Installing a Vinyl Stair Railing

©By: John T. Blair (WA4OHZ)
dot_clear 1133 Chatmoss Dr., Va. Beach, Va. 23464; (757) 495-8229

Originally written: December 2007
Last update: dot_clear November 22, 2009.

There are 2 articles about installing the vinyl railings. This one is about installing the stair railings, the second article discusses replacing the columns and installing vinyl porch railings.

When we moved into our house, back in 1984, the porch did not have any railings. The porch is relatively high, 3 feet 6 inches from the ground, so we said we wanted to put some railing up someday. We had 2 small boys, JohnC - 4 yrs, and ScottE 3 months, a dog and a cat. As the kid grew older they enjoyed jumping off the porch over the shrubs into the front yard. Time has moved on since then, it’s now December 2007.

House Before railings
The front porch before installing railings
Most holidays like the 4th of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, we have my folks over for dinner. My folks are now in their 80s. They have a hard time getting up and down the stairs especially with no stair railing to hold on to. I retired October 1st, and started thinking about many of the projects I’ve put off over the years. Besides finishing the 1975 Bricklin I started restoring in 1995, the two top contenders are an new vinyl shed to replace my rusting erector set shed, and railings for the porch and stairs.

I was talking to my dad a few weeks ago (Oct 2007), and he told me that one of his neighbors had just had vinyl stair railings put on their porch and they looked very nice. So I went over and took a look at them, and boy were they nice. Dad got the name of the contractor that installed them for me and I gave him a call for an estimate. He quoted about $800 for labor. He had a few good ideas. To put up the railing on the right side of the stairs, I would need a post installed, as the first column is about two and a half feet to the right of the stairs. He also had one expensive one, he suggested I should replace all the columns with new vinyl ones as the existing wooden ones would not take the vinyl porch railing. I thanked him for his time and the estimate, and started thinking about the job.

He made it sound easy! I’m a pretty experienced do-it-yourselfer, have restored 4 cars, doing 90% of my own car maintenance, plumbing and electrical around the house. So I thought I’d give it a try.

My wife asked me if I’d looked at any of the houses in the neighborhood that had installed railings. I said No. So we started going around looking at all the houses. There were all kinds of railings, wood, vinyl, even a couple of metal ones. All kinds of different arrangements, some had extra posts installed in the run between columns, some butted posts up to the existing columns. I was surprised how many different installations I actually saw.

Next, I took a ride out to HomeDepot to see what they had. The sell a very nice vinyl railing system by YardSmart. HomeDepot also had a nice flyer that gave some general directions for how to install the products. But they were mostly for a wooden deck. I have a concrete porch with brick trim. So I wasn’t sure how to go about installing the railing. I ran into a gentleman there and we got talking about the railings, posts, etc. and he was telling me about what Lowe’s sold. I still really didn’t have a clue as to what I would be getting myself into. I take a drive over to Lowes and ask where their vinyl railing was, and I’m pointed in the right direction. Lowes sells a product by SevereWeather. I take a look around, no literature not much of a display. So I head home figuring I’d do some research on-line. Unfortunately, I didn’t really find a lot there. I did find YardSmart’s and SeverWeather’s web sites. Of the two, YardSmart seemed like the better choice and it had the same documentation as the had in the HomeDepot store.

Now I know a little, so I go out onto my porch and start taking measurements of the porch, the inside distance between columns, the height of the stairs, and their length or run.

Back to the hardware stores, to look at what they stock. HomeDepot has the Williamsburg style columns like what is currently on the house. And their deluxe railing was very nice. They even had a nice stair railing kit. But one big problem, the railing the stock is only 5 feet 7 inches in length, as is their stair railing kit. The distance between the columns on my porch are (starting from the left) 6 feet 4 1/4 inches, 6 feet 3 3/8 inches, and on the right side 7 feet 4 inches. Then I measured the stairs, the height is about 3 feet 6 1/2 inches and the run is about 62 and a half inches. This meant that the hand rail would have to be about 75 and a half inches long. Everything I needed was longer than what HomeDepot stocked.

