How to Build Porch Railings

Prior to adding railings. Columns were there.

After adding the porch railings, a few years after...

Our original porch columns were replaced, some time before we owned the place, perhaps in the 80's. The originals were round. I know because they are in our barn. The railing sections were in the barn too, but were in such bad shape that I could not reuse them. (Note: click on photos to enlarge them)

The old columns and railings in the barn.

I looked at prefab railings and hard wood parts. The really good wood parts online (cedar, redwood, Ipe, mahogany, etc.) were too expensive, and the plastic, pre-fab ones from the home stores, or online similar to these styles weren't approved by my wife. I agreed with her that the plastic wouldn't match the age of the rest of the house (1909). The home centers also have wood pre-fab top rails (2x4s with notched bottoms, and beveled edges). Looking around the neighborhood you want a substantial top rail, and not a compromised/cutdown, and thus thin 2x4 wannabe top railing.

So I did nothing for a few years, until my 2 year old fell of the porch (only a few feet down, but ended up losing his 2 front bottom teeth). So the time had come to do something.

A relative showed me how I could build a few sections myself, something I had thought about, but thought was too much for me to do. His original design was similar to deck railings (deck pickets attached to the outside of a top and bottom rail), and he and I built a few sections. Once I got to a front-of-the-house-section it seemed that something was wrong, they were too high. (Our local code says railings, if entirely replaced (and not simply repaired) must meet code, which says that any area of the porch deck that is more than 30" above grade, must have a top rail at least 36" above the decking, and balusters must be spaced no farther than 4" apart (kids get their heads stuck).

So I decided to do some more research and found this article about historic porch railings on the Web. Seemed I was building them too high to be historically and architecturally correct. And also after looking around the neighborhood, it seemed the nicer railings had their balusters spaced closer together (I ended up making mine with a 2" space between balusters). Half of our porch decking is more than 30" above grade, but I could make it all to code, by raising the grade up a few inches around the porch, if I wanted. Anyway, I removed the too tall sections and started again, keeping the historic guidelines and other new knowledge in mind for the new design.

I'm not an expert, but here's how I built them. I've got 2x4s for the top and bottom rails (yeah, I wanted more substantial top rails, and thought about doubling up 2x4s, but in the end settled with just one) and 1x2s to mount the balusters to (from HD) to make balustrade sections. I attached each baluster (top and then bottom) with 1, #8 x 2" decking screw through the 1x2 into the middle of the ends of the balusters. I then used 2, 1.5" finishing nails per baluster end to keep them from spinning. I borrowed a neighbors pneumatic nailer for the finishing nails... would have taken forever with a hammer.

I then mounted the bottom 2x4 bottom rails between the columns, set the balustrades sections in place, and then attached the top 2x4 rails. I used pressure treated wood from HD for all parts. Pressure treated wood can check, warp, crack, etc. But so far (I did this project about 1 year ago), they are straight without cracks. Read below for more on that and how to avoid issues.

Step 1
Measure between each of your columns for the top rail length and bottom rail. Each of my sections were different, so each section is a custom length. Also I have trim on the bottom of my columns where the bottom rail would attach, so those rails are shorter than the top rail. Cut your top and bottom rails. Mark every piece (example, "Section 1, bottom")

Here the top and bottom 2x4s are drying after waterproofing (shown below).

Step 2
Cut your top and bottom 1x2s pieces, perhaps a quarter inch shorter than the top and bottom rail lengths noted above (helps for fitting the sections in later).

Step 3
I made a template from a 2x4 with lines drawn every 3.25 inches (for 2" spaces between balusters). I then sandwiched that template with my top and bottom 1x2, centering the bottom 1x2 with the top one, as my bottom ones where shorter. I transferred the marks with a t-square, to both of the 1x2s.

Transferring marks from my template (the 2x4 with red lines) onto the top and bottom 1x2 strips.

Step 4
Screw and nail in the balusters to the 1x2s. Attach a top or bottom 1x2 piece first then rotate and attach the other 1x2. The balusters I got from HD and I cut them down to size (they only came in 36" lengths (code) which I cut down to 20.25"). I spent a lot of time picking out the straight ones without knots. The total height of my railings was about 27.5" inches. I acutally made a calculation error and wanted them to be about an inch higher. Oh well. The Historic railings article above says they should be no higher then the bottoms of the windows (not code now though).

