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Traditional Tangent Handrail

Today, ‘tangent handrail’ is certainly an obscure topic. Until recently, when I taught a seminar on the subject in Seattle, I didn’t think anyone would be interested. I was wrong. At that seminar, hosted by Keith Mathewson of Seattle Fine Woodworking, we had a full house of dedicated craftsmen who came together from all parts of the country for one reason only—to learn something new.

Strangely, in this case, the ‘new thing’ was both old and new, for tangent handrail (once a common vocation) probably hasn’t been practiced, or formally taught, for a couple of generations or more. The challenge was to try to relearn something which was once well known, but is now all but forgotten.

“A variant of the Cylindric method of layout, [the Tangent method] allows for continuous climbing and twisting rails and easings. It was defined from principles set down by architect Peter Nicholson in the 18th century.” (Wikipedia)

So, why would we attempt to use an 18th century system for building handrails? I think it’s fair to say that the majority of stairs being built in America today are still being constructed by small companies, or individual craftsmen who don’t always have six figures to invest in CNC machinery. For those of us who fall into this category (including some fully equipped CNC operators), traditional tangent layout methods are still a viable means for producing continuous and complex hand railing.

The fact remains that the tangent method of laying out and making curved and twisted (wreathed) handrail worked well then, and still works today—you just have to make the effort to learn how. And the effort is worth it. Handrails made with the tangent system are far more beautiful and pleasing than those ‘assembled’ from factory parts.

A traditional ‘wreathed’ handrail fitting (center) provides a graceful continuous transition compared to the typical methods seen in modern construction (right). Notice how the handrail on the right stops and starts at each change in plane and jerks it’s way up the stair, while the railing in the center ‘flows’ up the stair. Traditional handrail design isn’t just a matter of aesthetics. Close your eyes and imagine your hand sliding down the rail as you descend the stair.

The Class

(Note: Click any image to enlarge)

The Seattle seminar was four days of drafting, and a hands-on workshop. I had come prepared to review and teach nine-to-twelve separate drawings (one for each of the various tangent plan arrangements). What we actually accomplished was two of the drawings and one ‘squared wreath’ for each of us. Some of the guys were able to begin carving the handrail profile (with good results for first-time efforts), but most of our time was spent deciphering the old line system.

We started the first day with an historical overview and introduction to the tangent method, and then proceeded directly to the drafting tables. You can’t do anything without a good drawing. And that will be the focus of this article, too.

Drawing curving handrail is almost more of a challenge than making it, especially since some of the surfaces that must be drawn don’t even exist in reality! But a good drawing is the only way to develop a pattern—called a ‘face mold’—for these custom-made curved and twisting handrail fittings.

What is Tangent Handrail?

Maybe the best way to describe tangent handrail is to describe what it isn’t. There is absolutely no wood bending of any kind, no vertical or horizontal strip-laminating, no steam or chemical forming (or any other means of twisting and torturing wood fibers into submission). The wood (or stone) is simply taken for what it is, and cut and carved to the desired shape. The tangent method simply provides the patterns for accurately accomplishing this work.

What does ‘tangent’ mean?

The first step in understanding the tangent system is understanding what a tangent is! A tangent is simply a straight line that touches the edge of a curve at only one point. It is always perpendicular to a circular arc’s radius. Below is a simple two-dimensional example (“simple” because it only involves a single plane).

Lines that intersect at almost any angle can be used as tangents to create a smooth curving transition. (Click to enlarge)

When using the tangent handrail system, you must visualize a wreath in three dimensions with tangents that intersect in two planes—one that descends the lower flight of stairs, and one that ascends the upper flight of stairs.

With the tangents inclined, a diagonal (or ‘oblique’) slice through the cylinder creates an elliptical shape.

And you must be able to draw that wreath in three dimensions if you want to cut it accurately from a single block of wood.

Before getting to the step-by-step instructions for drawing the pattern (or ‘face mold’) for the wreath, watch the following video, so you’ll have a better overview of the theory behind the drawing process.

A Step-by-Step Drawing

The following drawing steps are used to create a two dimensional representation of the three dimensional ‘box’ that is the foundation for tangent handrailing. This example features a 90 degree turning handrail wreath, with equal pitches. Starting with a drawing of the handrail fitting ‘in plan’ (‘in plan’ means when viewed ‘from above,’ like looking at a floor plan), the required information is projected through elevation to the ‘oblique plane.’ The result produces a ‘face mold,’ which is a detailed template for creating this custom handrail piece.

Step 1: The drawing process starts by drawing two intersecting lines that are perpendicular to one another. One horizontal and one vertical, their intersection is labeled point A.

Step 2: Create a square box to represent the plan view of the handrail by drawing lines parallel to both the horizontal and vertical lines. The distance of the offset is the centerline radius of the handrail turn in plan, 5 inches in this example. Note that the parallel vertical line should also project above the horizontal line.

Step 3: Use a compass to draw the centerline of the handrail’s curve in plan. Point C in the drawing (below) is the center of the arc, and the compass is spread to the predetermined radius distance of 5 inches. With the arc drawn, the tangent and spring lines can be identified.

Step 4: Measure out along the horizontal line from point V (the vertex), using the same radius distance used previously (5 inches) to locate point B1. From this point, use a protractor to draw a pitch line at the angle of the stair pitch, 35 degrees in this example. This creates an elevation view of the three dimensional box being drawn.

Step 5: Use a square to draw a line perpendicular to the pitch line that intersects point V.

Step 6: Locate point Bo by swinging an arc from point Vo, with the compass spread to the distance between Vo and B1.

Step 7: Draw a line originating at point Vo that passes through point Bo to define the inclined tangents.

Step 8: Create the parallelogram that makes up the oblique plane (the lid of the box) by drawing lines from points Ao and Bo that are parallel to the inclined tangents.

Step 9: The next step is to determine the bevel angle for the handrail. This is the angle where the handrail’s profile is ‘twisted’ at each end in order to match the profile of the straight raking rails. Using point V as a center, spread the compass until it touches the intersection of the pitch line and the perpendicular line drawn in step 5, and then swing an arc to the base line.

Step 10: Draw the bevel line by connecting the arc intersection on the base line to point B. This line represents the centerline of the handrail profile.

Step 11: Begin creating a box that will encompass the handrail profile by drawing lines parallel to the bevel line. Since the handrail width in this example is 2 1/2 in., the offset is 1 1/4 in. on each side of the bevel line.

Step 12: Finish the box that surrounds the handrail profile by drawing two lines perpendicular to the bevel line to define the height of the profile. In this example, the handrail profile is 1 3/4 in. tall.

Step 13: To determine the minimum required stock size for the wreath block, enclose the squared profile box with a box that is square to the level base line.

Step 14: With the squared handrail profile determined, it’s time to move back to the oblique plane and the creation of the face mold. The inclined tangent lines that extend outside points Bo and Ao represent the centerline of the ‘shanks,’ or straight sections, on either side of the curved portion of the fitting. The widths of the shanks on the face mold are determined by the squared handrail profile and the bevel angle. Use the distance measured along the base line, from the bevel line intersection to the handrail width line intersection, to offset each side of the shank center line. Finish by squaring off the shanks with a perpendicular line; the shank length is arbitrary.

Step 15: Draw ordinate lines for the plan view and oblique plane by drawing lines connecting points C and V, and points Co and Vo.

Step 16: Draw the inner and outer edges of the handrail in plan by drawing arcs centered on point C, offset from the plan centerline by 1/2 of the handrail’s width on each side. The distance is 1 1/4 in. in this example for the 2 1/2 in. wide handrail.

Step 17: Draw a line parallel to the ordinate line in plan. The distance is arbitrary; it will be used as a benchmark for projecting measurements to the oblique plane.

Step 18: Draw a line from the intersection of the previously drawn parallel ordinate line and the tangent line, parallel to the height line, until it intersects the inclined tangent line above.

Step 19: Transfer the intersection point on the inclined tangent line to the opposite inclined tangent line by using a compass to swing an arc centered on point Vo.

Step 20: Draw lines from both points on the inclined tangent lines that are parallel to the ordinate line of the oblique plane.

Step 21: Begin transferring measurements from plan to the oblique plane. Use the distance along the ordinate line in plan from point V to the handrail’s inner edge (Red) to mark point 1 along the oblique ordinate line from point Vo. Use the distance along the parallel benchmark ordinate line in plan, measured from the tangent line to the handrail’s inner edge (Blue) to mark points 2 and 3 up from the inclined tangents, along the lines drawn parallel to the oblique ordinate.

Step 22: Transfer the handrail widths from plan to the oblique plane. Mark point 4 along the oblique ordinate line measuring down from point 1, which is the handrail width along the ordinate line in plan (Red). Mark points 5 and 6 by using the distance measured from the inner to outer handrail edges along the benchmark ordinate line in plan (Blue).

Step 23: Complete the face mold by using a flexible curve to connect points 1, 2, and 3 to the inner edges of the shanks, and points 4, 5, and 6 to the outer edges of the shanks.

The Face Mold

Now that the drawing is complete we can see and cut out the face mold.
  I often paste the face mold drawing onto a 1/4-in. piece of plywood or hardboard so I can easily transfer information from the pattern to the ‘blank’.

The blank is the actual stock from which the wreath is cut. Watch this video and you’ll see how the blank—before it’s shaped—fits on the oblique plane at the top of the drawing:

 Shaping the Wreath

Working to lines drawn directly on the blank, the waste material is first cut away with the bandsaw. Both the rough convex and concave sides of the rail are now revealed and finished up with a spokeshave and rasp, etc.

Molding the Wreath

The actual carving, or shaping, of the handrail profile is a subject in-and-of-itself, and with varying suggested methods (see Mike Kennedy’s article, “Carving a Volute”). Some of these include hand-held routers, grinders and other ways and means. In the distant past, there was little doubt or discussion as to ‘how to do it.’ Every woodworker had to be reasonably good with his hands, and passable or proficient woodcarving was taken for granted.

In most cases, the excess wood was cleared away by hand, and the profile was simply scraped or ‘scratched’ to shape. A simple shop-made tool for accomplishing this task is called a ‘scratch stock,’ and is still a viable tool. Other handy tools (besides the regular set of carving chisels) include: Quirk routers, hand beaders, and special radius molding planes or shaves.

