Fabricating Spiral Stair Handrails

More good advice on one of the most challenging tasks in woodworking: making handrails for a spiral staircase. May 26, 2008

I have to make some continuous handrail, which I have done before, but this one has two inclined turns (a 90 degree with a twist). I formed the solid turn out of one piece, got the joints cut at each end, and now have to profile it. I have the three-part router set, but I can't seem to get the work steady enough to run it through the turn and the twist. There is a small 5/16" bead just below the finger grip that just isn't coming out right. Is there any other way to do this except hand carving?

Forum Responses
(Architectural Woodworking Forum)
From contributor T:
Can you make the bead on another piece, bandsaw it off, and glue on the rail?

From contributor P:
It sounds like you are trying to run the blank through your router setup. Is there any way to run the router over the work piece? This works for me most of the time with some ingenuity and some custom router platens. The only other thing I could suggest (and I hate to) is to cut another joint in to make the turns through your setup easier. At least hand carving them would be nice quiet work for a few hours.

From contributor D:
The handrail you are describing, we have to do a lot. We bend form the piece or use solid stock and then we carve away with a dremmel tool to get the profile. The fitting you are describing takes about 8 hours with the bending and carving. Unless you have a five axis CNC router you have to do a lot of the shape by hand.

From contributor J:
The finished detail of helical handrail parts used to be scraped-out with a flat ground profiled steel scraper set into a shop-made wood handle. There was a dowel set through a hole to create a fence. Most of the material was first cleared away with a spokeshave and then the beads or contours were scraped to shape. These homemade tools are still nice to have for finishing standard handrails today (especially the top). Some antique tools that you might find interesting are the Stanley #66 Beader or a Windsor Beader.

Routing handrails is tricky and dangerous. "Riding the rail" with a handheld router is a recipe for wrecked wood (at the very least). Special built stationary machine shapers and routers make the professional approach now, along with production CNC. I recommend the spokeshave and scraper for anybody who isn't doing this kind of work full time. I am a "full-timer-old timer" at this. I have machines and tons of special tooling to help me and it's still a tough job. (Fun though).