How to Install an Outdoor Aluminum Handrail

Easy-to-use modular pipe connectors make for a safe and sturdy stair railing.

If you’re a handy homeowner, you’ve probably experienced the DIY domino effect: One successful project often begets another (and another). For example, when an old stair rail got in the way of a HANDY project (“Stone Wall Solution,” April/May 2013, p. 22), we yanked it (and its concrete footings) out of the ground, which led to another project: installing a new handrail that would improve the aesthetics and safety of the stairway.

Among the potential replacement products, we found manufactured wrought-iron railings (not very strong), custom wrought iron (stronger but really expensive) and the same old plumbing pipe and fittings (clunky, not an improvement). Aiming for easy installation, structural strength and a clean design, we opted for DIY-friendly Kee Lite aluminum railing components and 1-1/4-in.-dia. aluminum anodized pipes for the three 34-in. posts and the handrail. This system will easily adjust to the pitch of your steps or incline, and it even works if you want a handrail where there is no incline.

Preparation
To prevent rain or windblown debris from mucking up the finish, you can paint the railing components before installing them. First, use a metal file to remove burrs from the ends of the tubing, and then clean the aluminum with denatured alcohol. Next, lightly scratch-sand all smooth surfaces and remove sanding dust. Prime with a high-bonding primer; then spray two or three coats of exterior-rated high-gloss paint. After installation, touch up the paint as necessary.

Installation
To ensure a stable installation, we relied on the expertise of remodeling contractor Mike Conner. He used wedge anchors (sometimes called expansion bolts), which secure the post flanges into solid concrete without requiring epoxy or setting cement. Follow the photos for a step-by-step look at the process.


Place a flange on the top and bottom steps so that both are the same distance from the stair nose. This ensures that the handrail follows the same pitch as the stairs. (The center flange will be installed after the railing is in place.) It’s important that the holes be at least 2 in. from the front and side edges of the steps to prevent blowout. (This is especially crucial for older, more brittle concrete.)


To prevent the drill bit from wandering when you start to bore the hole, use a bricklayer's starter punch and hammer to score a dimple in the concrete.


Bore the holes with a 1/2-in. masonry bit and hammer drill. Mark the bit to drill least 1/2 in. deeper than the length of the bolt. (It’s always best to refer to the manufacturer’s instructions for the diameter and depth of the hole.)


Use an air compressor or a shop vacuum to remove all of the concrete dust from the hole. (Be sure to wear eye and respiration protection.)


Before you pound the bolt into the hole, twist a nut onto the top of the bolt (so the nut is flush with, or just slightly above, the top of the bolt). This helps to protect the starter threads of the bolt from damage while you drive it into the concrete. (Set the flange next to the bolt to gauge the right depth as you drive the bolt.)


Remove the nut, set the flange over the bolts and add a washer and nut on each. Hand-tighten the nut with a socket wrench (not a power wrench). The collar of the bolt expands in the hole as you tighten the nut. Tip: We first set a sheet of wax paper over the bolts to mask off the area for touch-up painting.


Attach the handrail fittings loosely to the tops of the posts. Set the post in a flange. Use a level to verify that the post is plumb on all sides; then tighten the setscrew in the flange.


Set the railing on the handrail fittings so that the ends of the railing extend equal distances from both posts. Bore two holes in the railing and drive screws to attach the handrail to the two posts.


With the post in a vertical position, tighten the bolts that hold the fittings to the posts. (Use a socket wrench, not a power drill.) When installing the third flange and post, you may need to adjust the position (back or forward) to meet the rail height before setting the flange. Seal the ends of the posts and rail by inserting malleable plugs. Spray paint the nuts and washers and any spots that need a touch-up.

Want more?
Check out how to Install a Cable Railing.
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