I use a special molding machine, which I designed and had built some years ago. I rarely have to hand carve anymore, but there are times when only hand-work will do. As long as the profiles are fairly simple, and the wood reasonably soft, hand-carving still works well—especially for occasional supplemental stair parts.

Too Complicated?

If all of this sounds way too complicated, I might agree with you, except for the fact that I have been doing this, myself, for many years—and I flunked high school algebra and never completed college. I had to figure all this stuff out on my own, down in the basement of the old Los Angeles County Library. Working from very old, brown and brittle ‘reference only books,’ I slowly began to paste it together. Back in the 1970s and ’80s there was absolutely no one to talk to about this stuff, except for a few dead authors like Riddell, Monkton and Ellis. There weren’t any books in print on the subject, and, of course, no Google. Anyway, I suppose if I can do it, so can you.

How long does it take?

A complete set of drawings and templates can take a couple of hours or more—sometimes a full day. But for a single part, I am often done in an hour. After that, it’s out to the workshop to cut wood. The cutting and squaring of a typical wreath piece can take two or three hours, and the machine carving will add, perhaps, another hour. In short, most individual parts are completed within a day, and sometimes before noon. If I have to do any hand carving, it’s usually another full day or so. It is certainly possible to expend a full week on a custom volute.

Why should anyone go to the trouble?

Not everyone should go to the trouble. It is difficult. It is time-consuming. And despite the title of the book, A Simplified Guide to Custom Stairbuilding and Tangent Handrailing, there is absolutely nothing ‘simple’ about it. That said, tangent handrail, or handrail cut from solid stock, does have some very definite advantages when viewed in comparison with today’s typical laminated handrail:

  • Handrail cut from solid stock is not subject to bending limitations or restrictions, such as small radii or steep pitches.
  • Solid rail does not spring-back, unwind, or de-lam.
  • Solid rail has no visible, stripped glue-line issues.
  • Natural wood grains and textures are left intact and prominently featured.
  • Handrail segments cut from tangent lay-out methods are able to negotiate changes in direction and pitch with predetermined, graceful curves.
  • A tangent layout yields the pattern and required dimensions to cut a wreathed rail from the minimum amount of stock without ‘guess work’.
  • Difficult handrail butt-joints are pre-cut on the bench and usually square to the plank before the wreath is formed.

There are other advantages, too, but there are also some limitations (you’re not, for example, going to be able to cut a 24-in. piece of curved rail from a single board). Perhaps the greatest single advantage is the ability to produce a product which your local competitor can’t. This can translate into more work, and more money for your work! It can also place your company within a class of clientele who demand custom work and are willing and able to pay a premium for it.

• • •

Appreciation (rather than a bio)

I hesitate to mention any names, but I’d like to acknowledge a few of the guys who attended the class; without their help, the class, and this article, might not have been possible:

Billy, who booked us a room in a hostel (what’s a hostel?). I don’t know, but there were four of us on two bunk beds in a room no bigger than a condo kitchen. This was great fun!

Josh, who drove us all around in his monster pickup truck, complete with camper shell and lumber rack, and learned the hard way that it really doesn’t fit in the airport parking structure!

Mike, who always asked the best questions, and fixed his own wreath after I nearly wrecked it on the band saw.

Troy, Kyle and Doug, who figured out most of this on their own before coming to class (I know they’ll do well).

Steve, who sat quietly at his computer most of the time, and then went back and did something neat on his CNC.

Al, who drove me to the airport (he’s smarter than most of us, I think).

Brad, who really is smarter than all of us.

Drew, who finally drew it correctly.

Lavrans, who bought more than a round or two.

Dave, who kept me company.

Katz, who documented the whole mess, and continues to publish Pulitzer Prize-winning pieces like this one.

Todd Murdock, for the killer SketchUp drawings (he wasn’t at the class, but he did a lot of great work on this article!).

And Keith, who just furnished me the menu (“These were all produced by tenants in my catering kitchen”):

Wed. – Chinese Dim Sum

Thurs. – Salvadoran Chicken, corn salsa, rice and salad

Fri. – Ethiopian chicken, beef, goat, salad, mango & avocado drink

Sat. – tamales with rice & beans

Sun. – Northern Mexican tacos, sopitos, quesadilla, carrot cake, and Mexican tea cookies.

Who can top that?


64 Responses to “Traditional Tangent Handrail”

  1. Billy Dillon

    Thanks Gary for putting this together. the first video was great for all those that could not be there . Jim, you put on a fine class .I have now taught the system to several of our guys and it all seemed to be understood . Thanks Jim . Keith, great place to come and visit thanks for hosting ,food, what can I say great

  2. Brady

    This is absolutely amazing stuff! Its a beautiful transition and the factory parts just look, feel clunky in comparison. I need to go back an re-read it a couple of dozen times, but its inspiring! Todd’s Sketchup drawings really aid in comprehending the “plane” of the elipse shown. Thank you for taking the time to pass this on and preserve an (almost) lost art.

