Need help/ideas for porch & stair railings

party_music50July 24, 2010


My house is an Arts & Crafts style (or more properly called Bungalow?)... built in the late 1930s ('38, I was told). I had another thread here showing good photos of the 'before' and 'current' porch. :)

I need to decide how to complete the porch and new stair railings, and can really use some help on achieving the correct 'look' for the style and fitting with the architect's vision!!! I have the original blueprints and they show that the porch has very simple 6x6 post railings: three 6x6 posts with a 6x6 top rail on each side. The original blueprints also show NO STAIR RAILINGS! but the stairs themselves are closed on the sides, and the closure has a large triangle cutout. The front porch deck (short distances from columns to stair edge) show another simple set of two 6x6 posts with a 6x6 top rail.

I'm told that I have to have stair railings, and that the original 6x6 posts won't be "to code"? (i.e., I guess they're not "safe enough". ugh!)

I'd love suggestions, preferably with pics or sketches, showing me what to do about the porch and stair railings! I'm thinking of simple 4x4 railings on the sides of the porch deck, using four 4x4 posts with a 4x4 top rail. I think that will satisfy "codes". I would then want to also use 4x4 posts and toprails for the stairs, but everyone is telling me that's too large. Why? Can anyone help?

Thank you!

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Could you take a picture as best you can of the blueprint for these details and post it here; in addition to being helpful, it would also be cool to see the design as it was intended.
The stair handrail has to be of a limited size so that it is considered "graspable" by an average hand. A 4x4 isn't in that category. You can, however, put in any rail you like for the original look, but add (with metal brackets or spacers of some kind) a code-compliant handrail. We just had to do this on a porch/deck we built. The architect drew a 3 1/2" round top rail, which was fine for the deck, but not the stairs. The inspector was totally satisfied when we screwed a tiny handrail into the top of it. Originally, the homeowner considered removing it after final inspection, but decided in the interim that it will be kept permanently. If you look carefully at the stair rail, you can see the smaller one sitting on the big one.


    Bookmark   July 24, 2010 at 11:31AM
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That's a beautiful house and porch, Casey! I assume that those railings are made of composite material, but I'd like to have pressure-treated wood on mine. Is the little added top railing (for 'graspability') a half-circle shape attached directly on top of the larger flat piece beneath? or am I not seeing the little toprail? If that's it, I wonder why that's considered 'graspable'.

My BIL is doing this work for me as a favor... he doesn't live in the same state, so he won't be back to finish it for awhile yet. We're trying to decide what the best solution is from here.

Here are the blueprints (hope it's ok to post these!). I had to send them to him too. :)

Thanks for the help!

    Bookmark   July 24, 2010 at 12:17PM
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Thanks for the blueprints!
The rails in my pic are all wood, painted. The posts are cedar, the rails are fir and the pickets are mahogany.

Now, seeing your porch details, I don't think there would be any problem adding small 1x2 (or 1 1/4" square) pickets between the 6x6's to bring the railing up to present code. A 4"diameter sphere is used to check the spacing at the pickets or balusters. At the staircase, where a bottom rail leaves small triangular spaces where it runs above the treads and risers, the rule is for a 6" sphere to just fit. The only thing you have to worry about is the overall heights. the safety rail (horizontal runs) needs to be 36" tall, and the stair rails need to be 34" above the edge of each tread nosing. Higher is acceptable, but any lower is not.
If you paint the main 6x6 rails white, and all new code- mandated work a dark color, the overall effect will be the original appearance, as the dark color recedes into the background.

    Bookmark   July 24, 2010 at 10:06PM
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Thanks, Casey. I'll pass the info on to my BIL.

I'm just so happy to be rid of those concrete stairs!!! :)

    Bookmark   July 26, 2010 at 6:10AM
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The horizontal protection at the porch is called a "guard" and the protection at the stair is called a "handrail". The handrail also acts as a guard in your case. A handrail needs to have a profile that a hand can grasp and a guard doesn't.

