DIY stair rail ideas for Heather’s retro basement remodel

retro stair railsHeather and her husband need to install a new stair rail along the stairs to the basement in ther 1970 ranch house. They want a design that they can build themselves and have asked for our ideas to help. I have an immediate idea — but read on — and I welcome reader ideas, too! Heather writes:

We have a wonderful 1970 brick ranch that has some great retro touches. My husband and I are currently renovating our basement and I need some help with what to do with the stair railing. Could I submit a photo to you for your thoughts and help from the readers? Your site is a recent discover for me and I so enjoy it!

Well, sure, Heather. I ask her for some more info on her “Retro Renovation story” and she quickly responds:

Thanks for taking a look at this!  We bought this 1970 brick ranch two years ago just after we got married.  Funnily enough, neither of us wanted a brick house or a ranch, but when we first saw this one, it called our name!  It was a great decision!  The bones of the house were in great shape, especially upstairs.  A fresh coat of paint and refinishing the original wood floors (hidden under some nasty carpet) were all that was needed before we moved in.  The basement has been a different story!  After gutting the existing stud walls and paneling due to water damage – and fixing said water infiltration – we are now in the process of rebuilding.  I am looking for your help on the stair railing.  You can see from the attached picture that a portion of the stair will be open to the den.  The shaded areas show where the new walls will go.  All the rail/ picket combinations for purchase at the big-box stores are traditional, turned-wood pickets that do not fit this house or my style!  Any suggestions?  Our budget is modest and we will probably do the work ourselves – so a hand-crafted, wrought-iron number is probably out of the question!  I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

By the way, perusing your site has given me all kinds of ideas for the rest of the house.  I’m not sure my husband is going to like you 🙂


Thank you for your nice comments, Heather. Hope I don’t get you in trouble with DH, but that’s what marriage is all about, isn’t it? The honey-do projects…. On to your question…

My idea for a 1970s style stair railing:

I immediately *knew* what my suggestion was for your stair railing: It’s like the one shown here. (Note, I cannot use this image on my site as it is copyrighted from I tried to find it and buy it from but could not find it.)

Update: Reader Joel created this design for Heather in response to this post. Yes! Perfect 1970s -- just what I was thinking!

I think that this style of railing — which we still see on decks today — was quite common on the interiors of 1970s homes. And I bet you could replicate it yourself, pretty easily. Walking down the stairs you are not going to see the “pretty side” of the railing, but you will see it from the basement room itself. I’d look for good wood that will take a stain well, I think that’s key, along with general craftsmanship. And, of course, check with your local building inspector to make sure you are designing and installing the rail according to current building codes — and safely.

Readers, what do your stair rails look like?
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  1. cheryl says

    Hi Living in a house from the 70s and having lots around me the only thing I could suggest would be to drywall up the stairs. Haven’t seen any rail other than spindles or wrought iron and both are not very great looking.

  2. BlueJay says

    My father-in-law has dark stained ‘plain’ railings in his early 70s bi-level that work really well. The detail is simple on the balusters. Personally, I’d check salvage yards for mid-century metal railings; they’re light, and would keep the stairs open. It will be hard to do that with wood.

    • terrihd says

      Now there’s an idea! Our staircase is very similar — has two support posts and a diagonal 2×4 as a rail on the open side. We put standard dowel rails — think closet rod! — on the wall sides. I borrowed this from the 1969 remodel in the house I grew up in.

    • says

      you can also have something like these produced locally if you have a pattern in mind (shipping is pretty pricey from crestview). would be a good way to get a more 70’s specific pattern (their’s are pretty “mod”) – maybe something that even connects to something in your house already. i build stuff like this for clients/projects a lot. hit me if you need help making it happen: jen thesmallviking com

      otherwise, the simple multi-vertical version of pam’s deck rail would look totally great, too.

