Defining Equivalent Gripping Surface For Staircase Handrails

Posted by Joseph G. Swallow on 26th Jun 2015

The issue surrounding the design requirements for the hand grip portion of handrails is still a hot issue among many building code agencies. The debate should be "equivalent gripping surface". However, the focus always shifts to "width." They argue over which handrails comply and which do not, resulting in what I've referred to as "handrail wars."

Home builders and buyers find themselves in the middle of this conflict which began in California where the restriction on handrail usage in residential construction has become overly regulated. As a result, some of the most common and traditional handrails used since the 1800's have been denied usage or eliminated as a design choice.

I found myself in the middle of this when I was sales manager for Hardwood Creations in the 1980's. As an example, the 6210 2-5/8" wide handrail was a common choice in the residential second time move up market. After completing the model homes for a subdivision, the building inspector rejected the hand as "unsafe". I went in for a meeting with the inspector as well as the city's chief building official.

The denial wasn't the will of the field inspector, but the department's chief, who expressed that he was simply playing "devils advocate". As a result, whatever petition I made or presented in keeping the existing rails would be denied. Years later that same official was building his own home and had the "dangerous" 6210 installed because it fit the design of his house. Hmmmmm... I guess he didn't want to play devil's advocate here.

George Anchales, in 1992, wrote an article in the September-October, 1992 issue of Building Standards magazine entitled, "An Objective Approach to Equivalent Gripping Surfaces." Mr. Anchales, then a member of CBO and chief electrical inspector for San Bernardino, Ca., offered the best approach to the interpretation of the code itself.

Here's the language of the code:

"The hand grip portion of handrails shall not be less than 1-1/2 inches or more than 2 inches in cross-sectional dimension or the shape shall provide an equivalent gripping surface. The hand grip portion of handrails shall have a smooth surface with no sharp corner."

As a result, many building officials ran with a literal interpretation saying, "Your handrail cannot be more than 2 inches wide!" Nonsense! This is a dimensional limitation interpretation, not " an equivalent gripping surface consideration.

As stated by Mr Anchales, "This design limits the width of the hand grip portion to 2-1/2 inches and requires the finger grip portion to be within 1-1/2 inches from the top and be less than or equal to 75 percent of the width of the hand grip portion located above."

Using this formula, you'll find that all of the handrails offered by Westfire should fly in your favor, as long as the inspector is open minded, has a clear understanding of the code, and is willing to make a decision what cross-sectional shape provides an "equivalent gripping surface". You can always request a handrail sample (we offer rail samples for free) which you can then submit to your local building department for approval.

For more information, visit the Stairbuilders and Manufacturers' Association website and download the Stair Codes Visual Interpretations at


Joseph Swallow has been with Westfire Manufacturing since 1994 and now serves as the company's CEO. Prior to Westfire, Swallow worked in Southern California and Las Vegas as the primary sales representative for Hardwood Creations, a company which he had founded in his garage in 1981. Westfire Stair Parts are available anywhere in North America and can be purchased by calling Westfire toll free 1.800.692.6996 or by visiting their website

Article Source: