Railings aren’t just a practical matter. They can be intricate, elegant, and add custom shaped to enhance your stairway and your space. Building a stair railing is as much art as science. While we can build anything, but there are a few building codes that we need to meet to keep your stair railing legal. You might be curious about what these restrictions are, so we’ve complied a primer to help you get an idea of what your railing needs to be legal. We’ll be covering the International Residential Code rules for staircase railings for homes and the California Code of Regulations, but it’s important to know that your local building codes as they may differ slightly from the IRC.

Is it a Stair Railing or Stair Guard?

First, you need to know if the railing you’re getting installed is really a railing, or if it is a stair guard. A stair guard looks like a railing, but it runs only along the flat part of the stair landing or any elevated walking area, such as a balcony or a deck. A stair railing runs along the stair incline.

The main rule for stair and other kinds of guards is that they have to be at least 36 inches in height. This makes them safe to approach and minimizes the risk of someone toppling over them.

The rest of these rules apply to stair railings and not guards.

The Height of Your Handrail

The handrail is the part of the railing that you hold. It has to be at a comfortable height for you to use. The IRC and the California Code call for a minimum height of 34 inches for the handrail and a maximum height of 38 inches. This height is measures from the stair’s peak or the part that you’d put nosing/tread on, up to the top part of the handrail. You also must make this measurement straight up in order for it to count.

There are some limited exceptions to the maximum height of the handrail, including when it’s connected to a stair guard, but there’s no exception to the minimum height in the IRC.

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Minimum and Maximum Projection

Your handrails’ projection from the wall is a careful balance between hand clearance and space available in the staircase. The closer to the wall the rail is, the less room there is for your hand to grasp the rail. The IRC and California Code call for a minimum clearance of 1.5 inches from the wall and a maximum projection of 4.5 inches. That way, there is room for your hand, but the railing does not project out from the wall so much that it restricts the clearance on the stairs.

Minimum Railing Distances

If there is just a single railing on the stairway, then the railing must be a minimum of 31.5 inches away from the wall. You must measure this distance from the inside of the railing. If you have more than one railing on the staircase, then the minimum distance between them, or the space left as a walking distance, is allowed to be smaller.

Get Creative, Safe Stair Railing Design

These basic railing rules leave a lot of room for creativity from skilled railing professionals. Reach out to Bay Area Cable Railing to discuss your options today.