So I head over to Lowes. I didn’t see the columns I needed, but I did see the railing. And guess what, they stocked 6 and 8 foot lengths. So I could get the 8 foot ones and cut them down to fit. Now I understand why some of the people had the additional posts between their columns. To handle the shorter, 6 foot railing lengths.

Post construction
Inside of YardSmart’s posts, vinyl, wood, and metal
I also liked the HomeDepot post system better. Their post consist of a 4x4” vinyl sleeve, with a cedar wood insert, and a square aluminum insert for strength. To mount the post to either a wooden deck or concrete, they have a 6x6” metal base plate screws to the aluminum insert and then gets bolted to either the concrete or wood.

The post at Lowes, consists of a metal pipe with plates at the top and bottom. The bottom plate gets screwed to the concrete or wood, then you slide a 4x4 vinyl sleeve over the top plate. While it will be strong from the standpoint of the post attachment to the deck I don’t think that the railing will be too secure just screwing it into the vinyl sleeve. Not to mention that the post with mounting bracket at HomeDepot costs less than the ones from Lowes.

I call my dad to see if he’d come with me one day to purchase the material, as he has a pick up truck. While my Scion Xb is roomy inside, the 7 foot columns and 8 foot railings sure weren’t going to fit in it.

Now the fun starts, and the reason for writing this article. The following details the problems I had, the trial and error solutions, in an attempt to ease your pain and make your job go smoother.

I met my dad at HomeDepot. I had planned on doing this job in stages, the stair railings first. This would require about an 8’ stair railing, one column and one "newel" post. When we got to HomeDepot, dad suggested that I just get all the columns and hardware that I needed. So we picked up five columns, two 4x4 vinyl sleeves, three 4x4s (more on them later), the mounting plates and the caps for the 3 posts (2 at the bottom of the stairs, and one on the right side on the porch).

Then we headed to Lowes to pick up the 8 foot railings. As I started pulling the top and bottom rail sections, I noticed that most of them were broken. That’s when I realized that they weren’t vinyl, rather some composite. Not what I wanted!!! Especially if they are already broken.

Problem #1. What do I do now? Back to HomeDepot and talk to the people at the Contractors desk. I can special order hand railings that are just under 8 feet in length, but at a premium. So I order the 3 sections I will need. But I can’t get an 8 foot stair railing. So I have to change my plans on having the railing go all the way down to the sidewalk. It will have to be moved up somewhere along the stairs. I’ll have to see where when I get everything home.

We get all the material home and stored in my garage. I’m all set to start the project on Saturday. I’ve enlisted the help of a friend, Dennis, for brawn, the extra pair of hands, an extra brain, and some tools.

Saturday morning we start. We are going to try and replace the column on the left of the stairs (facing the house) and mount the front post for the stair railing.

Problem #2. I had the house sided about 20 years ago and the column actually sits in a small pocket in the header under the siding. So we have to remove the aluminum siding covering the beam. But I have no idea of how to do that. Dennis comes up with a very simple solution, ignore it, and start by mounting the railing on the other side of the stairs and worry about the siding later.

I had talked to several people, and decided that we’d dig a hole about 2 to 3 feet deep and put a 4x4 in there and then fill it with concrete. So Dennis starts digging a hole in the flower bed, at the end of the stairs, for the front post, and I start mounting the "newel" post to the porch.

Porch Siding
Siding on Porch and around columns
Railing Newel Post Mounted
Railing Newel Post Mounted
This was pretty easy. I had purchased a box of 1/4”Tapcon screw and a couple of masonry drill bits. I drilled the holes, and screwed the Tapcon screws in using Dennis’ Makita cordless drill with a socket bit. That secured the post quite firmly.

Bottom Anchor Of Post
Bottom Anchor Of Newel Post
Dennis Digging Hole
Dennis Digging Hole
Problem #3. Meanwhile, Dennis gets down about a foot and runs into the footer for the stairs, or something. But it’s concrete and pretty thick. Now what do we do? We can’t easily bust it all out and keep digging. About this time, my neighbor Ken walks over to see what we’re up to. We tell him about the concrete we’ve hit and our problem. While we are discussing this, either Dennis or Ken came up with a two part solution.