Shown here is one screw into each end, and then 2 finishing nails to keep them from spinning

Screws used

Takes some time when you have 8 sections to make!

Couple of sections before coating with waterproofing (shown below).

I created a stop with 2x4s, so that I could quickly cut all the balusters to the same length. Also used dust mask and goggles as it's pressure treated, nasty dust.

Step 5
Because I knew I wanted to paint these, I did research on painting pressure treated wood. If you paint them when they are still wet, the paint won't adhere right. So after lots of reading here's what I did which so far has worked well.

A. I used clear waterproofing/sealer on all the wood prior to final installation. The reason for applying this, is that it allows the wood to dry slowly, which keeps the wood from warping, cracking, checking, which it can do if it dries too quickly.

B. I mounted the railings and then let them dry unpainted for about 6 months. I then sanded them with a 5" orbital sander, then primed them. To be honest I never got to the finishing layer of exterior white. The primer looks great still with zero peeling. Will finish painting some day!

This is what I used to waterproof/seal with to keep the drying slow. It's says "natural clear", but as you can see it's not clear, but once up (as I waited 6 months for them to dry) it looks better than bare/green wood.

I used this mitt to quickly get the waterproofing on to the completed sections, and top and bottom 2x4 rail sections prior to installation. Highly recommend, as a section only took a few minutes and I had 8 sections. I wasn't detailed with it, just slopped it on and then wiped it down to get rid of drips. I didn't use the glove when I primed the installed railings white, but maybe I should of... it was quick (but does leave a few fuzzy bits as it gets hung up on the rough cut wood).

Step 6
Mount the bottom railings, use 2x4 blocks that are 3" tall, for resting/spacer blocks under each end of the rail for even spacing above the porch decking (or however much space you want above the deck, not sure what code would say). I drilled pilot holes in from both sides of the railings, at an angle, through the rails to the columns. I used 3" #10 stainless steel screws that I put in far enough to bury the heads. So the bottom rail gets 4 screws into the columns, and so does the top rail when you install that. Totally solid to sit on, climb over, etc.... So far at least.

These have a special square bit, for the square drive tops. Stainless steel is soft and easy to strip if you don't make your pilot holes big enough. I stripped a few heads.

Step 7
Place your sections onto the bottom rail. Use 2" #8 deck screws to attach the sections to the bottom rail. Attached the top rail to the columns (3" #10 stainless steel) x 4 per top rail. Attach the sections to the top rail, screwing from the bottom side up, so the heads are hidden).

Step 8
I added a 3" tall footer in the middle of each section to keep the sections from sagging, and to make the strong enough for sitting on. I screwed mine in at an angle into the porch decking (3" #10 stainless steel) and one screw through the bottom rail into it.

Installed after the weather proofing. They looked good and stay this way drying for about 6 months.

Step 9
Use wood putty to fill all your countersunk holes. If you have any screw heads that didn't get bury, because you stripped them while screw gunning them in, like I did, you can grind them flush with the wood. Let the wood filler dry then sand. Then use exterior silicon caulk to fill in between any spaces were the sections meet the columns. Sand, prime and paint (I will some day). Acually with the sanding, I didn't bother between the balusters were it's hard to reach. The primer seems to be sticking so far. I let you know if it peels in a few years!

Finished result, and no more falls.

Used to close the gaps between the columns and my installed railings.

Used to fill screw holes

Used this white primer after the 6 months of drying, and then a good sanding off of any of the leftover waterproofing sealent. One coat was all it took for great coverage. Turned out so well I haven't yet gotten to the final coat.

Will use when I get around to the final coat!

It important that you use the right kind of fasteners for your type of wood. I may not have used the right kind of screws for pressure treated wood. I found this out after the fact. So find out what types of screws are best for pressure treated or your wood. Some will breakdown or rust as the chemicals react, but this is beyond my knowledge. So do some research. This article on fasteners and pressure treated wood might help. I've not read it yet!