  3. Lisa says

    Something to consider when installing a railing on basement stairs is whether or not it’s easy to remove. If laundry is in the basement, you’ll likely need to remove it to get appliances up and down the stairs. Likewise with a sofa or other large furniture. Ran into this at my mom’s house. Stairs looked very similar to the photo.

  4. Chase says

    I think that a “screen” idea would look really neat, if Heather wanted to keep it really simple, she could use the idea that Pam had mentioned, using narrow square dowels, from floor to ceiling, and then using three posts that go from floor to ceiling, so that a grip-rail can be installed. I’ll throw a couple images of my idea in the image gallery!

    • pam kueber says

      Chase — thanks for the images! Hey, if you have a moment — you seem so adept — can you show what the design would look like if the balusters were not taken to the ceiling — just to the rail? Thanks!

    • says

      I like the balusters to the ceiling. A similar design was used on the stairway of the Bauhaus house in the movie “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.” Sad movie but great set designs of Nouveau and Bauhaus interiors.

      • Marion Powell says

        I’m a little late reading this but I just had to say, balusters to the ceiling and not to the floor. What a great looking idea.

  5. Patty says

    I think some type of screen is good so kids – or adults – don’t tumble down and off the edge. I also think a good sturdy hand rail is important too and probably required by code. If you are finishing the basement, you never know who all may come over to visit some day.

    • Chase says

      The pool cue balusters are a beautiful shape; They would look amazing painted black with a nice warm wood handrail. Their shape reminds me of the modernized windsor chairs that Pam featured a while ago.

    • Heather says

      I love this! The hubs is pestering me to put a pool table in the basement so I have no doubt he’d love it to 🙂

  6. Jay says

    If you go with decorative screening, please be sure to include a continuous run of handrail on the oposite solid wall. This will keep you code compliant, See Pam’s staircase. Mine is similar – all enclosed, from the upper floor to basement. A hand rail is a must!

    • Heather says

      The plan is to put the functional handrail on the other side of the stairs so that this one can be more decorative. Safety first!

  7. Francie says

    The original 1951 railing on Pam’s picture on the left is exactly what I was picturing as I read Heather’s story. My parents have a 1950s bungalow (which was heavily renovated in the ’90s), and the railing on the basement stairs is exactly like this. However, in both cases, the railing is mounted on closed walls. It would be interesting to find a way to use a classic, simple railing like this, without needing to add a wall so you can keep the space open and airy.

    I should also say that I like the Redi-Screen idea a lot! Those are awesome.

  8. Lynne says

    When I was a kid, my friend Jane had basement stairs quite like this. Her dad put large screw eyes in the ceiling and edges of the stairs. They then strung heavy jute rope in an elongated diamond pattern up and down. Kind of a harlequin pattern, or like the sides of a toy drum. The handrail was on the solid wall, opposite.

    No, probably not code compliant, but none one ever fell. It looked good, you could see thru it into the rec room, was easily removed, and Phyllis never had to dust it! I imagine it would take a little planning and measuring to get the pattern right, but would certainly be a cheap fix!

  9. JKM says

    Yes, yes, YES! Vertical slats are exactly what I was envisioning before I saw your pictures. I like the 4th one the best (with the slats running floor-to-ceiling) but I’d go one step more by extending the slats all the way to the corner. This way the entire stair wall would be floor-to-ceiling slats. Growing up, I had a friend with this exact condition on their staircase going to the upper floor (dad was an architect and their house was designed in 1966). His was all stained with little horizontal dowels painted black. The wall behind the slats was painted black, too, so the stained slats appeared to float. He used a product called “Ventwood”, which may or may not be still around. Used primarily in retail stores to hange clothing, etc. from, it was prefinished and furniture quality. It was gorgeous.

