Repairing a Wobbly Wooden Handrail

By The Old House Web


  • The stair balustrade is composed of the handrail and the balusters. The handrail usually connected to the newel post with a rail bolt and star nut.
  • In an open string stair, the outer stringer is cut to reveal the stepping of the stairs. The balusters are dovetailed into the treads and the handrail is bored to receive the balusters.
  • In a closed string stair, the treads and risers connect to the stringer from one side. The balusters are fit into a groove in the top of the stringer and the bottom of the handrail and then toenailed in place.

Materials you'll need

  • Replacement stock for new dovetail (if needed)
  • Wood shims
  • Wood spacers cut to fit between balusters
  • Wood glue
  • Finish nails

Equipment you'll need

  • Pry bar
  • Claw hammer
  • Wood driving block
  • Sandpaper
  • Chisel, or solvents to remove old glue and varnish
  • Dovetail saw
  • Dovetail plane

How to do the job

For a loose balustrade in open string stair:
(Note: In this type of stair construction, the baluster is usually dovetailed into place. A dovetail is a splayed tenon, shaped like a dove's tail -- broader at one end.)

  • Pry off return nosing and cove moulding from tread.
  • Remove any visible nails holding the baluster in place.
  • Shim as required between the tread and baluster to tighten connection.
  • If shims don't work, ease the baluster out of position and remove all old glue and varnish from the surfaces of the connection.
  • Glue the surfaces of the connection and replace baluster. Drive a single nail into the dovetail to secure. Toenail baluster into handrail.
  • If dovetail is open or split, make a new dovetail to fit opening and attach to baluster with a glue-soaked dowel.
  1. Using a dovetail saw, cut a piece of wood in the dovetail shape to fit securely in the dovetailed mortise of the tread.
  2. Drill a small hole in the bottom of the baluster and in the dovetail.
  3. Pour wood glue into hole so that it is half full. Insert dowel into the dovetail and allow to dry.
  4. Pour wood glue into hole so that it is half full.
  5. Connect baluster and new dovetail by inserting dowel into glue-filled end of baluster.
  6. Wipe excess glue from the surface using a clean cloth and allow to dry.
  7. Reset baluster in between tread and nail. Drive a single nail into the dovetail to secure. Toenail baluster into handrail.
  • After baluster is securely in position, replace return and cove moulding.

Loose baluster on a closed string stair
Note: Individual balusters are usually nailed to grooves in the stringer and handrail and also secured by spaces that fit between the balusters in the baluster groove.)

  • Remove and replace spacers -OR-
  • Drive wood shim between baluster and closed stringer with a hammer and driving block. -OR-
  • Carefully toenail through baluster into stringer and/or handrail.

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