Upgrading a Builder grade railing

The problem

Some of our want list had to be delayed to replace a poor quality handrail installed by the builder. Needless to say the railing failed due to poor preparation and material selection. Upgrading a builder grade railing can add value to any home.

When learning how to remodel and build homes, my father always spent the time to hand select every 2×4, 2×6 etc. etc. I hated it. But as I got older I excepted the process and I just do it naturally. The reason I mention this is due to the material that was used to construct the railing we are replacing for this project.

As a force of habit I automatically go to the best quality material I can locate and scrutinize every piece. So this brings us to the choice the builder used. In the vast number of years I’ve been remodeling I have never stumbled across a finger jointed 2×4. This is the wrong choice for an outdoor wood project.

I know the builder chose this material because it is cheap and with a fresh coat of paint who would know. The choice of material is not the only mistake. During installation proper preparation did not occur. The exposed end grain was not sealed and I could not find any signs of a primer being used. Poorly prepped and a low quality paint job and the railing is destined to fail. The failure is the railing had rotted when exposed to the elements.

Rotted railing.

I did paint them after the first year and again a year later, however I could see that replacement was in the future. The picture above shows the paint blistering at the base trim. The lower rail is basically just paint. When removing the post the extent of damage was remarkable.

The solution

Material choice and appearance are the two important consideration for this project. I had months to research this project because in all honesty I didn’t want to do it. I had fun projects I wanted to do.

Anyway, material choice. Several choices to consider. Spruce, Cypress, Redwood, Cedar Manmade and White Oak. All have their pros and cons and I will probably post that in a different article in the future. Most contractors use Spruce for painted projects. It’s relatively cheap, takes paint well and can be found in 4×4 form at most home centers. So thank you big box store, at least the posts were spruce. Our new railings will be painted so choosing a wood that will hold paint through the expansion and contraction of the wood over time was a prime consideration.

I’ll just cut the the chase here. I used White Oak for several reasons. It has a very tight end grain which helps prevent water wicking into the wood causing rot. It does take paint well with a high quality exterior primer. It feels solid. And I obtained the rough lumber for free from a previous client. Score!!

The design

The current newel posts are a basic 4″x4″ with the top tapered on all 4 sides. Simple, effective and boring. The new design features Craftsman elements and are 5 1/2″ x5 1/2″ making a statement without being overbearing for the entry.

The home is a Craftsman style with tapered columns and front porch. The trim and railings are white. We are only replacing the hand rail at the stairs for this project. We wanted to do something that would tie the design into other Craftsman style features in this home. This will give it a more consistent theme throughout. I know I said I didn’t want to do this project but if I have to it should be done right.

The top post were recycled. and embellished to match the lower newel posts. Because they were Spruce and under the front porch they were spared from rotting. Each post is capped off adding to the theme.

Making the Newel posts.

First step would be to remove the old railings. The railings are attached with metal 4×4 post bases into the concrete and stone. This presented a challenge I was dreading. In typical contractor fashion the locations were not true and square. Each railing needs to be made separately to reuse the existing hardware. I was able to make some slight adjustments to bring it closer but still created a challenge.

To mount the newel post to the step a pressure treated 4×4 is attached to the base hardware. The newel post is then fabricated from 3/4″ thick white oak built as a long box and will slip over the pressure treated post.

All the oak is milled down and squared in the shop and then assembled.

The construction is basic. It’s a box. Since this will be painted simple joinery is used. A quality glue is placed on the edge. Line it up and nail it with a brad nailer. Strips of oak are then added to the edges providing the detail to the post.

With the posts trimmed the next step is creating the newel post caps and adding trim.

Preliminary preparations

Sanding. Each post requires sanding all 4 sides and easing all the edges. Sand with a course grit like 60 to 80 to shape and make all the seems disappear. Once this step is done the wood gets a final sanding at 120. If it were only that simple. After the posts are sanded each post is primed. When I primed the posts I also primed the inside of each one. this is to prevent or reduce the possibility of rotting to happen again. I used a water based primer. Using a water based primer makes for easy clean up. However on raw wood it raises the grain which requires, you guessed it, more sanding.

I applied two coats of primer inside and out and sanded between coats. No contractor is going to go to this trouble. The top coat will be applied with an HVLP gun after the railing is installed.

Installing the railings

Because the railings were installed out of square I could not just make them in the shop and install them. Unless of course I repositioned the hardware in the stone and concrete.

The left railing is one inch shorter than the right. This created a challenge with mounting the railings. Since walking up the steps draws your eye to the top post at the top rail we mounted the rails from the top and cut to length at the newel post. The rails are slightly off at the newel post but no one would ever notice without me pointing it out.

With all the geometry figured out I fabricated the hand rail assemblies and you guessed it, sanded and primed and sanded again.

Final Sanding and Prep

Quality paint. That is a critical choice if you don’t like to paint. A good paint goes on smooth and should last 6 to 10 years. Proper preparation and a good primer and you will be rewarded for the extra cost which in my opinion is not that much higher.

So I may be a little obsessive compulsive. I could and do recommend using a quality brush but of course I didn’t. I have repainted the original railing twice. No matter how careful you are it is difficult to paint the balusters without some sort of run especially on a 4 sides. It’s also very time consuming.

How I painted this project

It only took a few minutes of preparation to spray my railings using an HVLP spay gun. No brush strokes, no runs, no drips and dry within an hour. With the rails sanded smooth the railings have a factory like finish and should last for years.

Upgrading a builder grade railing. The finished project

I hope you enjoyed this post and if you skipped down here well thanks anyway. Please feel free to like or leave a comment and share with someone that may enjoy it also.

Upgrading a builder grade railing
Finished Hand Rail