      • JKM says

        No, not Slatwall. That’s a solid veneered material with horizontal grooves that metal hooks, shelf brackets, etc. insert into. It’s very common and can be found in most retail stores. After I posted, I checked for Ventwood on the internet and found the material. I remember her dad telling me what it was back then (I think he was amazed a kid was actually interested in a material inside their home?! LOL!) and I’ve never forgotten it. It was vertical pieces of wood with gaps in-between – and gorgeous. The staircase ran up one wall of their sunken living room, which was complete with Barcelona chairs and a thick shag rug…sigh.

  10. Steve says

    A few other directions to consider, as code allows: an open shelving unit; a translucent resin panel a’la Russell Wright (see Pam’s Sept.16, 2010 blog post); a wall-length screen of loosely spaced bamboo poles, secured top and bottom; or since your house is brick, a concrete block screen wall (very retro). I’m thinking semi-open or translucent room divider rather than railing system. The Crestview screens are beautiful, too.

  11. pam kueber says

    Heather, be sure to see the drawing that Joel has uploaded — Exactly what I had in mind!! He also has written about it in more detail on the RR Facebook page – so take a look. Please, though, do not be taking advice on building codes via the internet — talk to your local building inspector and/or other licensed professionals.

  12. Stacy says

    This idea isn’t retro, but it might be the easiest. Our last basement had this, and I really like it. If you putting a wall in against the stairs anyway, just bring it up higher, about to your hip when your on the bottom stair, and angle the top of the wall to the same slope as the stairs. Drywall and tape the top. The top of the wall is your “handrail”. I’m not sure I’m explaining it well. Maybe someone else can help me out?

    • Tina says

      This is the idea I was going to propse. My neighbors have this and it looks great. You have a little more wall space, too, below the stairs to use in your room.

    • Stacy says

      As I think about it more, there would still be a small space for adding 70’s zing-some kind of slats, beads, screens, whatever, without having to depend on it for support going up and down the stairs. It could be attached to the drywall, instead of having to install something on the treads

  13. daniel says

    don’t know if this is a good idea or not, but how about using the acurio latticeworks stuff you posted a while back?

    i really like this pattern:

    just cover the entire wall, along with the stairs, and sort of integrate a wall panel and a stair rail. they can make it in several colours so maybe you could paint the wall behind it a complementary colour.

  14. wendy says

    You could use punched metal or hardboard sheets to fill in the space. They are along the lines of redi-screens, but more period and relatively inexpensive. I see this often at estate sales. Back in the day, they were hardboard and could be painted or not. The link below has them in metal, scroll down a little to see all the patterns. The Grecian and Windsor patterns are what I’ve typically seen.

  15. Marta says

    I like the idea of having a slant-topped bookcase, with the top being at hand-rail height. The shelving needn’t be deep, but it has the advantage of giving you storage/display area. Our basement stair is similar to Heather’s, just no turn at the bottom, and I’ve found having most of it open makes it easier to get up and down with a laundry basket or toddler on your hip while still holding the handrail. We have a wide bulkhead access to the basement, too, so moving furniture in and out isn’t so much of a problem, but if there’s no bulkhead/exterior basement door, then you definitely don’t want to close the stair in with anything.

    Incidentally, I knew someone who had a similar bookcase only with cabinet doors along the bottom. There was a closet behind the stair, so the storage was just a foot deep or so except at the bottom few treads, where the storage went much deeper to accommodate their enormous stock of board games. I think there was a spot for the extra leaves to the dining table, too. The cabinet door to that area was a left-angle triangle, which fascinated me as a kid because I didn’t know doors didn’t have to be square or rectangular. Know that I think of it, that’s also when I learned that dining table leaves should be stored flat, not on edge or end. Wow. That was more than forty years ago. The things that come back to you . . .lol

  16. jay says

    I bought a house build in 1949 the last basement stair and the wall there is only a distance of 2 feet. The code needs 3 feet the basement was done with a permit from the last to last house owner. How can we rebuild the stairs the total lenght from the door to the basement is 120″. Any idea will be great or I have to break the finish basement. There are beams on both the sides so a curve stair is not possible.

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