    • Gary Katz

      I agree about Todd’s drawings. The magazine would be worthless without those illustrations. For me, Todd makes sense out of the insensible (or is that ineffable?). I guess it depends on whether I’m referring to the tangent system or to me. We’re fortunate that Todd has a carpentry background and a sharp mind, and that he’s a pilot and has frequent layovers!

  3. Bill

    Great stuff!!! I love articles like this that stretch my brain. I’ve read it three times this morning. I think I need to break out my drafting tools and read it four more times then give it a try.

  4. Tim Kuist

    Great article; you’ve done an excellent job of describing the process in a way that a modern carpenter can understand. Excellent graphics.
    Just a few months ago, I was faced with making a curved rail, and had to read all of the old texts, written at a time when language was used differently. Let’s just say that it was a challenge….
    I will most certainly file this away for future reference.

  5. Sim Ayers

    I think Riddell, Monkton, Ellis, Mowat, Nicholson and Williams must be signing up to THISisCarpentry this morning, to read Jim’s great article on tangent handrailing.

    Great article and great video’s and graphics.


  6. Matt Follett

    I was taught a very similar method by a fantastic carpenter, but the trial and error method. Meaning you ‘guessed’ where you should be and followed suit from there. Needless to say I’ve screwed up a few pieces and taken WAY to long to lay them out.

    A couple years ago, I asked Jed Dixon if he could describe this process to me. His reply, “Sure, but at some point…I will lose you.” Guess what, it took less than 5 minutes and I was drowning. He has a system but I am so green when it comes to this sorta thing I just couldn’t keep up. I will go over and over this article so I can be trained in a way that I will not only be better understood by me, but one that I can also pass on the the next guy.

    Thanx JB and TiC. These are truly gems.

  7. Matthew Giordano

    After owning & reading books by Mowat (reads like a theology textbook) & Di Cristina for years – I learned more ways to simplify (but not simple) from this article by way of Todd’ drawings & attached video’s .
    Many Thanks to Jim & Gary for this & all the other quality articles we receive. It is nice to come to a place where others are as passionate.

  8. Mike Kennedy

    Great article Jim. Have you ever checked out George Di Cristina’s book “A Simplified Guide to Custom Stairbuilding and Tangent Hadrailinig” ? That was my first written intro to tangent layout.
    The process seems complicated and sometimes you think “this will never work” but then, like magic, the wreath falls right over the plan and the ends line up where they are supposed to…another triumph of geometry!

  9. Josh Farrand

    I too echo the thanks- Jim- it was a wonderful class. Even more so was and is your ongoing commitment to make sure we can pull these off. Thank you for all your time with back and forth emails and checking drawings. Thanks to you I have a very happy customer. I am thankful for the brain trust of guys who are willing to pass on their knowledge and see young guys like me run with it.

    Gary- thank you also for searching stuff out and taking all the video/pictures. It is fantastic that we can have such a wealth of information out there and that you are willing to pull it all together. I hope the years are good and we see a revival of the trade once again.

  10. Josh

    Can I please get invited to the next get together… please! I’ll be the food and drink guy…

  11. Jim Baldwin

    Yes Mike, Mr. di Cristinas’ book is a good “working resource” and the most contemporary book on the subject. I appreciate the fact that all the tangent plan arraignments are included and in a useable format. I do however take issue with the title suggesting a “Simplified Guide…” Those of you who have bought this book or others, might agree with me that as of yet, “there is no such thing”.

    To others who might be considering buying a book or learning more about this, should be advised that a casual “bathroom perusal” isn’t going to cut it. This subject requires considerable study and “hands-on practice”. I have quite a few books myself and all of them are dog-eared and worn-out.

  12. Charles B Thomas

    Thanks for the great article. This is powerfully good information. And Inspiring, I might just try and make one just to see it done (although my sample will be in bass or cotton wood – something easy to carve). In my last year of college I researched curved stairs for a Math special projects course. I poured over rare books, mostly on micro-film and micro-fishe. The best explanation I found for how this work was done was basically, “the rail is hand-carved by the Master Carpenter until it meets the approval of his eye”. Thanks for filling in the blanks of how to get started carving.

  13. keith mathewson

    The class last summer was a lot of fun and it was really enjoyable to meet others who were excited to learn something about a rapidly disappearing part of the trade. This article is, for me, the best description I’ve ever seen.

    At first I didn’t know what to expect but it became apparent that Jim’s knowledge was deeper than I think any of us suspected. I didn’t appreciate the amount of work required to produce an article when I asked Gary to get involved. If I had I don’t think I would have had the nerve to ask! The drawings which Todd has done cover what in essence were the first 2 1/2 days of the class, really quite a feat Todd. The animated drawing goes a long way toward helping in the understanding of how everything is related. Jim wanted to cover much more ground than what we were able to just because it took so much effort to get up to speed and grasp the drawings shown in the article.

    I’ve spoken with Jim and he would be interested in doing another class in 2012, however this time we would almost start where the 2011 class ended, thanks in great part to this article. If interested please contact me.


  14. Jim Baldwin

    I wanted to add my compliments to Gary and Todd…

    It has occurred to me that the use of animated 3D CAD drawings, is a significant “first” in the study of tangent handrail and represents (perhaps) the only real improvement in a system long thought to have been “perfected”.

