There are as many types of rails as there are sites, architects, engineers, designers, fabricators, builders and artists.
These instructions are for metal pipe stair railings but can be transposed to other types of railings. Especially if the railings need to be repeated or if the angle is the same all the way down the stairs. This is, by no means, the only way to fabricate handrails. This is the way I have found to do it with the least amount of errors while being very easy to make multiples that are exactly the same. This method is a combination of a lot of different journeymen’s method I have had the privilege of learning from and working with.
Aleksi Pihkanen Ed Schipul
Romana Klee Crown Molding
Last week, we built the steel stairs for a new building and sent them for sandblasting. Yesterday, I found a pile of blueprints for the stair rails on my work bench. I decided to turn what can be a repetitive experience into an instructional blog so others can learn how to put together stair rails.
First, I look through all the blueprints and organize them in order to make the fewest number of jigs and prioritize the railings that need to be installed first. Sometimes, I ignore this factor so as to speed up the assembly line.
Because I am a metal fabricator, my job consists of assembling the railings as fast as possible to keep the welders busy. When all goes well and there are a lot of multiples, I can keep 2 welders and a finisher (grinding apprentice) busy. But sometimes, the apprentices end up sweeping the floor while they wait for the next handrail….(I can’t be Awesome all the time).
Sorting the drawings for me, consists of looking through the drawings and taking into consideration the following factors:
-Which rails are the easiest (fastest) to put together? Usually square and flat wins this contest.
-Are there any repetitions? Multiples of the same railing?
-How many rails that have the same angle?
-Do any rails have the same angle and the same space between the stanchions (vertical support members)?
-Are any rails longer than my assembly table (20’-3”)?
-Do any rails have more than one angle on the same rail?
From these factors, I decide which ones I build first and how to make my jig so as to be modified the fewest times possible.
I usually start with the square and flat guard rails and then move on to the rails that have the most common angle. And finish with the longest, most complex rails. This order of operations is what I have found to go the fastest and be the most efficient.
For this particular project, ALL THE RAILS were either square or at 32.24° from the ground. So I chose the rail with the longest landing* guardrail to build my jig so I would hopefully not have to move my jig at all on my work bench.
My work table is 20’-3” by 4’ steel plate 5/8” thick on a 12” steel beam structure. It is the flattest surface I have ever built handrails on. On the far side, there is a 3”x3”x1/4” steel angle tacked on the whole length of the table. This is where all my measurements are taken from.
The first thing to do is establish a square base line and draw it out on the table. This baseline is very important as all measurements depend on it being square. (I always check it with 3-4-5**)
Then I lay out the rail angle from this base line. I use trigonometry to get a perfect angle.
(side note: on my work table, I have a parallel line to the angle on the far side of the work table. It is drawn at 1000mm. I figure out the tangent of the angle I am working with and multiply it by 1000. I then lay out this measurement from my square base line. In this instance, the tangent was 0.6307 so I measured 630.7mm from the base line.)
From here, I can lay out where all the stanchions by measuring the centre to centre measurements from the blueprint. I measure from the top of the angled base line and from the bottom of the angled base line (on my 1000mm line). Using running dimensions as opposed to measuring each centre to centre independently minimizes errors and you can check your overall measurement all at the same time.
Then, I lay out where the bottom pipe will be situated in relation to the top pipe.
From this grid pattern, I can figure out the outside of each pipe.
At this point, there are two options, I can put together the railing or build a jig.
I had a few rails to build with the same angle and stanchion pattern, so I built a jig.
I always build my jigs so I can just slide my finished piece out by pulling one way once the rail is tacked together but sometimes, I can’t. For this particular jig, I had to put the top and bottom angles on the outside so I could put ½” round bar pickets between the top and bottom pipes. I have a bucket full of 3”x3”x 1/4” angle cut at 2 ½” that I just tack directly on my work bench to build my jigs.
This is the finished jig:
I find that most of the time, building the jig takes longer than actually putting the railings together.
After the jig is built, the pipe gets cut to length with the proper angles with the horizontal band saw.
Then, the pipes get assembled on the jig.
I always clamp everything to the jig to prevent the tack welds from pulling the pipes out of positions. (A welder/ fabricator can NEVER have too many clamps!)
Fitting the pipes together is a challenge in itself. This is called coping pipe. Yes, there are machines and tools to make things easier. Like this one.
It is a pipe coper is just inserted in a hydraulic press and cuts a chunk out of the pipe so it will fit at a 90° to the stanchion.
When it comes to angled fit up and coping of pipe, there are tools available but in the shop I work at, we do it old school. I cut the cope with a grinder. This what it looks like.
Here are the copes on the stanchions.
After all the main pieces are fit together, I tack each of the joints together.
Then come the vertical pickets. For this particular projects, the pickets are ½” round bar so I had to use spacers on my work table to position them in the centre of the pipe. I have 3/8” flat bars that I use for all my pickets and adjust the height with shims. Here, I had to use 3/16” shims to get a 9/16” space to centre the pickets.
When it comes to picket spacing, there are a few ways of doing it and are usually different for every project. This is dependent on customer, architect, engineer or draftsperson preferences. The standard here (in B.C.) is that the pickets cannot exceed the space of 4” inside dimension so that baby’s heads cannot fit between the pickets.
For the railings I built this time, the draftsman (Jeff of Kootenay drafting & design) figured all the picket positioning for me so all I had to do was measure the first spacing from the stanchion and use two 4” spacers for the rest.
I tack the top and bottom of each picket as I move from one stanchion to another. To minimize the chances of the pickets becoming less parallel, I always trade my spacers from top to bottom between each picket. (if the spacers are out by a hair, after 10 pickets or more, your pickets may be so far out that the last space, could be out by more than an inch!) An oldtimer taught me this trick and it has saved me so much grief…
This is the fastest part of the whole process in my opinion. Or maybe it’s just at this point that I start to see the finish line.
I then check all my measurements from the blueprint to make sure nothing has moved while tacking the pickets. If all the measurements are correct, I tack as much of the joints so that the rail will stay in the right position when it is taken off the work table and carried over to where it will be welded.
The Stair Rail is ready for welding.
After being welded, it will be ground smooth so it looks like it has been made out of one piece and to avoid hands getting cut or injured.
It will then be either primed and painted or powder coated for interior installation or galvanized (dipped in zinc to prevent rusting) for exterior or interior installation.
*landing: the horizontal platform between flights of stairs
**3-4-5 is a principal by which a triangle with the sides with a ratio of 3, 4 and 5 will always be square
****AWESOME RAILING TIP***
If the stair rail has a handrail attached to it, assemble, weld and grind it smooth before mounting it to your stair rail. You will avoid having to try to fit a grinder in your 2” standoff spacing.