Introduction: Simple Exterior Handrail (for Less Than $100)
I recently found myself in need of a new handrail on the steps coming down from my back porch. While the project had the novelty (at least for me) of requiring cement anchors...overall the project seemed pretty straight-forward so I decide to take it on.
Afterall...why am I gonna pay a contractor to do something that i have all the tools and know-how to figure out on my own?
Now, I know... many DIY projects start out with a similar confidence but quickly turn into a series of setbacks and issues as you fumble your way to completing the project...
Well I'm happy to say that THIS project was one of those wonderful ones that just comes together. I came in under budget (spending less than $100) and only had to put in half a day's work.
I'll share the things and what I learned so that hopefully when such a project comes up for you it can be just as painless (knock on wood).
Additionally, I've included a link to a video showing the process. While I have left out details for the sake of brevity (and thrown in some humor), the video still gives a pretty good idea of what I did. So check that out if you'd like
In the following steps I will be sure to fill in the gaps on all the steps so that when your backyard stairs (or any other exterior stairs for that matter) need some attention, you'll know just what to do.
chop saw/ miter saw
spade drill (1/2" and 5/8")
masonry bit (1/2")
sheet metal punch (or the spade drill from before)
sheet metal sheers
4"x 4" x 8' Pressure treated lumber (3)
2" x 4" x 10' Pressure treated lumber (1)
Sheet metal flashing (aluminum sheet)
concrete wedge anchors (1/2" x 7") -- 5
Decking screws (~ 2" long)
Step 1: Prepping the Build
Before I jumped into making anything, I had to get measurements and plan how the build was going to go.
Coming down from the back porch, I have 6 concrete steps, surrounded by a concrete pad. Putting the posts into the dirt wasn't going to be an option.
I decided that I could either mount the posts into the top of the steps or on the side face of the stairs. You can see from the pictures that one side of the stairs already has handrails installed, there the builder opted to mount the posts to the top of the steps with some specialized mounting brackets and braces. I didn't like that option. Despite all the bracing on the other handrail, the whole thing still shifts when you lean on it...I wanted mine to be solid.
So I decided to mount into the side face of the stairs. This wound reduce my mounting hardware to just a few cement anchors and would end up being much stiffer.
Let's see: fewer parts, simpler install, overall stronger build? Yup, I like my idea better
Because there IS a handrail already installed, I wanted to match it so the new one didn't stand out. So I went with 3 posts spaced every other step ..like the previously installed handrail had been done. I also had to decide how far the posts were going to go down the side of the steps. After some thought I decided to have them go nearly all the way to the ground. I don't want them to touch the ground because that is a spot where moisture could get trapped and lead to premature rot in the posts. So how far did I have them come off the ground? Well I chose 1.5"
Why 1.5 you might ask? Well simple: that is the thickness of a 2x4 and I had plenty of those I could use as spacers during the build.
The last things I needed to know were the angle of the other handrail and the height of the handrail above each step. Measurements gave me that information at 22.5 deg and 36" respectively. (The angle measurement was verified by cutting the measured angle on a piece of scrap wood and sliding it up against the post until it contacted the handrail...no gaps meant the cut was good)
With all the information gathered, It was time to mark the posts and prepare for...
Step 2: Processing the Lumber
At this point each post has markings for their length. (Distance from the step to the ground minus 1.5" and distance from the step to the handrail added together) and needs to be cut to size.
The 4x4's for the middle and bottom post are cut to length and the top post is cut long (I'll explain why later)
Each post now has a 22.5 deg angle on the top and a flat bottom. It is time to mark the position of the holes for the cement anchors.
My plan was to put each anchor as far away from each other as possible to increase the stiffness of the post. However, I need to leave enough wood and concrete around the anchors to get a good hold...so I measured 2" away from the end of each post and 2" away from where the top of the step would be on the post and drilled holes on the centerline.
The anchors I used were 1/2" in diameter so I needed 1/2" holes. To make life a bit easier for me though I went with 5/8" holes in the middle and top posts. This was because each of those had 2 anchors what could be ever so slightly out of alignment. The larger hole size in the wood allows for a little error in the installation process.
As the bottom post only had room for 1 anchor, I went ahead and used a 1/2" spade drill to make that hole.
