Safety First: Install an Outdoor Staircase Railing

Add safety and style with a custom staircase railing

Replace a wobbly old outdoor handrail with a rock solid one by using strong concrete anchors. We show you how to design and attach one to your steps.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

TIME

One day

COMPLEXITY

Simple

COST

$100 - $500

Overview: Benefits of a custom railing

A new iron handrail on the front steps will enhance your home's curb appeal, but the real benefit is the added safety it provides. Whether you need to replace a wobbly old railing or add a railing where there isn't one already, we'll show you how to order and install a new one.

Iron handrails range in price from $60 to over $150 per running foot. In addition, most companies charge several hundred dollars to measure for and install the railing. Here's where you can save cash. We'll show you how to measure a simple set of steps so you can order a custom railing and how to bolt the completed railing securely to your concrete steps. If your entry step is curved, has jogs or is an unusual shape, ask the railing company to measure for you.

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Step 1: Order a custom railing

Careful measuring is the key to a successful handrail order. Photos 1 through 4 show how to take the measurements you'll need to order the railing. Record the measurements on a sketch as we show below. Take the sketch to the railing fabricator to place the order.

Most large cities have an iron railing fabricator that will be glad to show you the railing designs it sells. There are a few standard styles, which only require you to choose between straight or twisted spindles, and perhaps whether you want the top rail to start with a “lamb's tongue” like ours (Photo 8), or a scroll.

We added a few upgrades to the basic railing to come up with our design. First we chose to install a brass cap rail. Then we added a second rail 4 in. below the top. We also increased the size of the square spindles from the standard 1/2-in. width to 5/8 in. for a heavier appearance. For an easy do-it-yourself installation, ask the railing company to weld 3-in.-square stainless steel plates to the bottom of each post and drill 3/8-in. holes in all four corners. Then you can simply bolt the rail to the stairs as we show here. Get a price quote from your fabricator for the railing design you choose.

4 Measurements for a Perfect Fit

Make a simple sketch and jot down four measurements to help the fabricator build a perfect railing.

Four key measurements
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Step 2: Install the railing in a few hours

After ordering your custom railing, you'll probably have to wait a few weeks for it to be completed. But once you get it home, it'll only take you a few hours to do a top-notch installation. The only special tool you'll need is a hammer drill with a 3/8-in. masonry bit. You can rent a hammer drill for about $30 for four hours, and the bit will cost about $5. Purchase 3/8 x 1-7/8-in. sleeve anchors and 5/16-in. cap nuts for each. Make sure you wear safety glasses and hearing protection when you're drilling.

Strong anchors make for a sturdy railing. Sleeve anchors provide strong support in solid concrete. But the pressure the anchors exert as you tighten the nuts can crack or “blow out” concrete that's not structurally sound. Before you order a new handrail, make sure the concrete is solid, that is, free of cracks and surface deterioration. If your steps are covered with brick or stone, materials that may easily crack, you may have to use another anchoring method. A two-part epoxy anchoring system often works better than sleeve anchors in these circumstances. Ask the railing fabricator for advice before you order the rail.

Photos 5 and 6 show how to drill for and set the anchors. Set the railing on the steps with the edge of the plates at least 1-1/2 in. from both the front and the side of the step. Adjust the railing position until the mounting plates are parallel with the side of the steps. Then mark the hole locations with the drill while the railing is in place to ensure accurate bolt placement. Start by drilling one starter hole through each of the end brackets and dropping an anchor bolt into the hole. This keeps the railing from shifting while you mark the remaining holes. When all the holes are marked, remove the railing and complete the holes by drilling them 2-1/2 in. deep. Drill vertical holes; otherwise, the plate may not fit over the bolts. Set the gauge on your hammer drill for accurate hole depth.

When all the holes are drilled, tap anchor bolts into each one and set the railing in place (Photo 7).

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Step 3: Shim the posts for a perfect installation

Snug up the bolts, but don't fully tighten them until you've checked the posts for plumb (Photo 8). Out-of-level steps can cause the handrail posts to lean. Photo 8 shows how to check for and solve the problem. We used stainless steel washers for shims because they won't rust and are thinner than galvanized washers. They're readily available at hardware stores and home centers. As an added precaution against corrosion, spread a layer of polyurethane caulk under each plate before bolting them down. This keeps water out of the bolt holes and provides a little extra strength.

For a neater-looking job, we cut off bolts that were too long and replaced the hex nuts with decorative cap nuts (Photos 9 and 10). The railing company painted the cap nuts to match the railing.

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Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

  • Hammer
  • Tape measure
  • Level
  • Masonry bit
  • Hacksaw
  • Hearing protection
  • Hammer drill
  • Safety glasses
  • Wrench set

Required Materials for this Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here's a list.

  • Railing
  • Sleeve anchors
  • Stainless steel washers
  • Cap nuts
  • Polyurethane caulk