There are few things as inviting as a front porch detailed with fancy millwork. But there's no need to break out the wood lathe to make one: You can fashion your own flatsawn balusters with a jigsaw and a router. The style is a period-perfect choice for Victorian-era houses, yet it allows for a range of designs. That made it a natural fit for the This Old House TV project house in Arlington, Massachusetts, where project architect David Whitney came up with this custom pattern for the porch of the 1872 Italianate house.
Follow along as TOH general contractor Tom Silva and master carpenter Norm Abram demonstrate how they used the pattern and a homemade jig to construct this ornate balustrade. Sure, they make it look easy—but they also give you everything you need to know to craft your own custom railing.
Download the cut list to Build a Gingerbread Balustrade here.
Shown: Balusters: pine ½x5, $34 for a 16-foot board. Handrail: chamfered Douglas fir 2x4, about $2.50 per linear foot. Bottom rail: Douglas fir 2x4, about $1.85 per linear foot; arlcoal.com
Overview for How to Build a Gingerbread Balustrade
Day 1: Build the jig, cut and prep the balusters (Steps 2–8).
Day 2: Construct the railing (Steps 9–13).
Create the Template to Make the Jig
Pick a pattern for your balusters, and transfer the scaled outline to a sheet of ½-inch plywood. Tom freehanded this one, but you can to watch a video on ways to scale up your design. Once it's drawn, follow the lines with a jigsaw, as shown. If your design features a hole, as ours does, form it by using a drill/driver fitted with a hole saw.
Construct the Jig
Use a piece of plywood for the jig's base. Cut cleats and corner stops from the same ½ stock as your balusters, leaving space along each side to start the router bit. Drill pilot holes through the cleats, and snug them to the jig base with wood screws. Cut ½-inch-thick alignment stops that mount on top of the cleats to hold the template in the same spot each time. Use wood glue to secure the stops, as shown.
Align the Template to Form the Balusters
Use a miter saw to cut your baluster blanks several inches longer than their final height. (Building code typically requires a finished railing height of 36 inches, so subtract from that figure the thickness of the rails and the space beneath the bottom rail.) Secure the jig to your work surface. Place the first baluster blank in the jig, and lay the template over it, snug between the alignment stops. Use a drill/driver with a combination countersink bit to bore ⅛-inch pilot holes through the template and into the baluster blank and the cleats on all sides. Screw the template down tight over the blank and cleats, as shown.
Tip: "Choose a baluster design with gentle curves that a router can easily follow." — Norm Abram
Rout the Shape
Chuck your bit into a router. We used a 3/8- by 2-inch straight router bit with 5/8-inch collar. Starting with the bit in the space beside the blank, power up the router, plunge down through the jig base, and guide the bit's collar to the template's edge. Carefully work your way counterclockwise around the template, cutting out the waste as the collar rolls along the shaped edge of the template. If your router struggles to make the cut in a single pass, start with a shallower cut and make progressively deeper passes until the bit dips through the base. For the negative space in the center, plunge the bit into the waste area to get started, then follow the template counterclockwise.
Cut the Hole
With the blank still secured in the jig, use a drill/driver fitted with a hole saw to cut out the decorative hole. Unscrew the template, swap in a fresh blank, screw the template back down, and rout the blank. Repeat these steps to make all your balusters, then lay them out on your work surface with the patterns aligned. Mark a final length on each one, and use a miter saw to trim them to size.
Sand the Balusters
Use a palm sander with 180-grit paper to smooth the faces and the outside edges of each baluster. Sand the inside edges by hand, as demonstrated by Norm.
Prime the Pieces
Spray any cut edges of the balusters evenly with primer. Make sure to coat all six sides, along with the inside edges, to protect the pine from water damage.
Measure and Cut the Rails
Cut 1x scraps to the finished height of your railing, and stand them up against the porch posts. To measure the span for the handrail, overlap two long pieces of 1x scrap, extend them to the inside faces of the posts, and rest them on the standing pieces, as shown. Mark the spot where they cross. Keeping the scrap boards aligned at your mark, lay them on the uncut handrail, flush at one end, and mark the length at the other end. Measure for the bottom rail the same way, 3 inches up from the porch floor. Use a miter saw or a circular saw to cut the rails to size.
Cut the Nailing Strips
The balusters are held in place by nailing strips installed along the top and bottom of each run of balusters, creating a panel. Use the cut rails to mark the length on each nailing strip, as shown, then cross-cut the strips to size. Next, use a sanding block to ease the top edges of the bottom nailing strip so that it will shed water.
Make the Panels
Lay the nailing strips on edge on your work surface. Mark the positions for each baluster, using spacers to maintain a consistent gap between them. Drill ⅛-inch pilot holes through the nailing strips, and fasten each baluster with two 1½-inch stainless-steel screws.
Install the Bottom Rail
Cut 3-inch spacer blocks to prop up the bottom rail between the porch supports. Drill two 45-degree pilot holes at each end of the rail, into the posts. Screw the rail in place with 2½-inch stainless-steel screws.
Attach the Panel
With a helper, rest the panel on the bottom rail. Drill ⅛-inch pilot holes at a slight angle through the nailing strip and into the bottom rail every 12 inches. Screw the panel to the rail with 1½-inch stainless-steel screws. Fasten the handrail to the panel and posts the same way. Finish the railing with a good-quality exterior paint.