Part 1 is to get a post anchor and anchor it to the concrete with the Tapcon screws.

Part 2 is to get a 1/2” wedge anchor and run it into the concrete.

So off we got to the hardware store in search of the new parts required. Mission accomplished, and we’re back at work. We drill some holes in the concrete with the masonry bit and set the post anchor with some Tapcon screws.

Post Anchor in Ground
Post Anchor in To Concrete Footer
Post Level
Dennis With Post Level To Get Post Vertical
The height of the post on the porch is 42”, and our hole was about 6”. So I cut an 8 foot 4x4 vinyl post sleeve in half using a hack saw.

We set a 4x4 post in the hole and into the anchor and adjust it for vertical using a post level. We attached the base of the post to the post anchor using 4 #10 by 1 1/2” sheet metal screws. We measure and mark where we should cut the post so it is the same height above the ground as the "newel" post I mounted on the porch. We remove the screws, lift the post out and cut it. I used a reciprocating saw similar to a Sawzall to cut the post, but found the saw to be very difficult to control for a clean cut. I’ll have to use a different saw for cutting the railings and the columns.

When we set the cut off post back in hole, we find out that the 4’ sleeve (remember I cut an 8’ sleeve in half) is too short.

The sleeve is long enough that the bottom is below the dirt but not long enough to touch the bottom of the hole. So we slid the sleeve to the top of the post, and put a nail through the sleeve, at the bottom of the sleeve, to hold it in place. Now we mark the spot in the post to drill for the wedge anchor. Since the hole we dug isn’t wide enough to get the drill down in the hole with the post there, we have to remove the post and drill it a 1/2“ hole through the sleeve and post. Dennis Drilling Wedge Hole
Dennis Using a Hammer Drill To Drill Hole For Wedge Anchor
Wedge Anchor
Wedge Anchor
Back in the hole the post goes, so we can slide the masonry bit through and mark where we need to drill the bricks on the steps. Out comes the post again, and we drill the hole in the brick. Finally, we set the post for the final time and anchor it with the screws to the post anchor and insert the wedge anchor. Everything is tight and sturdy! OK, we’re making progress!!!

Time to get the stair railing kit out and open it up. We start reading the directions and assemble the balusters to the top and bottom rail. The instructions say to clamp the railing to the posts, only my posts are too far apart for that, so we hold them in place. Then we hold it up to the front and rear mounting posts. Boy are we lucky, it looks like it will just fit. So following the directions, we mark and cut the top and bottom rails. Set it back in place and screw the ends to the porch post.

Problem #4. - Somehow we managed to cut it about 1” too short. Now what? It’s getting late and tempers are growing short. So we take a break. Ken walks home for a few minutes. When he comes back, he has an idea. Just move the post back a few inches. OK that sounds like a plan, but it’s getting dark. So we’ll start there tomorrow.

Sunday morning I get up and get started. I’ve got to pull the post. So I do. We are planning on reusing the same post and sleeve. But I have to move the hole back towards the house a little. I mark a new location for a new wedge anchor in the post, drill the sleeve and post so I can mark the brick. I remove the post to see where to drill the new anchor hole and realize I‘m on the back edge of the same brick I had been anchored to. To make matters worse, we cracked the brick. I don’t think this is going to work.

Railing Too Short
Railing Too Short
Post Anchor L
Using A Post Anchor To Tie Post To Stairs
Problem #5. - We need to find a new way to anchor the post. By now, Dennis had arrived as had Ken. We stand around drinking coffee and scratching our head trying to come up with another way to anchor the post to the stairs. I have a plan, what about a “U” shaped post clamp with ears at the top of the “U”? We need to go to the hardware store to get some more post anchors anyway. So off we go. We get to HomeDepot and ask if they make such a thing, no one thinks so. The post anchors are not long enough to reach around the 4x4 so we can’t use them. As we stand there looking at all the lumber hangers, I finally come up with an idea.
Take a standard post anchor and bend one of the sides up making it into an “L” and screw one part into the stairs and the other to the post. Sounds good, we get some more post anchors, head home, and anchor the post. Grab the stair railing again and set it in place.

