only thing I found relevant.

The opportunity you have is not to be missed. That's exactly how I got started milling my own railing and fittings; not because I wanted to, but because I had a client who wanted something different (profile and species both) and was willing to pay my setup cost. At the time you could buy any railing you wanted as long as it was 6010 red oak.

From contributor J:
I figure one of the reasons they don't stock or use much bending rail in the UK (and much of Europe), is because they don't need it. Much of this kind of work is now routinely being done on sophisticated European built CNC machinery and software. I believe Europe may be ahead of the US in the application of this technology (as it pertains to the stair industry), but it is making its way to North America. As a point of fact, nearly all of the traditional methods of making curved and wreathed hand railing was first developed in England (at least in English) and imported to North America and around the world.

William and Alexander Mowat's book was (and remains) one of the foremost texts on the subject. In fact the bookshelf in my workshop is crammed with old English books (including a re-print of Mowat and an original Robert Riddell, published in Edinburgh 1860).

I have been in the stair business now for more than thirty years and haven't had to bend any rails for the last twenty. I may be the exception and not the rule, but that may change one day.

What you're referring to as our ability to "just get on with it" might also be seen as our ability to mass-produce mountains of bending-rail manure and pass it off as "fine woodworking." No, not all bending-rail is manure and admittedly it remains the industry standard, but so much of it ends up being quite a bit less than it could be.

So, go ahead and make your own bending rail, but don't overlook or belittle the traditional methods and immeasurable contributions from your very own UK. After all, the golden age of fine woodworking, including the grand staircase, was a product of the era of your Queen Victoria and we Joiners today (as a whole) have yet to measure-up.

From the original questioner:
Many thanks! It's true that probably 99.9% of handrailing is manufactured, but virtually all of my work is on older buildings, anywhere between 16th century to the 19th/20th turn, so any curved work I do won't be available off the shelf.

The situations I'm involved in fall into one of two: If the original is still present and in good enough condition it requires only minimal intervention (a testament to that earlier craftsmanship); or the original has long ago been removed (usually in the course of modernisation during the 60s/70s) and new owners want something installed in character with the building - in which case (given the money-pit character of these old places) budgetary constraints mean that laminated curved rails are the cheapest, whilst still being aesthetically acceptable.

I take the point about this apparent hole in the market presenting an opportunity, but as a 65-year old fighting off the wife's arguments that I should acknowledge the effects of cardiomyopathy and retire, taking on such an enterprise would daunt even Han Solo. Darth Vader has nothing on my 5' 2" tornado of a wife. Believe me.

Having this opportunity to pick the brains of others is of inestimable value because if I've learnt anything in 65 years, it's that you can never stop learning.

Contributor J, you're right in what you say about traditional English woodworking techniques emigrating to the US with the early settlers from England, as evidenced by the jointing techniques in Ted Benson's framing books (and the high regard for Cecil Hewett over there), but I'd take good-natured issue with you on the matter of whether the earlier/speedier introduction of the automated processes in Europe relative to the US makes you guys seem tardy in this respect. One reason why my local Conservation Officer (now a very close friend - despite or because of our frequent arguments over local government policy) encourages me to continue working is because there are so few young guys coming into the industry with the traditional skills the industrialisation of processes displaces. If my price isn't right and work's gone to others, I've seen some horrendous jobs inflicted on stairs for the sake of a few quid saved in the wrong area.

I'll try out your suggestion, contributor L.

One of the reasons I found laminating so successful was that by cutting the sections out of the same baulk of timber and keeping them in that order, once machined and sanded it was actually very difficult to distinguish the sectional nature of the moulding. Virtually all my work is in oak, so the end-grain polishes to a high finish. I guess I've just talked myself out of bending rail!

From contributor C:

Or you could laminate it a bit short, plane the top, and cap it with solid stock.

From the original questioner:
It's the bending bit that's the problem with solid stock. Funnily enough, when the volute meets the rail, once it's all sanded, the laminated sections aren't obvious. But then, if you were cutting everything from solid stock, the grain ("character") of the two sections wouldn't be a perfect match either, even on a close-grain, dense wood like mahogany.

From contributor J:
The main objection I have with factory bender-rail is not the striped grain, but the inherent limitations of bent rail to actually fit the stair. Changes in pitch and direction which so often occur on the stair usually translate into kinks in the rail.