    None of this was part of the class but perhaps should have been. Almost no one draws by hand anymore and traditional drafting skills are almost as rare as this subject (I believe Jed Dixon has already addressed this issue in a prior article).

    It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks but that doesn’t stop TIC magazine from trying. No matter how this article is ultimately viewed, it is (at the very least) a bit of a “new twist on an old spiral” and credit should be given, where credit is due.

    • Gary Katz

      I think that’s what excites me most about getting articles like this published, and it’s probably motivated by a selfish reaction to so many drawings that I’ve tried to understand but never could. Those poor guys–even ten years ago–could never do what we can do today. And back when pattern books were published, each piece of paper in a book cost a fortune. No wonder they ‘compressed’ a multi-stage drawing into a single illustration. But today we can publish a separate drawing for each stage–an article can be ANY length. PLUS…and this is the amazing part, we can include videos and animated drawings, too, like the wonderful ones Todd did for Jim’s article. That is truly revolutionary. And that is what excites me most. Sure, I value learning how the tangent railing system works–even though I may never do it!–but I never could have followed that article, or the crazy shapes that are locked inside Jim’s brain, without the step-by-step drawings, and I couldn’t have understood those without the animated overview of what the drawing was going to develop into. I had exactly the same experience with Jed’s article on drawing a volute. I figured if I couldn’t understand it, there must be a couple of other people out there who suffered from the same misery. Now at least it doesn’t hurt so much. Lucky to be alive today.

  15. M Smith

    Great article Jim ! Had to read it a few times but it all makes a whole lot more sense now than it did before i read it ! Great visual aides – extremely helpful in putting it all together in my mind. Thanx to you and TiC for imparting this hard earned knowledge on to the brethren of woodworkers here.

    M Smith

  16. Rob Potter

    Jim, Gary, Todd,
    I just want to echo the comments here. The article is fantastic, and I agree that the way we can show multiple step by step views is a tremendous help in understanding this stuff. I’ve spent many hours reading and re reading old carpentry and joinery texts. Sometime it clicks, sometimes it doesn’t. But I’m sure I’m not alone in struggling with the old language of the text and the geometric drawings that might not even be on the same page as the words that describe it!
    So mostly I just want say thank you for sharing this with us all!

  17. Joe Stoddard

    All that can be said is thank you Jim for keeping this knowledge alive (and Gary for providing a place for it to live). The next time I see one of these handrails I’ll at least have a clue as to how it was created.

  18. Tom Collier

    Would anyone know of a book or article that would show me a method for putting a profile on to a upease handrail fitting? Using a router or a shaper possibly?

    • Jim Baldwin

      I’ve intentionally hesitated to respond to your question but since no one else has commented, I suppose I will.

      George Ellis describes the process for “Molding Wreaths” using a shaper equipped with a French spindle and dumpling block in his book “Modern Practical Joinery (1902).

      W.H ROHR devotes an entire chapter on “Shaping Stair Crooks” from his book Modern Shaper Practice (1923)- Good luck finding this one.

      Both authors provide interesting reading but old “freehand” shaping methods (as advocated in these books) are dangerously obsolete.

      A handheld router can be used (with care) and during the class, we actually had a demonstration of the technique by a very competent stairbuilder. I’m unfamiliar with any articles describing the process fully, but you might try posting this query on your favorite woodworking blog. It’s a fairly common practice (emphasis on the word “practice”) and there’s at least one specifically designed German router available for the job.

      I honestly recommend however, keeping your thumb and fingers permanently attached to your hands by trying to stick with the bench vise and hand tools.. I admit this is a case of “DO AS I SAY AND NOT AS I DO” but unless you want me to relate real horror stories, you should probably just trust me on this one.

  19. Stewart de Young

    Excellent article Jim and the videos make it even easier to understand the geometric concepts behind laying out these curved handrails, particularly the unfolding of the paper.

    Cheers, Stewie

  20. Bob

    You mentioned you have and use a special moulding machine. Any hints or pictures. What is the base machine?

    • Jim Baldwin

      The base machine you’re asking about remains the basis of my entire business (such as it is) and therefore a bit of a “proprietary concern” for me. My dear old dad (who was a retired machinist) worked at least a year building it for me. I’m afraid he might roll over in his grave if I gave it away now or posted pictures.

  21. Cameron Paton

    This tutorial is fantastic!
    Clearly shows the time and effort involved vs. a couple of $50 ‘off the shelf’ components.These wreathing components make fantastic wall returns for the ends of railings, too.
    Now that we’ve gone through all that geometry, here’s a look carved out of a much larger block.
    We’ve gone beyond these flush profile C-Post designs onto raised carvings and integrated boots.

  22. Bruce Huff

    Sunday is my day to indulge my interests and learn someting new.
    I have been building stairs, installing railing for 22 years now and it has always been a sourse of great satification for me. At the start I did not have a clue and just winged it. This was an eye opener for me and I enjoyed it very much. I would love to come to the class.
    My family & freinds think I am weird reguarding what I’m interested in.
    Thanks for a great Sunday morning,
    Bruce Huff ABH Stair & Millwork Co.

