Tangent Handrail

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Project by Jim Baldwin posted 09-08-2013 08:46 AM 5457 views 3 times favorited 15 comments Add to Favorites Watch

I only furnished the curved handrail for this job but that was (as always) a bit of a challenge. The rail had to make an ascending, geometric turn through 180 degrees, with pitch-changing transitions between the curved and straight flights.

The walnut rail was cut and shaped from flat, solid planks with no bending or strip laminating required. No forms or jigs were necessary. The cutting patterns were developed from the floor plan only, using tangent handrail, geometry from the 1800’s. The fit and installation was by others, 2000 miles away. (I never see the jobs but rely solely on the submitted plans.)

I do it this way because it’s easier than re-sawing, bending and twisting wood and in some cases, the only practical approach. No CNC machinery were employed either although that would be the modern method of today.

The custom volute is from another job It’s made to precisely fit the pitch of the rail with no up-easing. A volute like this, appears as a continuation of the curved or straight handrail, rather than a typical flat fitting, abutted to it. The volute layout is also geometrically correct, as it converges to a proper point.

I’ve been doing this for many years and on occasion, teach and lecture on the subject: “Tangent Handrail”.


-- Jim Baldwin/

15 comments so far

View robscastle's profile


5313 posts in 2347 days

#1 posted 09-08-2013 09:14 AM

Looks good, .. excellent work, all just just using a hammer saw and tee square no doubt.

I see a couple of blank photo spots .. possibly a picture of the tool box and donkey would be nice.

-- Regards Rob

View LGary's profile


11 posts in 2439 days

#2 posted 09-08-2013 12:34 PM

It makes the projects I do look like child’s play.Great work.

View Jim Baldwin's profile

Jim Baldwin

56 posts in 2502 days

#3 posted 09-08-2013 01:31 PM

Yeah funny Robert but no Loretto miracles here. There is some handwork involved but all of the cutting and shaping is done by machine. The handrail, including the drawing and pattern work, required no more than one week of my time. I’m a professional, not a purist.

-- Jim Baldwin/

View HillbillyShooter's profile


5811 posts in 2436 days

#4 posted 09-08-2013 01:34 PM

Yes, sir, you are a professional and it shows with this work! Outstanding.

-- John C. -- "Firearms are second only to the Constitution in importance; they are the peoples' liberty's teeth." George Washington

View a1Jim's profile


117234 posts in 3720 days

#5 posted 09-08-2013 02:07 PM

This is very high quality work ,great job.

-- wood crafting & woodworking classes

View Northwest29's profile


1656 posts in 2634 days

#6 posted 09-08-2013 06:18 PM

That is one super job!! Well done – excellent craftsmanship. I can’t even begin to get my brain much past choosing the wood to do that kind of work. But it is definitely eye candy.

-- Ron, Eugene, OR, "Curiosity is a terrible thing to waste."

View djwong's profile


176 posts in 3363 days

#7 posted 09-08-2013 06:57 PM

I had to look up “traditional tangent geometry”, and your “ThisIsCarpentry” article popped up on google. Fascinating topic. Your article has great illustrations that help clarify things. I am going to have to spend a lot more time studying your article. Thanks for sharing.

-- David W. Cupertino, CA

View TopamaxSurvivor's profile


18373 posts in 3819 days

#8 posted 09-08-2013 07:30 PM

If that doesn’t make your head spin, nothing will ;-) Impressive work!

-- Bob in WW ~ "some old things are lovely, warm still with life ... of the forgotten men who made them." - D.H. Lawrence

View siavosh's profile


674 posts in 2014 days

#9 posted 09-09-2013 01:02 AM

Inspiring to see the that level of precision, and purely from remote plans; very humbling.

-- -- Discover the most interesting woodworking blogs from around the world

View Woodendeavor's profile


276 posts in 2750 days

#10 posted 09-09-2013 01:08 AM

Your work is impeccable. I had the pleasure of working with a very talented custom stair builder who would come in to the job, draw the plan out on the subfloor and build the most complex stairs I have ever seen field built. He did not make his own railing pieces. If I can find his card I will send your information to him

View mloy365's profile


444 posts in 3273 days

#11 posted 09-09-2013 02:16 AM

Mega high end work. Great job!

-- Mike - Northern Upper Michigan

View chopnhack's profile


375 posts in 2538 days

#12 posted 09-09-2013 02:50 AM

pic from

Nice Work!!

-- Sneaking up on the line....

View Dark_Lightning's profile


3256 posts in 3252 days

#13 posted 09-09-2013 02:56 AM

You’re petty damned good to do that without a CNC machine. I do this sort of stuff (in metal) but it’s all CNC. I’d never expect a machinist to do something like this free hand…but then, I use metal. That’s tough on the chisels.

Beautiful work!

-- Random Orbital Nailer

View Jim Baldwin's profile

Jim Baldwin

56 posts in 2502 days

#14 posted 09-09-2013 03:02 PM

Thanks all for the kudos and compliments. Not everyone can appreciate the amount of work involved here or the years required to gain the necessary skills. I believe most of you here get it though, as you’re on your own “long and winding road”.

thank you

-- Jim Baldwin/

View Neil Davis's profile

Neil Davis

40 posts in 2741 days

#15 posted 09-10-2013 10:57 AM

This is amazing and the timing as well. I was just in Amsterdam for the weekend and stayed in a 350 year old house that had handrail up 4 flights of stairs that was just like what you have shown. To think that they did that rail without power tools. Every time I walked up or down the stairs I would run my hand along the rail and was amazed at the fact that all the curves, twists and transitions felt perfect. It was a work of art. I can attest to the fact that it was much more pleasing to the eye and very graceful. Even though I do not need any handrail I may make a curved piece just for the fun and education of it. Thank you for posting your work.

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