Since the guards are so small and brutally detailed, I would consider a lighter, more decorative design perhaps in mahogany. Try

Here is a link that might be useful: stair design guide

    Bookmark   July 26, 2010 at 7:53AM
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Hello Macy. Thank you for explaining the terminology! However, I'm confused by your statement "Since the guards are so small and brutally detailed, ...". IMO, the guards in my blueprints are definitely not small or detailed. But the Stair Building Code document is great (well... you know what I mean ;^) Thanks!

    Bookmark   July 26, 2010 at 9:58AM
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By short I meant that the guards are not very long and they don't seem very appropriate for a Craftsman Style house. Just my opinion. I would feel no obligation to restore the original guard design especially since it would be quite different from the stair handrail.

The idea of the Craftsman Style and the American Arts & Crafts movement was not brutal oversized materials but careful detailing of natural materials by artisans. Nothing could be further from that concept than your 6x6 guard railing.

Greene & Greene, the masters of the American Craftsman Style in California, often used wide balustrades of 1x6 or 1x8 wood with narrow spaces between them. 1x6's with 4 1/2 inches between them would be ideal in your case. P.T. deck boards could be used with a stain if low maintenance is important. The top rail can be tall but the top doesn't have to be thicker than 2 +/- inches so it can also be used for the handrail at the stairs.

Here is a link that might be useful: Greene & Greene houses

    Bookmark   July 26, 2010 at 11:52AM
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Macy, I completely agree regarding your remark about A&C style not using oversized materials, so the 6x6 posts puzzled me. Perhaps the architect was trying to make a statement or break-away? I would prefer the style of guards/railings that one might expect on an A&C house -- and it sounds like that's what I need to satisfy 'codes' -- but, as I said earlier, I wanted to respect the architect's "vision".

Perhaps the 6x6 posts were used to pull elements together, because there is an "archway" between the LR/DR (called Niagra Colonade in the blueprints) and it's probably similar to what the porch guards would have looked like. Here's a photo of that archway that was taken after lots of cleanup and "restoration" work:

Now, if I were told that the archway is NOT A&C style, then I guess it might explain a few things! (BTW: the house was a MESS when I bought it, but it was this archway and those steam heat radiators that made me buy it. :)

    Bookmark   July 27, 2010 at 8:38AM
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Insofar as arts & crafts style meant honest materials/ design your heavy 6x6 newels/guardrails are fine. By honest materials, I mean shingles and heavy timbers that aren't ashamed about what they are. 20 years previous, Victorians embraced the idea of all forms of sham and pretense. The porch posts were more like table legs writ large. The popular furniture style du jour was expended into the porch, the cornice, and the dormers! If a material could be tortured into a convoluted shape by saw or blade, it was. Or they cast it in plaster and tacked it on. Was it supposed to be emulating ancient stonework? then paint wood it and embed the surface with sand! Instant faux-stone. Things would not always (if ever?) be what they appeared. A&C was a reaction against this, and timber and shingle and natural lines without artifice and pretension were embraced. Your little bungalow is a simple expression of an honest ideal. "Let things be what they are". They _did_ like to use oversize elements, especially on the porch. Think of the huge pyramidal rounded fieldstone piers, and knee-braces and timbered gable decorations. Brutalism is something else entirely. It's about raw unfinished (and intentionally roughened) concrete surfaces. Not 6x6 porch railings.
I grew up in a 1938 house that was sort of a stone cape cod and adirondack lodge combo. It had a third-floor interior balcony/catwalk enclosed with 4x6 white pine rails and 6x6 newel posts. Woodsy, but not brutal. The stair treads were solid 6x10's. I should scan the construction photo album from that place some day...

    Bookmark   July 27, 2010 at 8:27PM
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Casey, that's an interesting description of the different styles. Regarding "Let[ting] things be what they are", I guess I was meant for the house. :)

My apologies to 'macv'... I misread your handle. :O)

    Bookmark   July 27, 2010 at 10:02PM
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The guards can certainly be 6x6 but as been mentioned, the 4 1/2" space rule will have to be addressed and might completely contradict the "honest expression". A similar corruption will occur at the stair handrail. I always look at a house as a whole before deciding about the details. Making things fit together is essential to good design.

    Bookmark   July 28, 2010 at 10:42AM
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