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Add an attractive staircase and handrail yourself

Dear Ms. Builder: We are remodeling our older house and converting the attic into a bedroom for my daughter. I want to add a unique, attractive staircase and handrail. What is the easiest for me to install? - Linda H.

Dear Linda: Installing a decorative staircase and handrail can be an attractive addition to your home and will provide lifetime, squeak-free performance. If you select the proper type of handrail, your daughter can slide all the way down on it for breakfast and never be late for school again.

Building a staircase and handrail system from scratch is probably beyond the skill level of most do-it-yourselfers. To be honest, even not many experienced builders can do it properly. Think of how many homes that you have been in where the handrail feels loose or the stairs creak.

To install the staircase yourself to save some money, your best bet is to use a preassembled staircase system. These complete staircase/handrail kits include all the materials that will need and very detailed installation instructions. There are many design options to select from to provide any decor that you want.

If you cannot find catalogs of preassembled systems at your home center store, try these companies - AJ Stairs (800-425-7824), Deer Park Stairbuilding/Millwork (631-363-5008), Duvinage Corp. (800-541-2645), Mylen Industries (800-431-2155), Designed Stairs (800-962-4299), and Stepstone (800-572-9029).

The key to a successful job is proper measurements to provide to the staircase company to build your staircase. The most important measurement is the vertical distance between the two finished floors. This will determine the exact height of each stair. If the final stair ends up not being the same height as the rest, people will surely stumble on it.

First, you must determine what floor finishing material you plan to use on both floors and its thickness. When measuring, do not just drop a tape measure straight to measure the height between the floors. Since it is an older house, it may have settled and the floors many not be truly level.

Using a level, make a perfectly level line on the wall from the upper floor (remember to add in the finished flooring thickness). Measure vertically upward from where the stairs will start to the line on the wall. This is the exact measurement that the stair building company will want.

If you measured properly, the staircase should install easily. You should have two helpers, your husband and daughter should be adequate, to handle and position it properly during installation. Follow every detail in the installation instructions. If you try to take shortcuts and miss a step, you may not be able to install some other piece. Once it is glued or nailed in place, it is difficult to go back.

The handrail is supported by the newel posts (usually three to four inches in diameter) at top and bottom, not by the thinner balusters. They are really for aesthetics and to keep children from falling out the side. The supporting newel posts have large dowels, hidden when they are installed, that attach them securely at the base.

There are two basic types of handrails - over the post and post to post. Over the post, a continuous rail from top to bottom, is more difficult to install, but it is the type that kids love to slide on. Post to post is often more decorative with newel posts extending up at a midpoint.

Your selection of the balusters can give your new staircase and handrail a unique custom appearance. The staircase manufacturer will have many designs for you to choose from. Alternating two different designs or repeating a sequence of three different designs can produce a stunning effect.

Tools and materials required: level, tape measure, brushes, hammer, screwdriver, drill, nails, screws, glue, sandpaper, preassembled staircase

Send your questions to Ms. Builder, 6906 Royalgreen Dr., Cincinnati, OH 45244 or visit www.dulley.com/msbuilder.