Historic Porch Railing Info.
Bob Villa Video: Porch Railings
Bob Villa Video: Porch Railings 2
Building Porch Railings Article
Building Porch Railings Article 2
Pressure Treated Wood Info.
Pressure Treated Wood Info. 2
Fasteners and Pressure Treated Wood
Fancier railings and posts for the more advanced...
Fancier railings and posts for the more advanced 2...
High Quality Porch Parts
How to install porch railings with round posts
How to build and install porch railings

GE Silicone II Window and Door
DAP Plastic Wood Filler
Grip-Rite Screws
Power Pro Outdoor Wood Screws
Painting/Staining Mitt
Sherwin-Williams, A-100 Latex Exterior Primer
Sherwin-Williams, Super Paint, Exterior Latex Satin
BEHR, Waterproofing Wood Protector No. 300

Disclaimer: This is what I did. This does not mean this is the best way, the right way, to building code, or even safe for your needs. So you are on your own with your project. I make no promises about the information presented here. I'm just a do-it-yourselfer, not a professional at all, sharing my story. So if something goes wrong with your project, you are on your own. Good luck, and have fun!

All content and photos, copyright 2008, Dover Projects.

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  1. Nice railings! What are you doing for Thanksgiving?

  2. Well it's almost been a year now, and the railings as just as nice as the day I finished them. No warping, twisting, sagging, etc. Heading into the first winter (boy summer is so short in New Hampshire). I'll give you a report next Spring!

  3. wow - you put nearly as much effort into this article (taking pics, writing up the steps, etc) as you did the railings! Thanks very much for the details and great article. The rails look awesome!!


  4. Thanks Ken! In my day job, I'm a graphic designer, and I used to work for BUILDER magazine (10 years as a designer), so the idea publishing my projects/articles seems to be an extension my real work. I enjoy the projects and the posting. Watch out Bob Vila! Joke!--Peter

  5. that is great, thanks

  6. NEW!!! DOVER PROJECTS ON FACEBOOK! Join in with your DIY spirit! Click on the BIG blue box for "Facebook, Dover Projects" in the right column above! See you there!--Peter

  7. Thanks for sharing this! My husband wants to build his own porch railing for our porch and this is exactly what I had in mind. Now I just have to print this and give it to him and he can do all the hard work! LOL

  8. Great glad you found it. Let us know how it turned out with some photos on Dover Projects new Facebook page:

  9. Bought a farm 1year ago and tackling many projects - thanks for the info - well done!
    Linda - Yorkville IL

  10. I have been looking for a good practical article describing a common sense approach to making porch railings. Great job!

  11. thanks for the awesome writeup! it's helped alot

  12. Anonymous, Glad the write up help you!--Peter

  13. Just finished my railing! Had to change the plans a little as I didn't have posts to tie into. I used your exact plans when it came to what the actual railing looks like. I sank a few posts into the ground and made a 90% turn at the corner. It came out great! Thanks for sharing your projects.

  14. Peter

    I've been toying with the idea of putting a railing on my small front porch, but have been having a hard time trying figure out how to actually fabricate it.

    Your outstanding article has solved all my problem.

    Thank you

  15. Thanks for the ideas.

  16. Thanks for the info!
    The rail looks good. Curious to know what dimensions the balusters are?


  17. Simple but a beautiful and classic look!

    The balusters look like 2x2s.

  18. I just tackled the porch railings on my front porch. Would not consider myself a carpenter by any means. just a guy that isn't afraid the buy the material and give it a shot. I used your article on how you did it as a basis and went from there (different dimensions). Your article helped tremendously. Our front porch railings turned out great (waiting for treated lumber to dry so I can paint). Thank you!

  19. Thanks for the great tutorial! We used it to add railing to our porch this spring and then screened the whole things in. The railings look great and keep the dog from running through the screen to chase something in the yard.

  20. Thanks Peter, you described my situation to a Tee!!! I will try the waterproofing stuff before I prime......

    The Eagle


Please leave your questions or comments here. I love to get feedback. You can do so without an account or user names and passwords, etc. Just select "Anonymous" next to "comment as". Thanks!--Peter