  23. sean mahoney

    Excellent Article- Makes us all think , probably very hard about
    the craft- Which we should do to learn this element of the stair Tangent Handrail.

    Do I understand it all no, However the excellent graphics make this an excellent challenge to reread and practice.

    Thank you for maintaing and elevating the craft !
    Very Impressed !!
    Sean Mahoney


    Dear Jim Baldwin
    We were very pleased to find your feature on custom curved wreath handrails. We have an on-going project of a set of stairs consisting of 6 winders, turning through 90º before entering the remaining straight treads. As you will be aware this is a long steep wreath. We followed your instructions with great precision and enthusiasm, but were disappointed to find this not working for us. The main point been, the box around the handrail shows the section to be 87.9H x 87.1mm W. Yet on the Face Mould the end section is Only 77mm. this does not seem to add up to us!! Are we missing something?

    Is it possible for me to send you a PDF of our stair drawing and,
    Along with our drawing created from your instructions.

    Yours Hopefully
    Andrew Conning

    • Jim Baldwin

      Dear Andrew,
      Yes, there’s nothing “simplified” about this and “simple” mistakes are easy to make (and hard to unmake). I would be happy to look at your plan and help in anyway I can. My contact information is found on my website at

      Thank you
      Jim Baldwin/18th Century Handrail

  25. Kevin White

    Please would you let me know if you are going to teach another tangent handrailing class…. many thanks

  26. paddy

    i have George diCristina’s book simplified guide to custom stair building and tangent handrailing but i couldnt get my head around the tangental stuff. This article with the illustrations and video is very understandable and make me want to do a practice wreath for a stairs i just completed using the clunky factory parts to get around the corners. Had i been able to make two corner turns with a wreath i know the client would be talking about it for years to come.
    Thanks for this educations,
    regards Paddy.

  27. brendan malone

    hi hope someone can help me ,havin downloaded the tangent hanndrail info as by Jim Balwin , i have tried nearly all day to draw out awreathed section of handrail for aflight of stairs with 6no risers at 42 degrees the diameter to the centre of the string is 1035mm , however cannot get it to work ,please can anybody help me ? thanks Brendan

  28. Tom Ventura

    Jim Baldwin,

    This is a great article. I build a ton of stairs in coastal Maine and have made several wreath fittings as well as full wreath rake rails (non-laminated.)

    I have read a few books but I never really understood the tangent method and use my own method to make the blank. A fellow stair builder jokes with me and calls it the “ham & eggs” method, as he prefers to use the tangent method.

    The stair I am working on now calls for 2 wreath fittings mitering into two turned newel caps, that are located on top the two newels on each side a flared starter step. I was going to use my method to make the blanks, but after reading your article I am going to bring my laptop right in the shop and follow your process step by step. I think the fittings will be more consistent if I try the tangent method.

    I do not have a custom molding machine for profiling. Instead I send rail profiles to Connecticut Saw & Tool and they make 3-4 piece router bit sets that can be used to make any fitting using a router table & router. This might be a good resource for some of the folks out there.

    Thanks for the article,

    Tom Ventura
    Ventura Staircase & Woodturning.

    • Tom Ventura

      Here are a few pictures of a wreath fitting we made in the shop. One is of it installed, I think that making that miter into the cap is the hardest part.

      The process took a week, it was nerve wracking toward the end because one bad pass on the router table or a bad cut on the miter box would mean back to square one.

  29. Gareth mooney

    Yellow I’m just wondering I have a question that I need answers to.List the order of sequence for making a wreathed portion of a handrail simply list the sequence of work required to make a wreath?if u can help that’s great

  30. John

    Firstly great article guys.
    I’m just about to make a rake-180-rake and a wreath and scroll for a stairs I’m doing. I normally use factory parts but they never look as smooth as a full wreath.

    Anyway, I can draw the wreath following your article but I can’t figure out how you transfer the tangent center line to the edge of the blank. What is the angle of this line on the cut edge of the blank?

    Thanks in advance for any help

    Keep up the good work!


  31. Jim Baldwin

    I pretty much thought this article and comments were a wrap but now I see some added pictures and questions…

    John: We don’t transfer tangent center-lines to the edge of the blank but we do shift them on the blank to new positions per the joint bevels. The face mold is then shifted into its’ new position along these new lines. The face mold(s) applied to their new positions (both at the top and bottom of the blank) establishes the vertical sides of the handrail.

    Gareth: The sequence for making a wreathed handrail segment begins with a complete stair plan and progresses on paper until we have useable patterns called “face molds” (which is the substance of this article). After that the sequence for the practical work should progress as follows:

    1. Band saw blank from glued-up or solid stock and cut the joints square to the tangents and face of the blank
    2. Line out blank per face mold including joint bevels.
    3. Shift tangent lines per joint bevels.
    4. Apply face mold(s) and shift or slide them to coincide with the shifted tangent lines. Line them out as much as possible
    5. Cut vertical sides of rail to the limits of the face mold.
    6. Square the top and bottom of the wreath per the vertical sides of the wreath and butt-joints.
    7. Carve or shape handrail profile.

