How to Build an Exterior Steel Handrail and Save a Bundle
Do you have exterior steps on your property leading to a porch or landing? If you do, there is probably a local law that mandates that you have a handrail. Even if there isn't, not having one can give renters a reason to sue you if they fall, and more than one person has received notification from their insurance company that their home owner's insurance will be cancelled if they do not install one.
Sounds reasonable, no? After all, safety is paramount, and we could all use a little steadying while climbing the stairs; even if those stairs are only two or three steps. Installing new handrails isn't that hard of a DIY task. But have you priced how much decent metal handrails cost? There is a reason that you see so many homes with wooden railings along the steps. Frankly, I have no idea what drives the cost of some flimsy aluminum railing so high; but I ain't paying it. With very basic DIY skills, you can build a robust steel handrail in a few hours. I did it, and I'm no Bob Villa.
If you want to save a bundle and build a better handrail than one you can buy, here is your plan of action.
Tools You'll Need
- Safety Glasses
- Allen Wrenches
- Rotary Hammer Drill (They can be rented at most home improvement stores)
- Anchor Bolts
- Tape Measure
Once you have your tools gathered, it is time to write down what parts you will need. You will be building your handrail using the SteelTek system. If you have never heard of it, it is a system of galvanized steel pipes and fittings that allows you to easily build many things; in this case, a handrail.
I am a fan of the home improvement big box store that is closest and has the best price. I do not favor any individual chain. However, only Lowe's and Ace carry SteelTek parts; Home Depot does not. Also, not every Lowe's carries SteelTek. Once you make a list, you will need to go to the Lowe's website, look up every part you need and see which store carries it. Your best option is to plan what you need a few weeks in advance, order the parts online from Lowe's and have them delivered to your local store for pickup.
SteelTek Parts You'll Need
- (1) 6-foot 1 1/4-inch structural pipe
- (2) 3-foot 1 1/4-inch structural pipe
- (2) x 1 1/4-inch end caps
- (2) x 1 1/4-inch 45° short tee fittings
- (2) x 1 1/4-inch floor flanges
Put all of the parts together and loosely tighten the Allen screws in each fitting. Place the 3-foot pipes in the floor flanges and tighten. Mount the 45° short tees on top of the 3-foot pipes and tighten. Slide the 6-foot pipe through the short tees and tighten.
DO NOT install the end caps. This can make sliding the 6-foot pipe through the 45° short tees difficult or impossible.
Set the assembled railing into place. Placing of the floor flanges is important. Choose the meatiest part of the step for placement (not near the edges). Use a level to ensure that the 3-foot posts are square, and eyeball the longitudinal alignment of the the 3-foot posts. Use a marker to make a dot on the steps where each of the anchor bolt holes are. Disassemble the railing and lay it aside.
Drill Anchor Holes
Measure the length of your anchor bolts. Add 1/4 inch to that measurement and mark the drill bit on your hammer drill with some sort of tape to allow you to know when you have drilled deep enough. Proceed to drill holes for the anchor bolts. Ensure that you hold the drill straight so the holes are not even slightly angled.
I use Red Head anchor bolts. They are easy and reliable. Others probably work as well. DO NOT use concrete screws. They have a sketchy reputation for working as advertised.
Mount the Floor Flanges
Use a vacuum to suck the drilling dust out of the holes. Place the floor flange over the area ensuring that each hole in the floor flange lines up with a hole in the step. Follow the directions on your anchor bolts for installing the bolts. Usually, you will need to insert the bolt through the hole in the floor flange and use a hammer to tap the screw into the drilled hole. When all of the bolts are tapped in, use a wrench to tighten the nuts on top of the anchor bolts to secure them in the holes. DO NOT over tighten.
Mount the Short Tees and Pipes
Place a short tee on the end of each 3-foot structural pipe. Loosely tighten. Place the other end in the floor flanges and tighten enough so that they are held in place.
Install Main Rail
Slide the 6-foot structural pipe through the short tees so that even lengths are extended on the far sides of the short tees. Loosely tighten.
You will have to alternately loosen the short tee screws that hold the 6-foot rail, and the floor flange screws to adjust the railing so that the 3-foot pipes are square and level and the 6-foot pipe is positioned to your liking.
Install End Caps
Using a hammer (not a rubber mallet), tap the end caps into each end of the 6-foot structural pipe.
Enjoy Your New Safety Feature
This handrail should give you decades of service. Several times a year, you will need to tighten the Allen screws; but other than that, it is maintenance free and robust.
Better yet, enjoy your savings. Here is the cost breakdown:
- (1) 6-foot structural pipe: $22.56
- (2) 3-foot structural pipes: $23.96
- (2) floor flanges: $15.96
- (2) 45° short tees: $21.96
- (2) end caps: $7.48
- 10-pack of anchor screws: $11.98
- Total cost for safety and pacifying your insurance company: $103.90
You can shave about 20% off of that price by using the smaller 3/4-inch parts, but it will not be as sturdy. While wood will be cheaper, after replacing it a few times after it rots and a bunch of times tending to nails that wiggle loose, you will have a superior product that lasts longer and looks better by using steel.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.