Step 3: Let's Talk About Anchors...
First, how does a wedge anchor work? Well In the attached image you can see an anchor as installed in concrete. The hole is drilled to the necessary depth and the anchor is placed into the hole until it reaches it's required embedded depth. The bolt can then be tightened. As the bolt tightens, an expansion ring causes the end of the anchor to expand and wedge itself against the walls of the hole which keeps it from coming out of the hole.
The embedded depth of an anchor is provided in look up tables and is a function of the bolt diameter. I used 1/2" bolts, which -- if you look at the table -- means I need at least 2.25" of the anchor to be embedded into the concrete.
Here it is important to know what you are attaching to. It the concrete is thinner than the required embedded depth then you will end up drilling through it and that anchor will no longer be able to wedge in place. So try and check that ahead of time. Additionally, it is a good idea not to anchor too close to the edge of the concrete or too close to another anchor.
When you go to drill the hole, you will need a hammer drill and a sharp masonry bit. This hole diameter should match the diameter of the anchor being used. Additionally, it is critical that this be a straight hole as an angled hole will stop the bolt from being able to pass through the post and still reach the necessary depth into the concrete.
Finally, when finished drilling, do your best to remove dust and particulates from the hole as they will act like a lubricant on the wedge and allow it to slip out of the hole as you tighten. I learned it was a good idea to drill a bit further than necessary so that any debris you fail to clear will be further in than the anchor's wedge and will not affect the anchor as much.
Using a hammer drill, and following these guidelines, I placed the holes for the middle and bottom post (but not the top post yet). I then verified they were properly located before driving in the anchors.
Once the anchor is in, it will not be coming back out intact....so take care to ensure they are right before you put them in.
Step 4: Installing the Posts and Accounting for Weather...
The next thing I did was to install the posts.
The basic idea is simple: line the holes in the posts up with the anchors, pound the posts into place, and tighten them down.
However, it is important to take some considerations for weather here.
Now, the wood I'm using is pressure treated which already helps it withstand rot and weather conditions much better...however there is any easy thing we can do to help it out so I decided to add this extra precaution.
When it rains I don't want the interface between the cement face and the wood posts to soak in moisture as that could lead to rot in the posts. So I bought some aluminum flashing and cut it to match the length and width of the posts that would be in contact with the cement. I then punched holes in the flashing where the anchors would be and slid the flashing in place. Then, to create the barrier against water between the flashing and the wood, I put down construction adhesive around the edges of the flashing. Once cured, the adhesive will stop the water from getting to the wood and the flashing will direct the moisture to the cement instead.
Now it was time to hammer the posts in place and tighten the bolts.
Remember, at this point I have done nothing on the top post ... just the other two. To explain why lets go the the next step.
Step 5: Installing the Handrail...and a Lesson in Geometry
So as I said before, at this point 2 of the 3 posts are installed and so I went ahead and connected the handrail to them. I measured the length of the handrail on the other side of the stairs and cut the 2x4 to match. I then screwed it in place on the bottom and middle posts with the decking screws.
So now: Why have I been neglecting the 3rd post?
Well it comes to geometry. The handrail represents a line and the tops of each post are points in space the line needs to pass through. We know from geometry that it takes 2 points to define a line, so the 3rd post is OVER-DEFINING the line. This means that it has to be cut perfectly to fall on the line...any error would become pretty apparent. For this reason I decided to wait on the last post until I could use the handrail itself as a guide for the posts length and position.
So using the handrail I decided on the position of the top post, trimmed it to the exact length, and then followed the steps of drilling, installing the anchors, and mounting the post as done with the previous posts. In the end the it came together very well.
Step 6: A Finished Project, and a Framework for Future Builds...
With the last post installed the project is done. In half a day I was able to put in a matching handrail on my steps.
I like the simplicity of the build but I'm also looking forward to adding on to what we have here.
Another reason I had for making the posts extend nearly to the ground is that now I can tie into the wood when I go to build future projects. One idea I already have is building a box of sorts for toys and other outdoor things. I can frame it between the two posts nearest the house. Also, between the other posts I can build small planters and I can always add ornamental details to the handrails themselves...but those will all have to be discussed in future instructables ;)
Thanks for taking the time to look through this!
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