How to measure handrails for stairs?

Tools and materials needed for measuring stair railings

  • Tape measure: Stanley PowerLock 25-Foot by 1-Inch Measuring Tape – known for its durability and ease of use, making it ideal for stair measurements.
  • Level: Stabila 48-Inch 196 Level Set Kit – offers high accuracy with its clear and easy-to-read vials, perfect for ensuring railings are level.
  • Pencil or marker: Dixon Industrial Carpenter Pencils – preferred for their durability and the visibility of marks on rough surfaces.
  • Notepad: Moleskine Classic Notebook – its durability and portability make it a great choice for recording measurements and notes on-site.
  • Calculator: Casio FX-260 Solar II Scientific Calculator – reliable and easy to use, it’s ideal for calculations needed during measurements.
  • Ruler or straight edge: Westcott Stainless Steel Office Ruler With Non Slip Cork Base – provides a durable straight edge for drawing precise lines.
  • Stud finder: Zircon StudSensor e50 Electronic Wall Scanner – an electronic stud finder that’s easy to use and highly reliable for locating studs behind walls.
  • Angle finder: Bosch 4-in-1 Digital Angle Finder GAM 220 MF – offers precise angle measurements, essential for aligning stair railings correctly.

Understanding handrail height regulations

In Canada, the regulations for handrails heights are generally consistent across provinces, governed by the National Building Code (NBC). The standard handrail height must be between 865mm (approximately 34 inches) and 1070mm (about 42 inches) above the stair nosing. This range is designed to accommodate a wide range of user heights and to ensure safety and usability across various types of buildings and staircases.

It’s important to note that local jurisdictions might have the option to adopt these model codes and can modify them to be more stringent or lenient. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to check with local building authorities to confirm the exact requirements in your area. For example, the province of Ontario has specific requirements regarding the size and graspability of handrails, indicating a focus on ensuring that handrails can be comfortably and securely gripped​ (Inspectapedia)​​​.

Step 1: Preparing the stair area for measurement

Before measuring for stair railings, it’s crucial to prepare the area. This involves clearing the stairway of any obstructions to ensure accurate measurements. You should have a clear view of the entire staircase, including the treads, risers, and landings. Having a clean and accessible area will make the measurement process smoother and more precise.

Step 2: How to measure the length of the staircase

To measure the length of your staircase, start by measuring the horizontal distance from the edge of the top stair nosing to the bottom stair nosing. This will give you the overall length of your staircase, which is essential for determining the length of the stair railing needed. It’s important to measure accurately to ensure the railing fits perfectly and meets safety standards​​.

Step 3: Determining the optimal height for stair railings

When determining the optimal height for stair railings in Canada, it’s crucial to adhere to the guidelines set by the National Building Code (NBC), which is governed by Canada’s National Research Council. The NBC, updated every five years with the latest in 2020, serves as the primary standard for safety and construction practices across the country. According to the NBC, the height of handrails must be within the range of 865mm to 1070mm (approximately 34″ to 42″) above the stair nosing to ensure safety and compliance.

Local jurisdictions in Canada may adopt the NBC and adjust it to fit their specific needs, making it more conservative or liberal. This variability underscores the importance of consulting with local building authorities to ensure your stair railing project complies with the precise requirements of your area.

The NBC also emphasizes that handrails must be continuously “graspable” to provide adequate support and stability, aiding in preventing falls. The term “graspable” might be open to interpretation; however, the essence is that the handrail design should allow users to comfortably and securely grip it. For instance, Ontario has particular stipulations regarding handrail size and graspability, highlighting the need for project-specific consultations.

Furthermore, the NBC specifies a minimum clearance of 2 inches between the handrail and the wall, ensuring the handrail is easily and safely graspable without obstruction. This clearance might need to be increased if the wall surface is considered “rough.”

Step 4: Calculating the total measurements for stair handrails

To ensure your stair railing project in Canada is compliant and safe, consider these additional numerical guidelines:

  • Handrail Height: The NBC specifies handrail heights must be between 865mm and 1070mm (34″ to 42″) above stair nosings. This range accommodates a variety of user heights, ensuring safety and comfort.
  • Graspability: Handrails should allow users to comfortably and securely grip them. While specific dimensions for “graspability” are not rigidly defined in the NBC, a general guideline is a handrail circumference of approximately 100mm to 125mm (4″ to 5″), allowing fingers and thumb to curl around the rail.
  • Handrail Clearance: A minimum of 50mm (2″) clearance between the handrail and any adjacent wall is required by the NBC. This ensures the handrail is easily graspable and does not become a hazard by being too close to the wall surface.
  • Intermediate Handrails: For stairways wider than 2200mm (87″), intermediate handrails are required so that the distance a user has to reach for a handrail does not exceed 825mm (32″).
  • Load Requirements: Handrails and guards must be designed to withstand certain loads. For residential applications, a handrail should withstand a uniform load of 0.7 kN/m (48 lb/ft) or a concentrated load of 0.9 kN (202 lbs). For guards, the load requirements vary based on location but typically start at a minimum specified horizontal load of 0.5 kN/m (34 lb/ft) or a concentrated load of 1.0 Kn (225 lbs) applied at any point.

For a detailed understanding and to ensure compliance with local modifications of the NBC, consulting with local building authorities or experts in stair railing installations like Metanox is advisable. Their expertise can provide tailored advice and services for your specific project needs, ensuring safety, functionality, and regulatory compliance. For professional assistance, you can contact Metanox at (819) 669-9989.


Here’s a summary of the key points :

  • Regulations and Standards: Compliance with building codes and safety standards, such as the National Building Code (NBC) in Canada, is paramount when measuring and installing stair railings. Regulations ensure safety and structural integrity, and they may vary by jurisdiction.
  • Handrail Height: The height of stair railings, typically ranging from 865mm to 1070mm (34″ to 42″) above the stair nosing, is regulated to provide proper support and safety for users. Variations in codes exist, and it’s essential to verify local requirements.
  • Graspability and Clearance: Handrails must be continuously graspable, allowing users to securely grip them. Additionally, a minimum clearance of 50mm (2″) between the handrail and adjacent walls ensures ease of use and safety.
  • Intermediate Handrails: For wider stairways exceeding 2200mm (87″), intermediate handrails are necessary to ensure accessibility and safety, preventing users from reaching too far for support.
  • Load Requirements: Handrails and guards must be designed to withstand specific loads to ensure durability and safety. Requirements may vary based on the application and location of the railing.
  • Consultation and Professional Assistance: Consulting with local building authorities and experts in stair railing installations, such as Metanox, ensures compliance with regulations and standards while addressing project-specific needs. Professional assistance can help navigate complex regulations and ensure a safe and compliant installation.

By adhering to regulations, ensuring proper measurements, and seeking expert guidance when needed, individuals can ensure their stair railing projects are safe, functional, and compliant with all relevant codes and standards.

Additional resources

For further exploration into stair railing measurement and installation, and to deepen your understanding of safety regulations and best practices, consider the following resources:

  • National Building Code of Canada (NBC): Provides comprehensive guidelines on building standards, including stair and railing specifications. Accessing the most recent version ensures you have up-to-date information on regulations.
  • American Wood Council’s “Stairway Safety” Guide: Offers detailed insights into the construction and safety aspects of stairways, beneficial for understanding the principles behind safe stair design and railing installation.
  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Guidelines: Particularly useful for commercial projects, OSHA guidelines offer standards for safe construction practices, including stairways and railings in the workplace.
  • “Residential Stairway and Handrail Code (IRC)”: A guidebook that breaks down residential stair and railing code requirements in a user-friendly format, ideal for homeowners and DIY enthusiasts.

For professional assistance, consider reaching out to specialists who can offer tailored advice and services for your specific project needs:

  • Metanox: Specialists in stair railing design and installation, with a focus on precision and adherence to building codes. For more information, contact Metanox.


FAQ: Measuring Handrails for Stairs

What is the top tread and how does it impact handrail installation?

The top tread is the uppermost step of a staircase. Its position influences where the railing system begins, ensuring that the handrail provides support right from the start of the ascent.

How do I determine the correct railing height?

Railing height should be measured from the stair nosing upwards. In Canada, the standard height ranges between 865mm and 1070mm to ensure safety and compliance with building codes.

What is the importance of stair slope in railing installation?

The slope of the stairs dictates the angle of the handrail. Accurate measurement of the stair slope ensures that the railing provides proper support and maintains a consistent height above the stairs.

What are the key railing components I should be aware of?

Key components include the handrail, balusters, and newel posts. Each part must be correctly measured and installed to ensure a secure and effective railing system.

Can you provide tips for stair measuring?

Use a reliable tape measure and level. Measure the length of the staircase from the top tread to the bottom, and ensure that the handrail extends the full length of the stairs for maximum support.

What should I know about choosing a railing system for my staircase?

Choose a railing system that completes the design of your staircase while meeting safety standards. Consider materials, durability, and the ease of installation when selecting your system.

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