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Do It Yourself: Make stairway less perilous by installing railing

Sun., Nov. 25, 2012, midnight

Q. Our two-level house has 12 steps to the second floor, running along a wall. There is no railing on the stairs. I think this is dangerous and I’d like to install a railing. Can I do it myself?

A. Any steps without a railing are dangerous, in my opinion, and most building codes require them. The simplest way to install a railing along these steps is to attach it to the wall. You can buy metal stair-rail brackets at most home centers. The brackets should be screwed directly to wall studs for a strong installation. If the wall is masonry, drill pilot holes with a masonry bit and use special masonry screws to attach the brackets. A length of sturdy wood stair-rail molding is attached to the top of the brackets with more screws.

One problem you might have is finding a rail of adequate length; the molding is often sold in 8-foot sections, which won’t be long enough for your steps. Check lumber yards and other possible sources in your area for longer rail, but if you can’t find it use two pieces of rail and make a butt joint over one of the brackets. A half-inch dowel and glue at the joint, plus screws in the bracket, will make a strong rail.

If the wall has wood framing, the first task is to locate the studs. Do not attempt to attach brackets directly to drywall, which won’t supply the needed strength. Studs are normally spaced on 16-inch centers, and you can often find them by thumping on the wall with your knuckles until you hear a solid sound; once you have found one, you can use a rule to locate others. Drill a tiny hole near the baseboard to verify that you’ve found a stud.

If you have a plaster wall or can’t find studs by thumping, you can buy an inexpensive stud finder at home centers and hardware stores; it works by detecting concealed nails. Do not space brackets more than 32 inches (two stud spaces) apart. If you find your studs are on 24-inch centers, which is rare, put a bracket on each stud.

Most building codes require that hand rails be positioned 34 to 36 inches above the front edge of stair treads. Measure carefully and lay out the positions of your brackets, making sure they form a straight line up the stairs. Use screws at least 2 inches long to attach brackets; the screws furnished with brackets are sometimes too short for a strong rail. Finally, finish the rail to suit your decor (some rails are prefinished) and screw it to the brackets. If you have other steps in or outside your house that lack railings, such as basement, porch or deck steps, you should install railings at these steps also.

Q. I take a medication that contains sulfur and over the last year a yellow stain has developed where I touch my wood cabinet door. The door has a pickled pink finish. I think the stain has penetrated into the wood. How can I remove it?

A. I think the best bet is to refinish the cabinet with a glossy, washable enamel that you can clean regularly to keep new stains from forming. If the old stain is in the wood, I don’t know any way to remove it without ruining the existing finish.

A pickled finish (colored stain in the pores of wood, topped by a clear coat) can’t be duplicated except by removing the existing finish completely.

To refinish with enamel, sand the surface and apply a coat of stain-killer primer such as Bulls Eye 1-2-3 or Kilz. Let this dry, then brush on two coats of top-quality acrylic enamel in a color you like.

Clean the surface regularly, especially in the formerly stained area, with a soft cloth moistened with water containing a little dishwashing detergent.

Questions and comments should be emailed to Gene Austin at Send regular mail for Gene Austin to 1730 Blue Bell Pike, Blue Bell, PA 19422.

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