The other thing is the limitations of the rail profile itself as being a product of what will bend or what's in stock. Combining these factors along with the single-handed fight to force the whole bundle into shape sent me flying over the balcony edge (literally).

Anyway, match-laminated bent rail can be very pretty, especially in long sweeping uniform bends. I wish all stairs were built like that. A good compromise is the use of both bent and solid-cut handrail as required. I choose to cut solid rail because for me, it's easier than the bend. It does require a whole shop full of machinery though, and a learning curve that was harder to bend than any rail.

From the original questioner:
You put me to shame! It's really good to hear of someone prepared - still - to take all the effort required to follow the old methods. Trouble is, there's little appreciation from the civilians for good old fashioned craftsmanship because they've been fed on tat for so long that it's now considered the norm, price now being the major consideration. I used to try educating customers, but you could see the mist coming down over their eyes.

From contributor B:
I'm surprised there's been no mention of DiChristina's "Simplified Guide to Stairbuilding and Handrailing." If one were to attempt a bit of solid or tangent handrailing, it is by far the best and most practical resource. It is amazingly well organized. Another handrail guy recommended it to me. The design of the photo examples shown in the book are not the most inspiring, but the clear and systematic explanation of tangent railing is very impressive.

The multi-axis CNC routers may win out. But just as custom furniture makers find customers, the custom railer using more or less traditional techniques can produce an appealing and better product.

From the original questioner:
Bit of a mixed response on the reviews on Amazon though, contributor D. I wonder if it's as good as George Ellis's "Modern Practical Joinery" which, although first printed in 1902, is still the book I would unreservedly promote for everything you need to know about every aspect of joinery, traditional or otherwise, and the geometry and setting out is of the level you can apply on site. But that said, I'll probably still get that book because as a number of reviewers have said, it can inform the knowledgeable. Thanks for the heads-up.

From contributor J:
You're both right... DiChristina's book is the most contemporary, quickest and easiest reference. I reach for it first. (I don't really care, however, for his "method A and method B" being superimposed on one drawing, but it's all there.)

George Ellis is the author of perhaps the best all around woodworking joinery books, including "Modern Practical Handrailing." Mr. Ellis also has the advantage of actually working at the trade during its zenith (as an accomplished Master).

The Mowat brothers were science masters and educators (yikes). There are a few pages in their book I don't think I'll ever decipher. Their "normal section" handrailing is anything but normal, but still useful information.

There are dozens of good (now out-of-print) books on the subject, but the author most credited with the greatest contributions on the subject is Robert Riddell. Some of his large volumes contain big fold-out drawings along with cut-out cardboard models of various tangent plans.

One more to mention might be Morris William's Stair Builders Guide 1914, now reprinted. (A real gem and quite easy to understand.) Anyway, while I am talking here, I am quite sure my friend contributor L could have bent up a nice bundle of bender rail and been done with it. Fun subject, though, and further grits for US (and the UK) sawmill.

From the original questioner:
Wish I hadn't started this thread now. You guys are costing me a bloody fortune! Just bought both books (the DiChristina one and the other George Ellis book, which I thought had gone out of print completely and been looking for on eBay). Should keep me quiet for a bit.

From contributor J:
Are you just beginning your study of this subject or are you a continuing student like me? I hope you're not expecting any information on bending or laminating handrail from your new books? (You won't find any.)

From the original questioner:
At 65, coming on 66, it's very much a case of a continuing student. The bulk of my work is on very old properties - their repair, restoration, basically long-term conservation, and there will always be times when you'll come across something that someone has done way-back that throws you a curve, which is when I'll get a beer and sit down and go through my books.

Quite apart from which, there's the sheer pleasure of reading about these things. My wife thinks I'm nuts, but it's pointless trying to explain.

Two books I'm always rereading are by a chap called JE Gordon. "The New Science of Strong Materials, or Why You Don't Fall Through the Floor" and "Structures, Or Why Things Don't Fall Down." They were set books which I bought back in 1981 when I was doing a technology course with the Open University. I was at one of the summer schools at Bath University and bought them on the first day. I couldn't put them down. The "New Science" book is best read first. For an insight into the physical nature of our world, they should be set books in every school. Gordon is also very funny, although you need a particular sense of humour to appreciate him. He was one of the visiting lecturers on that course and it is my everlasting regret that I missed him by a week.