Install a plastic handrail system with the strength of concrete.
When I first saw the stack of material in the garage I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding!” But I didn’t want to discourage the homeowner who was very proud of his internet purchase. I’m glad I kept my mouth shut for once. In the end, I was both surprised and happy with the finished product.
My first concern with any handrail system I build is that it is sturdy, so I was glad to discover that this system had aluminum reinforcing inside the rails to give them strength.
The next thing I discovered was that one of the mounting methods the manufacturer recommended would work perfectly for our application. The hollow plastic newel posts could cover a metal pipe and then be filled with concrete. More sturdy, more better.
I could tell from the pre-cut holes in the shoe rail and handrail that we would have limited choice for newel post location. I wanted to keep the baluster-to-rail spacing about the same as the baluster-to-baluster spacing, so we would have to determine the newel post placement as we went.
Another thing that was predetermined was the height of the rail. Because the newel posts have notches to receive the top and bottom rail, they come made to length, and the elevation is predetermined.
Here’s how we installed the PVC rail system: Start with newels that will be next to the house. When locating the newel post, be sure there is adequate room on the deck surface to install any trim pieces that go around the bottom of the newel.
When attaching posts to the house, use pressure-treated 2-by-4 inside the hollow newel to provide strength and rigidity. This also disperses the pressure of the anchoring points over a broader area on the inside of the newel post wall.
In our case, an educated guess told us there would be framing at the locations where we wanted to attach the newels to the house. If there is no framing at your post location but the house has plywood sheeting behind the siding, this will be adequate but more fasteners will be required. In some cases you may need to open up the wall to add backing or choose a different post-mounting method that anchors into the deck substructure.
Before driving fasteners into the house, examine the area inside and out for faucets or other plumbing fixtures that may indicate the presence of water pipes inside the wall. Avoid these pipes with your fasteners.
Use a fender washer on each of the lags that go into the pressure-treated 2-by-4s. This keeps the fastener head from burrowing into the wood where the hex head can no longer be gripped. We used a 1/2-inch drill with a socket for driving big screws and lags on this project, but an impact wrench would be a good choice as well. Be sure to use the side-handle on a 1/2-inch drill because these situations create a lot of torque, which puts your wrists at risk.
Planning the HandRail System
Assemble a section of rail by inserting the balusters into the shoe rail. If the balusters do not form right angles to the rail, it’s probably because the aluminum core has slipped out of line. Correct this problem by levering a baluster into square before too many are installed.
Put the assembled rail section into the matching holes of the newel post. Measure the distance between the first baluster and newel and match it to the spacing between balusters.
Place the next newel post in position. Match the spacing to the nearest baluster as you did on the house newel. Check that there is room for base trim around the bottom of the post and that this matches the already-installed post at the house end of the section.
When you are satisfied with the location of the newel, trace around the outside of the post then set it aside. Use a straight edge to make a line between diagonal corners on the newel post outline. Where these two lines cross is the center of the newel post and the location of the hole you will drill for the anchoring pipe.
Drill a hole through the deck that is the right diameter for the pipe you have chosen as the reinforcement for the newel. For this operation we used a 1/2-inch drill. Again, you should use the side handle because of the torque involved in making large holes.
Drop the pipe through the hole in the decking and make sure it is plumb in all directions before you apply the big hammer.
Using a sledgehammer, drive the pipe into the ground. I like to use a stepladder to keep the top of the post about waist high. Ideally, you’ll get 3 or more feet of penetration into the ground. Don’t worry about damaging the top of the pipe; it will be hidden inside the newel.
Mark the point on the pipe for which you are driving. If you are unable to get it buried that far, you can cut off the pipe with a hacksaw or a reciprocating saw so it is just below the level of the handrail.
Keep laying out newel locations by using the bottom rail sections to help determine post locations.
If your deck size is smaller than the combined rail sections, you can cut the top rail and bottom rail to length. As you decide where to cut the rail section, keep in mind that you want the ending or corner newel to be evenly spaced on the vertical and horizontal lines of the deck. Also remember that you need to have the rail sections penetrate the newel posts, so be sure to leave this extra amount.
You can cut the rail sections using a circular or miter saw equipped with a carbide blade. Be sure the aluminum core is lined up with the baluster openings in the vinyl before cutting. Safety glasses are particularly important for this operation.
The handrails may need to be notched at the point where they intersect inside the corner newel posts. The idea is to maintain the same baluster spacing throughout and then notch the rails as needed.
The manufacturer suggests that you stuff the end of the rail with paper or plastic to keep the concrete from running down the interior of the rail. We found that this was not necessary in our case, because the baluster closest to the newel post stops the concrete and we reasoned that concrete extending into the rail would better tie the system together and make it stronger.
Anchoring with Concrete
Once you have the entire system assembled, mark both the newel locations on the decking and the top of the rail at the point where it should be inside of the newel post. You are getting ready to pour the concrete into the posts, which causes things to shift around a bit. You will want to know how to adjust everything back to the right location quickly before the concrete sets.
Locate a section of drainpipe or other improvised funnel that will allow you to pour concrete into the small opening at the top of the newel without the stray material landing on the deck.
This is one of those rare projects when it’s a good idea to use bags of concrete mix. It takes about 40 pounds of concrete to do each newel post. You don’t want to mix too much concrete at a time because the newel posts and rails need to be adjusted as you go.
After filling a couple of adjacent newel posts with concrete, check and adjust the newel location on the deck. Turn the newel to a position that is parallel and/or square to the decking as needed.
Adjust the rails using the marks you made earlier so the right amount is inside the newel posts.
Check the newel posts for plumb in both directions. All of these adjustments need to be checked and double-checked as you go. Gently tapping the side of the newel post as you move it into plumb will help the adjustment process as well as minimize air pockets in the concrete.
Use a hose and spray nozzle to clean off the residual concrete that will escape from the rail-to-newel and the rail-to-baluster connections.
Once everything is in place, let the concrete set up overnight. Now check the rail system for strength and be amazed at how sturdy it is!
Install trim pieces around the bottom of the newels. Install newel post caps.
Pour a cold one and enjoy.