A pigs ear

One of the drawbacks of living in a Victorian terrace is the stairs. They are often very steep and rather narrow, and ours are no exception. For this reason, a handrail is almost certainly required, especially when the more senior members of our family visit.
Initially my concern was that handrails are always so functional. Although I do rather like functional, I was wanting something a little more discrete, more decorative even. I then came across pig’s ear handrails. Despite the unappealing name, this was just the sort of thing I was after. I managed to source one from my local big orange DIY shop, though as they lacked stock, I had to get it delivered. It’s a good job I did too, as it was over 4m in length.

Measuring Up

While many say “measure twice, cut once”, I decided to measure about six times. My worry was that if I cut too short, at over 2m in length, I would not have enough left over to make use of.
The challenge here was to cut the ends with a compound mitre cut. I was being quite fussy in that I wanted both ends to taper in to the wall to reduce the chance of bashing in to it. I also wanted each end to be cut vertically, and since the rail is installed at an angle, this required an angled cut. There are several reasons this was so challenging, chiefly that the shape of the handrail made it rather awkward to secure in place on the mitre saw. The other difficulty was caused by the rather small 210mm blade on the saw. While fine for cutting at 90°, the compound mitre I was attempting was simply not possible. The solution was to cut from the top as far as I could, then rotate the workpiece. If I were doing again, I’d install and then cut with my multi-tool.

To ensure the rail was parallel to the stringer, I used a chalkline to mark a line 1000mm from the stringer, in accordance with building regulations.

Chalk line
The chalk line placed 1000mm above the stringer, as required by building regulations.


When it came to painting, there were a number of knots in the handrail. I headed off to my local hardware shop to find some knotting solution to seal them, only to find that it was not suitable for water-based paints. Since both primer and top coats to be used were water-based, I had to think on my feet. Out came an old tin of oil-based gloss and the knots were soon sealed. Of course, with the gloss taking a couple of days to dry, this added a lot of elapsed time to the project.
Once the knots were sealed, applying the primer and top coat was as uneventful as it was trivial. I wasn’t worried too much about a perfect finish as I planned to apply a further coat once installed.


The installation was far more eventful than I had planned, mainly due to my desire to do a thorough job, and for the handrail to remain in place for many years to come.
One thing I love about doing little projects of this sort is you begin to learn how the house was constructed. Unless I were doing a project like this I would never have thought to investigate what our walls were made of. In this case, it turns out that the ground floor walls are of brick and the upper of studwork with lath and plaster. Anyone who has come across lath and plaster will know that to fix anything to it, you’ll either need to pray, or re-enforce. It did try, with success, to located the studs, however the first stud was behind the architrave of the bedroom door, and the second was too far along to make an adequate first anchor. The answer to this problem was noggins, which meant a hole in the wall was require. Yes, I got rather excited about this. My new multi-tool made light work of the lath and plaster, and I soon had couple of big holes in the wall, much the horror of my wife. Installing the noggings was easy work, as was patching up the holes with some leftover plasterboard from the bathroom ceiling project (writeup coming soon… maybe).

Two noggings fixed between studwork to provide a known location in which to secure the upper part of the handrail.

I would highly recommend an extra pair of hands when installing a rail of this sort. I had no such luxury. This made me slightly anxious when it came to measuring up for the holes on the rail itself, and their alignment on the wall. To overcome this anxiety, I began by fixing the rail loosely to the uppermost nogging to enable me to hold the rail in place with once hand. Having already scanned the wall to cables etc, I knew which areas to avoid, so I could use my free hand to drill through the rail and make a mark on the wall at several locations along the length of the rail. I could than take the rail down, drill the holes in the wall (10mm masonry bit where brick, and 2.5mm pilot hole where nogging) and countersink the holes on the rail with a spade bit. I countersunk in this way as the shape of the rail meant the countersink tool I have would sink at a strange angle, resulting in only half the screwhead being below the surface. Also, the point on the spade bit would easily engage in the holes already drilled, and not slip.
A few wall plugs later, the rail was secure. Unfortunately it was not as secure as I would have liked. It is only when doing this kind of work that you find out how truly wonky your house is. It seems that the wall I was attaching the handrail to was rather concave in places. I felt there were two options:
1. remove the plaster that was sticking out.
2. Shave off material from the rail to fit around the parts of the wall that were raised.
Option 2 seemed far easier and less messy, and worked really well. Once done and the rail attached, it was clear what a difference it made. Not only were the 10mm gaps between rail and concave section of the wall now gone, I could almost hang my entire weight off the rail (no, I didn’t actually try).

Rail attached, showing bulge in wall
Rail attached. Here can be seen the bulge for which I shaved material off the handtrail to fit the profile of the wall.

With some filler applied to the screw holes, some decorator’s calk and a final coat of paint, the finished work is rather pleasing.

Finished handrail
Handrail installed, painted. Here you can see how the end of the rail is angled toward the wall for a cleaner finish.

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