How to Install a Porch Railing
Putting up porch railing sounds like it should be simple, but DIYers can encounter a few snags. "The biggest problem is not matching the railing to the style of the home," says Mark Demerly, chair of the American Institute of Architects' Custom Residential Architects Network. You may be tempted to purchase whatever style is on display at your local home supply store, but that could be a mistake. Let us help you choose a complementary porch railing and guide you through the installation process.
Prep Your Porch
Before installing a new railing, take time to inspect the condition of your porch. Make any necessary repairs to the floorboards or siding. If you're building a new home, paint the exterior and install the porch flooring before building the railing. Otherwise, you'll have to install the flooring around the railing posts, and the railing may get damaged in the process.
Choose a Material and Style
Porch railings can be constructed from wood, metal, stone or synthetic materials. Your home style, climate and budget are the key factors in deciding which way to go.
Wood is a classic, relatively inexpensive choice that suits a wide range of home styles (Image 1). A simple picket railing works well for Georgian-style homes, while a more detailed, patchwork design complements Queen Anne Victorians. Craftsman bungalows often feature square patterns, as shown above. In general, more traditional homes should have railings with a greater level of detail compared to contemporary homes.
If you don't find the right style at your home supply store, go to a lumber yard and put in a custom order. It may not cost as much as you think, and "will add a lot to the curb appeal of your house," Demerly says. He recommends using cedar rather than pressure-treated lumber. "When you get into two-by-two's, pressure-treated pieces have a tendency to warp really fast. Cedar is much more stable."
Unfortunately, wooden railings are not resistant to rot. If you live in a humid climate or an area where termites are present, it's best to consider other options.
While not infallible, metal products are more resistant to decay (Image 2). Patterns range from fanciful to stark and should be selected based on the period of the home. Picket-style iron railings enhance a historical look and are a good option for Georgian homes in climates not suited to wood.
Other alternatives for termite-prone areas include limestone, marble or synthetic railings.
Synthetic railings include PVC and composite materials that blend wood particles with resin and vinyl (Image 3). The surface can be colored and textured to resemble natural wood. Synthetics tend to be more expensive than wood, but the benefits may be worth the cost — particularly in humid climates.
"It doesn't fade, warp, split, splinter or crack," says Paul Bichler, owner of Tri-County Marine, a contractor in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "You don't need to seal it or paint it. It's maintenance free." The product is so durable that some manufacturers offer a 30-year warranty.
Other than the price, the drawback to PVC or composite railings is that they come in a limited number of basic styles. Depending on the manufacturer, you may find picket-style railings and a few square or round patterns. The choices may be too limited for homeowners aiming for a highly customized look.
Prime Your Railing
Once you've selected your materials, determine whether they need to be primed. If you're using natural wood or metal, prime all of the railing elements before you begin the installation. Be sure to use a primer formulated for your specific material. Synthetic materials and metal coated with a pre-colored powder finish generally do not need priming.
Install the Posts (Balusters)
Architects use the term balusters to describe the vertical support posts in a railing. The individual balusters are the first element to be installed. They must be firmly secured to the supporting structure below the floorboards — not to the floorboards themselves. For a porch with a concrete foundation, this requires drilling a post-hole into the concrete before securing the post.
For synthetic railings, a PVC or composite shell typically covers a pressure-treated wooden post that provides the actual support. The balusters are the key to a stable porch railing, so make sure they are properly aligned and secured.
Note: If your porch has pre-existing columns, you may be able to use these as balusters instead of installing posts. In that case, go directly to step five.
Measure the Distance Between Balusters
Carefully measure the distance between each pair of posts or columns. This is known as "field verifying" your dimensions. It allows you to make precise cuts to the horizontal segments of your railing, called balustrades, so they will fit perfectly between the balusters.
Install the Balustrades
Secure the balustrades to the posts or columns with screws or brackets, as is called for by the type of material you are using. Do not install the balustrades parallel to the ground, but at a slight angle. This is known as a positive slope and allows water to drain off the upward facing surfaces of your railing.
Once the railing elements are secure, caulk all of the joints. Allow the caulk to dry and apply a final coat of paint if desired.