Our back exit with three brick steps leading down stands nearly three feet higher than the concrete patio The contractor used a loophole in the building code to avoid including a handrail, and I’ve not yet added one but it’s time. Last thing in the world I want is for a visitor (or me) to tumble off the side of the open steps.

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I scribbled a quick design using standard chain link fence components which I assumed would be available at any home center. Multiple trips to Lowes and Home Depot finally yielded enough matching parts to complete my design. I guess chain link fencing is not fashionable in the snootier neighborhoods.

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Setting posts requires a pair of posthole diggers. That would be me and this well-used tool which once belonged to my grandpa, Pop Nichols.  It languished for years in a storage building in West Virginia, forgotten and unloved, until I brought it to Raleigh and put it back to work. Often having the right tool for the job streamlines the work.

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The local building code specifies a frost depth for foundations of 12”, but I decided to go at least 16” to beef up the anchor points for the handrail. On this dig I found small concrete chunks calved from the foundation but no oversized boulders. Whew!

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Cutting fence posts or pipe with a hack saw takes time and my cuts end up curved. I’ve not figured out how to cut straight with a hacksaw. Maybe one day I will do a web search and see what the experts say. In the meantime I switched tools, applied more power, and created the straightest pipe cuts ever. Note: I used both eye and ear protection while cutting.

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I cut the posts so the handrail would be 32” above the steps. That matches the dimensions for the rail on the front steps.

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Sakcrete’s Fast-Setting concrete is made for fence posts. Dump the dry material in the hole a little at a time, check the level of the post often, add a little water, and continue until the hole is filled. This stuff sets in about 15 minutes. A local fence contractor dumps the mix dry and moves to the next post. He claims the moisture in the soil will set the concrete without adding water.

Now for the problems I encountered with this simple design. One of the four tension bands would not tighten no matter how much I hammered or squished it. Turns out I should have used brace bands instead of tension bands in my application, but I had to go with the fence parts I could find. I also miscalculated on the post length and should have used a much longer post for the rear but with the heavy block of concrete swinging from the end the shorter post should hold with no problem.

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I opted to test two types of glue that claim to join metal in exterior applications. The SteelStik mixed like plumber’s epoxy but turned fingers black. No solvents or chemicals in my garage would remove the product from skin. Maybe I should invest in some cheap disposable gloves?

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I used the putty to secure the rails into the rail ends so the pipes will not slip or twist. The Gorilla glue (water activated) was applied to the junction of the tension band with the posts. Both products set quickly and seem solid.

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And here is my finished handrail.

Shopping list:

  • 4 1-5/8 galvanized tension bands
  • 4 1-3/8 rail ends
  • 4 5/16 x 1-1/2 galvanized carriage bolts with washers and nuts
  • 2 1-5/8 post caps
  • 2 1-5/8 x 5’6” line post
  • 1 1-3/8 x 10’6” top rail
  • 1 50 pound bag of Sakrete Fast Setting concrete

Estimated cost:

$55 plus the glue