    Tom: Very nicely done (I love the fluted newel and finial) and yes, the miter joint can be difficult. There are tricks for “easing the pain” like cutting the joint prior to shaping the profile but that’s another subject. Either way in order to determine the precise angle of the cut we do need a plan drawing.

    It’s difficult to describe every single step in a short magazine article and I hope we haven’t left to much out (or left to many frustrated). Sometimes you just have to forge ahead and work things out as you go.

    I hope Brendan found some help and Paddy too. At the very least I hope we’ve (TIC & me) inspired a few of you. Perhaps someday we’ll see a resurgence of real geometric stairs with continuous balustrades. It’s a functional art form that’s far to lovely to let die.

  32. Beverly Hendricks

    Hi Jim Baldwin,

    I very much enjoyed this article, and am wondering if you know of any master of this technique in my neck of the woods that can help me out on a project. The house is on Eastern Long Island and will have two stair cases with turning rails. Tangent rails would be perfectly applied in this new/old, colonial house.
    Thanks for the article, and any thoughts you are able to spare for my query.


  33. Jim Baldwin


    There’s quite a few very capable stair companies and stair carpenters on the East coast and New England areas. Unfortunately there are only a very few across the entire nation who I know understand and utilize tangent handrail layouts and procedure. Fortunately not all stairs require tangent handrail.

    I suggest that you talk to the stair folks in your area and look at their work. If you don’t see exactly what you’re looking for then I humbly suggest you call me. I can supply either them or yourself with anything required and (not so humbly) consider myself a knowledgeable consultant if nothing more. I’d love to talk with you either way and look at your plans. This is the most important aspect of any stair as it’s best to start out right, right-from-the-start.

    I am trying to improve the knowledge base in your area and have just completed another handrail seminar in Martha’s Vineyard, MA.At least one of my students (I believe) was a stair builder from Long Island.

    Anyway, good luck with your project and thanks for the comments.

  34. Clive Rowe

    Hello, I can follow the setting out to create the face mould. Can someone please explain to me the thinking behind creating the bevel in this manner?. I understand what the bevel does but not how the twist is derived from step 10 above.I would have thought the bevel was the angle created by the square to the raking tangent.
    I bought the book you recommend and have completed our first continuous handrail on an elliptical landing and stair flight, it would not have been possible without the help from this website, so thanks………kind regards Clive Rowe

  35. Jim Baldwin

    Your question is a good one but difficult to explain. The bevel in step 10 is actually a dihedral angle between two pitched and intersecting planes. These planes are purely imaginary and you don’t have to know or understand this in order to make parts but, you do have to get it right.

    Here’s a couple of rules to remember:
    1. Equally pitched, plan tangents, only require a single bevel which is applied at both joint ends.

    2. A right/hand handrail ascent, will always have right/hand bevels (applied clockwise at the joints). This means that from the center of the handrail, where there is no twist, the joints rotate conversely to the right, when viewed from the end.

    For your immediate consideration;
    Tangent plan layouts for elliptic stair rail, requires a complete tangent elevation plan. The important thing to remember here is that any required pitch-changes occur at the tangent-line vertices and not along the joint ends (the cross-tangent must be straight lines). If you forget this, your individual handrail segments will have the right curve and twist but will not bolt together without kinks. This lesson was hard-earned by yours truly years ago.

    • Clive Rowe

      Thank you very much for taking the time to explain this to me. I have now gotten into my head and think of it this way. The bevel angle is formed at the vertices of the tangents on the oblique plane by drawing a perpendicular and subtending this point to the staring point on the plan. The effect being that the larger the plan dimension for any given tangent angle the smaller the subtended angle is and thus the smaller the ‘turning’ angle. I have now printed off your advice and pasted into my copy of the ‘Simplified Guide” for future reference. The notes on elliptical hand railing I have taken particular note of. Another book I have found on Amazon is ‘Modern Practical Stair Building and Hand Railing’ by George Ellis. This was written in amount 1933 but still available and whilst having a difficult font and writing style contains some very interesting worked examples, specimen tool kits and original staircases form Grade 1 listed buildings. Thanks again………..Clive

  36. Jim Baldwin

    There are various ways of finding required twist bevels depending on tangent plans and geometric projection methods. Nineteenth century authors were quite busy publishing “new and improved” methods. I personally prefer Mowat but that wasn’t part of this article. I also use CAD and elliptic functions to draw curves but that’s another story too.

    The size of the plan curves or radius, does not affect the required twist. The amount of twist or torsion of a wreathed handrail, is predicated by it’s pitch over a plan. In other words, railings with the same pitch will have the same twist over the same floor plan angle, irrespective of plan radius.

    This article was intended as a “primer” or introduction to the subject of Tangent Handrail and the particular tangent plan and drawing, is one of fifteen. The acquisition of this admittedly archaic knowledge, will not only enable the stair builder to make graceful hand railings but also design and build beautiful and graceful, geometric stairs. This too is way beyond the scope of the article but a fact, none the less.

  37. Mark Gremi.lionom

    Good evening–reading your article which reminded me of a session I had back in 96 with Tim Johnson from N.C._- I spent several days with him trying to teach me but mostly figured it out on my own– numerous books dating back to the 1700’s on railing but your explanation is excellent and I would ask if there is another class you will host in the future or if I could acquire some of your time I would very much like you to show me the missing pieces to this puzzle– great article– sorry I missed it
    Mark Gremillon
    M.P. Ashley Stair & Lmbr. Co.
    Jackson, Ms.

