Overview: Benefits of a custom outdoor stair 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.
Step 1: Order a custom outdoor stair railing
Photo 1: Measure the depth of the landing
Measure the depth of the landing. If you’re installing railings on both sides, make separate sketches and take separate measurements for each side.
Photo 2: Measure the landing slope
Lay a level on the landing and shim it until the bubble is centered. Then measure the gap between the level and the landing.
Photo 2A: Close-up of slope
Landings usually have slopes to drain off water.
Photo 3: Measure the “run”
Hold a level against the lowest step and adjust it until the bubble reads plumb. Then measure from the edge of the level to the edge of the landing to determine the total “run” of the treads.
Photo 4: Measure the “rise”
Lay a level on the landing and adjust it until the bubble is between the lines. Measure from the bottom of the level to the top of the bottom step to determine the total rise of the two steps.
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.
Step 2: Install the outdoor stair railing in a few hours
Photo 5: Position the railing
Position the railing, making sure all the plates are an equal distance from the edges of the steps. Drill one hole at each end and drop in anchors to hold the railing in place. Then mark the remaining holes by drilling 1/2-in.-deep starter holes.
Photo 6: Drill the mounting holes
Set the outdoor stair railing aside and drill 2-1/2-in.-deep holes. Blow the dust away from the holes.
Photo 7: Set the anchors
Tap in the anchors. Then remove the nuts, set the railing in place and snug up the nuts.
Photo 7A: Close-up of sleeve anchors
Tightening the nut tightens the anchor in the concrete.
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).
Step 3: Shim the posts for a perfect installation
Photo 8: Plumb the posts
Check the posts for plumb with a level. If a post leans, loosen the nuts and slide a thin washer under the side it leans to. Snug the nuts and recheck with the level.
Photo 9: Trim the bolts
Saw the bolts flush to the top of the hex nuts with a hacksaw. Then remove the hex nuts.
Photo 10: Install cap nuts
Thread cap nuts onto the bolts and tighten them.
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.
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 drill
- Hearing protection
- Masonry bit
- Safety glasses
- Tape measure
- 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.
- Cap nuts
- Polyurethane caulk
- Sleeve anchors
- Stainless steel washers