Staircase Standards

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Standard heights and dimensions for stair parts. January 24, 2005

I have a staircase coming up and don't know the standard sizes and heights for some of the parts.

I need to know:
1) height to top of handrail from step
2) standard box newel sizes (width and overall height)

I know there a few stock sizes for the spindles, but I just need the most commonly ordered size, if there is one.

Forum Responses
(Architectural Woodworking Forum)
From contributor J:
Contact your local building department to see what the requirements are for your area for handrail height. In my area, it is 36 to the top of the rail. This will govern what the height of your newel post will be. I would ask the supplier for a catalog on the stair parts he sells. This way you know what manufacturer you are dealing with and what sizes of balusters they offer along with the different parts (easings, volutes, drops, etc.) I would find someone who has done stairs before. Have them do it while you help and learn, because there are just too many things to factor in when doing stairs.

From the original questioner:
This customer has left it up to me to make all the decisions for this phase of the work he wants. I will be making the newel posts, which are S.R.P. with beaded profile, and outsourcing the rest. It will be a simple post-to-post type staircase. It's only about 16 feet overall with one turn. It's been a long time since I've done this and just couldn't remember what the most common size was (width and height) for the newel posts and the height of the rails. I looked on a few websites for the newel sizes but didn't see any.

From contributor R:
The International Residential Code (IRC) on handrail height is 34-38", however local codes can vary. Most counties I work in, it's 34-38, a couple it's 36-38 - measured plumb up from nose of tread. If tread is carpeted, allow for carpet. If a mid-landing is involved, some counties count it as a step, some as a balcony (which can and usually has higher rail). Always, always be aware of local codes. Last month I replaced newels and rails on a new construction that failed inspection twice, and contractor got kicked off the job. It was a large wrap-around balcony and stairs. There were enough used parts in the garage to do six sets of stairs. Also, be aware that local codes vary on size of handrail (width). Just because it's available doesn't mean it's accepted in your area.

Most newels I use are turned and are 3-3 1/2". Box newels usually run 5-6 1/2". Newels come in standard lengths, but you cut them to length depending on where they are located and whether there is an easing, gooseneck, drop, volute, etc. fitting involved (in other words, need to be custom fitted so rail height works out).

Most of the balusters I use are 1 1/4 - 1 3/4", but also available in other sizes, and metal ones are 1/2" (which I consider a royal pain). Most inspectors check baluster spacing (can not allow a 4" sphere to pass through at any point between balusters, or baluster and newel. So baluster layout is critical.

If stairs are new territory for you, you might be better off to outsource or pay a stair installer to stop by and help with layout. Not meeting code is lost money. Even if they're your own stairs and you're not worried about code now, when selling in the future, you may be paying to redo. has a how-to book, and can provide a local dealer list, to obtain same.

From contributor R:
Just saw your second post. If you're outsourcing installation, he should be able to take a piece of rail or a straight 2x4, lay it up the treads, and calculate the height at which rail meets post. Just add revel over rail and top detail to get height. If stairs are an L (turn), there will be two different heights where each of the two rail sections meet intersection. Like I said before, height depends on location of post.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the input. I am outsourcing the materials (unfinished) and the finishing and install is up to me.

From contributor K:
Good advice on contacting your building department. In our area, the inspector seems to only see the stairway when they enter the house. Also, the LJ Smith book is terrific. Try to get your hands on one. They also have excellent installation tools.

From contributor H:
The L. J. Smith stair parts company puts out a free pamphlet titled, "How to build a staircase like a pro." They also have a design service on the web. You will find answers to questions you haven't discovered yet, but heed others' advice on local codes.

From contributor D:
I have been doing staircases here in MI for a long time and every inspector that I run into has their own version of the codes. I learned not to argue with them, but do whatever they say. I do stairs that I can not afford to do twice. So every riser has to be equal in height, every tread has to be the same width, space between spindles must not exceed 4". You may have to adjust the height due to a very common mistake that a rough carpenter makes, forget to consider the hardwood floor or tiles on first floor. The total difference from first step to the last one is not to exceed 3/16", minimum bullnose is to be 1 1/4" to normal, which is 1 1/2". Normally, the height of the rail at the balcony is a minimum of 37"-38" and the rail on steps is exactly 36", because inspectors don't like the rail to be either under or above the 36" on steps. Also, make sure that the whole think is very stable (well bolted).

From contributor P:
In Canada, I put my landing/balcony railing at 36 inches from the finished floor to the top of the railing. Stair rail is 32 to 34 inches from the front of the nosing up.