  38. John Bonham

    Very much appreciated your site. A fabulous contribution to those of us who like to do nice stuff…for the love of it.

    John Australia

  39. Jim Baldwin

    John, I do love the work but it’s all business too. I sincerely hope that people don’t think this an “art-craft article” or “Yankee-wood-shop fun.”

    It’s not just about small pieces either but full stair balustrades and all work and very competitive. Today more CNC shops are becoming ever more competent in their work and I know this article has benefited at least one or two of them directly. I’m not unhappy with this but feel some vindication that some good-old-stuff can still be very good.

  40. John Brooks

    Hello Jim.
    I have just tryed to set out a wreath by following your Method.
    But when I draw point BO it comes lower than AO ,making the
    drawing unsymmetrical .Then when drawing the ordinate line it isn’t vertical , is this right? I can’t see where I could have gone wrong .
    Thanks for the article and any light you can shine on my problem.

  41. Lou Kern

    Terrific Jim. I’ve been does this work in San Francisco for many years. I’m self taught but also had the luxury of having DeCristino, Atlas Stairs, Boyd at B&B Stairs and others help me through the learning curve. And of course the Mowat Brothers. :-) Please contact me. You can use the mail tool on my website. Lou

  42. Jim Baldwin

    Mr. Brooks

    Without seeing your drawing, I don’t know what you may have done wrong. This particular tangent-plan arrangement does yield a symmetrical drawing. Check your plan to make sure that your tangent lines are equal.

    I apologize for the response delay but have since retired and currently sitting on my boat and butt. You may contact me directly if you choose.

  43. kathleen gallant

    Hi Jim, Keith made our stair rail, beautifully, back in 2008-09 and we need a portion of the attic re-done. Can you do this work for us? It’s one turn only and ends into a wall. Keith came and picked it up last year and gave it to someone else to finish as he sold his equipment and retired. Unfortunately, the poor man he sold it to had a stroke and is no longer doing any work. Keith is making some calls but I saw your website article online and am hoping you can help!

    Thank you for your time.

  44. Jim Baldwin

    Dear Mis Gallant

    I’m retired now and no longer accept work. I don’t know where to send you. Interest has waned over this topic as styles continue to gravitate toward big-
    box supplies. It was fun for awhile. Unfortunately I got very few requests or I would still be working myself. I even wrote a book which no one wanted to print. I don’t blame them.


    • RogerS

      I’d read your book ! So much knowledge and experience should not go to waste.

      I hope you are well and remain Covid free

      All the best


  45. Bill

    Hi Jim,

    I have recently moved to Kenya and am refurbishing a British colonial era manor house. It has a grand sweeping spiral staircase. A large portion of the handrail is missing. The stairs are in a constant spiral sweep. I have thought of using the stair treads or stair molding as a template.

    Can you offer any advice in creating a drawing of this to work from?

    Feel free to contact me at



  46. David Broussard

    If you’re making a 90 degree turn for a corner fitting, how do you guard against having the wood grain running across the rail (even at 45 degrees)? That would seem to be a potential problem, wouldn’t it? Would you glue two intersecting pieces with a half-lap joint?

  47. Jim Baldwin

    Mr, Broussard,

    Your question is a good one and a common query of the nineteenth century. While it remains common for a on-piece handrail to ascend over a 45 degree plan (135 degree floor-plan angle) it was sometimes accomplished in two, conjoined segments, with more than one book-author claiming its’ superiority.

    I have done it both ways but prefer one piece with short shanks. The 135 degree floor-plan angle is of course, even more obtuse in its’ handrail development. I don’t think strength or machine-ability is compromised much, while fewer butt-joints in the handrail may be preferred. After all, a spiral volute was most often carved from descending quadrants or even greater angles.

    Still, dividing a curved balustrade into manageable, functional and aesthetically pleasing segments, requires careful consideration.

    Thanks for the excellent question.

  48. David Bowman

    Hello, my name is David Bowman and recently ran into a carpenter that took Jim Baldwin’s 5 day Wreath drafting and building class. This was in Utah back in about 2013 I believe. I was wondering if he still put on these classes and if so, where I can get more information about it. Thanks for reading.

  49. Jim baldwin


    I’m currently retired but still correspond with anyone interested. My email is still good. I still have shop and tools and handrail cutters and stuff, although I’m not sure why? I check this old article once a month or so and will continue to do so.


  50. Mike Nathan

    Are you still there? I may have something for you.
    I’m still building in Sun Valley, Idaho

  51. Nicholas Johnson


    It’s a privilege to have you mention our name in this article. I am Boyd’s grandson and am still in the stair-building industry. I’ve worked with my grandpa (who passed away two years ago) since the year 2000 (and apprenticing since ’96). Feel free to reach out if there’s anything I can help you out with: (650) 302-7221.

  52. Roger S

    Thank you so, so much for your eloquent explanation. I’d been reading diCristina’s book until my eyes bled and getting nowhere.


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