The grand staircase is making a well-deserved return to homes across the country. With that resurgence comes the necessity to properly maintain the safety of your staircase. Over time, the supporting posts (newel posts) may become wobbly or the spindles (balusters) between the stair treads and the handrail may become loose. Left unrepaired, either situation could pose a safety hazard. So make sure you go through the house and pay close attention to any potential issues you find.
It’s important to note that a loose or wobbly handrail will not be made any more secure by shimming or otherwise tightening the balusters. The sturdiness of your handrail relies entirely on the newel posts and the joint at the wall or floor. Balusters are primarily ornamental, but also help keep you from falling through.
If you have concerns about the condition of your handrail, the best bet is to call a contractor who specializes in staircases. Newel posts are secured with long bolts inside the staircase and they can be very tricky to access and work on. Often, the entire handrail needs to be removed in order to properly secure it, and that can be a daunting prospect.
On the other hand, a loose or broken baluster is a project that you may want to tackle yourself. Balusters are secured to stair treads by a dowel on the bottom that fits into a hole in the tread. Another hole is drilled into the top rail that the baluster is glued and nailed into. Read on for tips and instructions about how to approach the work.
Tightening Up A Loose Baluster
If the baluster in question is wiggling around at the bottom, you can remove the baluster and add a little construction adhesive to the opening on the tread, then reattach it. Instructions for removal and installation are in the sections below. If you don’t want to remove or reinstall anything, you can opt for the other method of drilling two pilot holes in the bottom of the baluster and driving nails through them into the tread. This method is less reliable, but also much quicker.
If the baluster is loose at the top, you can drill two pilot holes on the upstairs-facing side and then drive nails through them into the underside of the handrail. Be sure to angle the pilot holes toward the middle of the post so that you can drive the nails at an angle and not hit the balusters on either side with your hammer.
If you’re using the pilot hole method, be sure to go back after the nails are in and countersink them with a nail set. That way, you can fill them with putty or caulk and touch up the paint, or rub wax filler into the hole if you have a clear finish.
Removing a Baluster
To remove a doweled baluster, begin by detaching it from the top rail by holding a wood block against the baluster and tapping it out in the upstairs direction. Then gradually work it out of the hole in the tread by pulling up on it. Now that you’ve removed the baluster in question, you’re ready for the repair.
Gluing a Broken Baluster
Balusters rarely experience a clean break; rather they tend to splinter in some way. This can actually serve as an advantage when gluing them because it gives you more surface area to work with, making the bond stronger. The downside to an uneven break, however, is that the pieces may not go back together seamlessly. Test the fit by using padded clamps to push the pieces together and see what kind of gap, if any, you may have left over.
If the baluster is simply cracked and not split, you can fill the crack with a glue injector. If it’s completely broken, you’ll need to use wood glue. Get an even application of the glue by spreading it with a brush. Either way, you then need to close the break or crack with steady pressure from padded clamps placed at 6-inch intervals along the gap.
As you apply pressure, excess glue will seep out of the crack. Wipe that off with a damp cloth or towel and then allow the glue to dry and cure overnight. The next day, touch up the finish or paint as needed, and then you’re ready to reinstall the baluster.
Installing Your Repaired Baluster
Drill two new pilot holes for nails at the top of the baluster. You can make your job a little easier by angling the holes toward middle of the baluster so that you can drive the nails without hitting the adjacent posts.
Make sure the repaired baluster fits in place. If you’ve got a tight fit at the bottom, just apply some wood glue and insert the bottom into the tread. If the joint is loose at the bottom, fill the gaps with construction adhesive for a stronger hold instead.
Drive finishing nails into the new pilot holes to attach the top to the underside of the handrail; then use a nail set to countersink them. Fill the resulting nail holes with caulk or putty if you will be using touch up paint to mask them, or use wax filler if your baluster has a clear finish.
Maintaining a safe staircase is critical whether you’ve got small children or all adults living in your home. For that reason, John Rice recommends you think twice before starting any of these projects. “If this type of do-it-yourself work isn’t something you’re comfortable with, there’s no shame in hiring a licensed contractor to fix your handrail, or even a handyman to fix a tread post. The most important thing is to make sure the job is done right so you don’t have to go back and do it again at more expense.”