LESLIE: Well, a gorgeous banister and a dramatic newel post can add a stylish look to your stairs. But years of manhandling – and if you’ve got kids constantly swinging on those banisters – can lead to shaky stairs and loose railings.
TOM: Well, the fix for many of these problems is fairly easy, I guess, if you’re Tom Silva, the general contractor for TV’s This Old House. He’s going to join us now with some tips so that we can do it ourselves.
TOM SILVA: Well, thank you. It’s nice to be here.
TOM: Now, the stairs and the rails take a lot of punishment, so loose posts are pretty normal wear and tear, right?
TOM SILVA: They sure are. Kids coming down the stairs, swinging on that newel post to get to the kitchen in a hurry, they always loosen it.
LESLIE: It’s like you’ve got to hit that landing, got to swing around the post and you’ve got to go down everything, every spindle on your way.
TOM SILVA: Yep. Alright. Absolutely. It’s a good way to do it. I like that.
TOM: So let’s start with securing those loose posts. Where do we begin?
TOM SILVA: Well, you’ve got to assess the situation, see how it’s put in there. And lots of times, you can actually drill a hole right through the side of the posts and into the stringer or into the edge of the riser or even the tread.
TOM: OK. So, basically, you want to try to improve the connection point between that post and portions of the stairs: a stringer being the side of the stair or the riser, the part that your foot sort of bumps into when you step on the stair, the vertical piece; or the tread which is, of course, the horizontal piece you step on. Any of those solid wood connections with the right kind of hardware can tighten up that post?
TOM SILVA: Absolutely. The stringer is the structure to the whole stair system. It’s that saw-tooth cut that makes everything support and rest on. And if you can get into that with a good, solid fastener, you can usually tighten up that newel post.
TOM: Now, I guess that gets harder when you don’t a newel post. If you have, say, a balustrade or what’s it called, a French …
LESLIE: That fancy curl at the bottom?
TOM: Bull-nose thing at the bottom? Yeah.
TOM SILVA: Oh, the …
TOM SILVA: The flute?
TOM: The volute.
TOM SILVA: The volute.
TOM: I knew it was French.
TOM SILVA: Yeah.
LESLIE: I think you guys just made that up. I’m going to call it the “fancy turnout.”
TOM SILVA: No, no. No, it’s true. I like it.
TOM: The bottom, right? You know. I mean it looks like a birdcage, right?
TOM SILVA: Yeah.
TOM: So that’s got to be tougher because there’s a lot of connection points there.
TOM SILVA: There’s a lot of connection points there. And I’ve done those where – lots of times where you go into an old – years ago, what they would do is they’d take the newel post and they would put it down through the floor. And they would kind of – they would extend it down through the floor framing, about 4 or 5 inches. And they’d have a hole in it where they would drive a wedge into that hole and it’d pull it down to the floor.
Well, what I’ve done in some situations where I can get down below it, I’ve actually gone under the floor, figured out where the newel post is, drilled a hole through the subfloor and into the underside of the newel post, then fastened that down with a long lag bolt.
TOM: So work from the bottom up if you can’t work from the top down?
TOM SILVA: Exactly. Yeah. Sometimes that’s the way you have to do it.
LESLIE: Now, what if the treads themselves start to become loose or creaky? What can you do to get to those?
TOM SILVA: Well, you can nail them back in or you can actually put a screw into the stringer, the structural part of the stairway. And to find that stringer, you can look on the stair tread itself and you’ll see where the old nail holes are. And you can put a finish screw in there. There’s actually a screw that you can use that will drive down through the tread and the head will snap off just below the top surface of the wood. And you can just fill it with a little putty.
TOM: Now, what about loose spindles? As you guys were talking about, kids come down the stairs. They love to run their fingers across those spindles. They can get loose. Spindles don’t really contribute that much to the structural integrity but they can be kind of annoying. How would you tighten them up?
TOM SILVA: Well, it depends on how they’re fastened. Some are square on top, square on the bottom. You can toe-nail them into the railing and toe-nail them into the tread. If they’re round on the top, then they may be in a dowel hole. And the tread – and let’s say the baluster is coming off or loose, sometimes you can pick it up, get it out and then put some glue in the holes, push it back into place.
The other way is around – I’ve actually taken nails and put them on an angle from the underside of the outside of the stair tread, if it’s an open riser, obviously. You can get a nail into that bottom side of the baluster.
TOM: And the trick I’ve always used with that is to actually make the finish nail be the drill bit.
TOM SILVA: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
TOM: And just kind of carve a path through that baluster so it doesn’t split.
TOM SILVA: The finish nail is a great drill bit. People don’t realize it but you’re drilling the exact right-size hole.
TOM: Now, what about attaching handrails? They take as much punishment as the rails that are on the open side of the step. But the rail that’s on the closed side of the step, attached to the wall, very often you can’t get a good attachment point for some of those brackets. I’ve seen brackets that are wider than the stud, for example, so you can only get maybe two out of three holes into something that’s meaty behind it. Any tricks of the trade for securing those up?
TOM SILVA: Well, you’re right. They can get loose at the wall if there’s nothing behind there for that. And it’s a good part of a builder to always make sure that there’s good nailing behind the wall for those particular reasons. But they have these finish blocks that you can actually cut off the railing, say, about ¾-inch to allow for the thickness of this square, oval or round bracket that you would put that’s wider and higher than the railing itself. It’ll allow you to get screws into some structure and then screws into the railing.
TOM: So attach the block solidly, then attach the railing block.
TOM SILVA: Exactly.
TOM: Makes sense. Great advice. Tom Silva from TV’s This Old House, thank you so much for stopping by The Money Pit.
TOM SILVA: Always a pleasure, guys. Thanks.