Want to learn how to install iron balusters? Installing wrought iron balusters into a wood handrail and wood tread or landing shoe is a relatively simple process that almost anyone with a little woodworking skill can accomplish. I will address each of these stair installation methods in separate articles. I do not know of any formal name for the three methods of installing iron balusters, so I’ll do the naming myself. I’ll go with the installation descriptive titles: Secured, Up-And-Down and Iron Pro.
Within this article, and in Part 2 and Part 3 of How to Install Iron Balusters, I will highlight the pros and cons. All of these stair installation methods will work for a new install but today’s Secure method requires the temporary attaching then removal of the stair handrail. So, if you cannot or do not wish to remove your handrail during the installation process then you will need to use one of the methods described in the subsequent blogs. For example, if you are replacing wood balusters with iron balusters and cannot remove the handrail because of the likelihood that it will be damaged. In this case, you would leave the handrail in place and use the IronPro method or as a last resort the Up-And-Down method.
The secure method is considered by virtually all professionals to be the best method of installing iron balusters. This method is somewhat more complicated and thus is not often recommended to the do-it-yourselfer. I think that this is a mistake, although it does require a few more hand tools and skill, the long-term results create a more professional stair installation.
I’ve called this the Secure method because the balusters are securely trapped between the handrail and the treads or the floor. Here is how it works:
First, the Treads or Shoe Plate (on a knee wall or floor level) are installed as well as the Newel Posts. Then the handrail is fitted and temporarily attached to the posts or walls. Here you actually screw or rail bolt the rail in place without glue so that it can be removed in a later step. If it is a long run, especially on a stairway, you will want to brace up the middle (maybe even several places) to ensure that it doesn’t sag and runs straight.
Next, the baluster layout is calculated and marked on the Treads or Shoe Plate and the handrail. You can view an article about how to layout your balusters. Once you have your layout you will want to figure your baluster heights. You can use a Telescoping Baluster Marking Tool or measure between the two marks and add 1 ½” inches to the length for the finished baluster height. Using the methods I am describing, the balusters will go down ¾” into the Tread/Shoe Plate and ¾” up into the handrail.
Once the baluster lengths have been determined you are ready to drill the bottom holes (into the Treads or Shoe Plate). The bottom holes will be drilled so that the iron balusters can be pounded down into them with a hammer and the hole will hold them upright. The size of the hole is actually dependent upon the wood species because softer wood types such as Alder require smaller holes than harder wood types like maple for example. In a softer wood like Alder or Poplar, the hole size is usually about 1/16” larger than the baluster size, so 9/16” hole for ½” balusters. In harder wood types you may need to increase the hole size to 5/8”. You are basically driving a square peg into a round hole, with the baluster itself kind of chiseling out the corners. So use a test piece of wood to determine the size hole you should drill. Once the layout has been completed on the Treads or Shoe Plate (and the handrail) and the bottom hole size has been determined you can drill all of the bottom holes about ¾” deep. The key is making sure that all of the holes are the exact same depth, to do this use a paddle bit wrapped with a piece of tape ¾” up from the flat cutting edge of the bit (not the point). Then drill all of the holes.
Drilling the stair handrail is the next step. The size of this hole is dependent upon the size of the wrought iron baluster dowel. This is the only type of installation we recommend for installing wrought iron balusters wood handrails. The end of the baluster is rounded into a dowel. This makes iron baluster installation clean, easy and most importantly secure. Basically, you want the size of the hole to allow the iron baluster to fit into it snugly. Not so tight that it has to be beaten down on top of it, but not loose either. So, drill a test hole and check the size. Once you have it you can drill all of the holes into the rail. The depth of these holes is not critical as long as they are deep enough to accept the entire dowel but not so deep that you drill through the handrail. On level surfaces the depth is easy to determine, just measure the length of the dowel before to the point that it squares out and drill 1/8” deeper to be safe. On stairs you can do the same thing but remember to measure the depth of the hole from the uphill side, otherwise, the dowel will “bottom out” before it is correctly seated. Again, mark your paddle bit with tape (this is mostly to ensure you don’t go too deep) and drill all of the holes, making sure they are plumb. The best method to ensure this is to use our BoreBuster® accessory but if you have a good eye it can be done by “eyeballing” the shaft of the paddle bit. Line it up in two directions (front to back and side to side) with a corner or edge of a wall, door frame, etc.
Once the holes have been drilled into the Treads/Shoe Plate and Handrail, the next step is to remove the handrail and install the iron balusters into the Treads/Shoe Plate. First, blow the dust out of all of the holes, this is easily done with an air nozzle attached to a compressor but your lungs will work if necessary. Then, place a small drop of epoxy or PL Adhesive into the hole (about the size of a grape). Slide the Baluster Shoe (if you are using them) onto the baluster and place it over the hole. Make sure the baluster and shoe are facing the correct direction (this may not always matter but in the case of Scrolls, Belly Balusters, and Pitched Shoes it will). Then, let the shoe fall down onto the wood surface and drive the baluster into the hole with a hammer by hitting the doweled end. This should take a couple of fairly good strokes but not hard enough to deform the doweled end. The baluster should remain upright, if not exactly plumb. Repeat this step for all of the balusters. Remember if the holes are too big then the balusters will be loose and could fall which will inevitably do damage. Even when they are tight, you need to be careful not to knock them over which can split the Tread or Shoe Plate or fall free and do more damage.
Now that the balusters are in place you first blow the dust out of each hole, same as before, and apply a small amount of epoxy or adhesive to each (a little smaller grape sized glob this time). Then, taking the handrail, and starting at one end (the bottom of a stair balustrade) you set it in place with the rail bolt through its hole. If the stair handrail is screwed into place this won’t apply, but in either case, you then insert the first baluster into the first hole with the opposite end of the stair rail lifted several feet above the upper balusters. Then you slowly begin to lower it as you insert each subsequent baluster. With a rubber mallet, you pound the handrail down as you work your way toward the uplifted end, aligning each baluster with the appropriate hole as you go. Keep pounding the handrail down until the upper end has been lowered down and all of the balusters are started in the holes. Then you pound the rail down onto each baluster until they are completely seated. One important thing to keep in mind is that if your handrail has fittings you need to be especially careful when “pounding” the rail down onto the balusters not to break them. In fact you may want to drill slightly larger holes in the previous step, to ensure they slide fairly easily into place, still snug but not difficult to completely seat. Also, if there are any places where a baluster is going to hit a rail bolt (such as in the case of handrail fittings) you may need to cut the part of the top dowel off to ensure it can fit and not hold the rail up from the rest of the balusters. Finally, you add the nut and washer to the rail bolt and fasten it securely or you screw the handrail in place, or both depending on your installation method. That is it. You have a professional installation that took a little more skill and elbow grease but will last indefinitely. Good job, I’m proud of you!
As you will see in the next couple of blogs regarding how to install iron balusters, this method is more difficult. Still, it is by far the most secure method because the balusters are effectively sandwiched and trapped between the handrail and finished flooring. Not only will they not rattle or shake but the holes are clean and tight and this method adds a great deal of strength to the system. The small amount of epoxy or adhesive that you added to the bottom holes will gush out slightly, serving to attach the shoes down in the same step. Just make sure that you align the shoes while the adhesive is still wet. An easy way to do this is to just place a straight edge against several shoes at the same time which will align them all at once.
As I mentioned I will discuss the two remaining methods in my next two blogs – How to Install Iron Balusters: Part 2 and How to Install Iron Balusters: Part 3. So if you are hesitant to undertake this method then read on and I’ll show you why you shouldn’t be 🙂