I guess I should mention that trying to get the screws I was using started through the vinyl proved to be a bit of a problem also. Especially the ones that we used at the base of the post to hold it to the post anchor. Remember this is in a hole, and we can’t get the drill down in the hole. I tried using the ratchet from my 1/4” drive socket but couldn’t get the screw to bite. So I used my 1/4” air ratchet. This gave enough speed and constant turning, that the screw bit into the vinyl and then the wood. A couple of other options might be to use a drill but try driving the screws in a an angle, or using a 90 degree adapter on the drill.

Problem #6. Now we realize we can’t get it to rake down to the angle we need to meet the front post, it’s too short. Out of the hole comes the short post , and I dropped a new 8 foot 4x4 into the hole and slide a new sleeve on. One thing we were lucky about - we didn’t fill the hole with concrete, and by now we realized that we are going to wait until the project is done before we put and concrete in the hole.

End Swivel Together
End Swivel Together
While we were playing with the swivel ends that came with the stair railing kit, the mounting plate fell off of some of the caps. No big deal, we slide them back on.

Problem #7. Another problem we ran into was cutting the top railing for the stair rail. It has an aluminum I beam in it for support. So we originally used a saws-all to cut it. Big mistake. We didn’t have enough control over the saw. This may be why we ended up sort. At least it’s a good excuse. So now we are using a hack saw and the old manual mode to cut the vinyl rails. This can be a chore, so we found an easier way, described later in Tip #7.

High Railing
My Wife (Mac) Standing Next To High Stair railing
Problem #8. Finally we get the stair railing mounted. It looks good except for one thing. Remember I said we couldn’t get the angle (rake) we needed. So at the bottom of the stairs the top hand rail is about 5’ off the ground. It’s almost dark and we’ve had a rough 2 days, so we call it a night.

Needless to say, I was very disappointed. Maybe I should have let the contractor do the job. But tomorrow is another day. We'll see what happens.

Monday morning I call Yardsmart and ask for technical support. I tell the fellow (Pat) about my problem, I can’t get enough angle on the railings. He says, he understand my problem and has had to deal with it many times and proceeds to give me some very helpful tips:

Tip 1. What I should do, is ONLY install the first and last baluster. Then check to see if I can get the angle I need.

Tip 2. If not, remove the balusters. To remove the balusters, he suggested standing on the bottom railing and using a rubber mallet knock the top and bottom rails off the balusters.

Cats Claw
Cats Claw
It won’t hurt if I break some of the tabs that hold the balusters to the rails. The tabs are only there to hold the top and bottom rails together while you are trying to set the railings up.

I found a better way to remove the balusters. Years ago I needed to pry the crankshaft gear off an engine. I’d gone to a hardware store looking for some sort of a small pry bar. What I found was a “cat’s claw” or wood workers nail removing tool. Simply slide it the hole on the side of a baluster, where the tab is and press down a little. The curve on the cat’s claw will let the tab on the baluster slide under the cat’s claw and depress the tab so you easily can pull and wiggle the baluster from the rail.

Removing Balister
Using Cat's Claw To Removing Balusters
There are 2 things that will limit the rake or angle the hand rails will allow, the swivels and the size of the openings in the top and bottom rails for the balusters.

Tip 3. The rail swivel caps can be mounted 2 ways on their bases. One way there is a stop that limit’s the angle. If you remove the end cap from the base and turn the base over you can get a lot more angle out of it. When you attach the swivel to the post, the post will limit how far the end cap can swivel so it won‘t fall off.

Tip 4. If you still can’t get enough angle by turning the swivels over, then you need to remove the balusters and enlarge the holes. Pat recommend cutting 1/8” from the front and back of the baluster slots.

Armed with this knowledge I decided to go out and play with the stair railing a little. Well this stair railing kit is now a throw away, so I figure I’ll play with it and see if I can‘t get it to work.

First I turned the swivels over to allow maximum angle at both ends. Then I pulled all the balusters out of the top and bottom rails. I set the top rail in the swivel on the porch, and found I could get the rake I wanted from the swivels! Now the top of the top rail is about 39” above the first step, the same height as it is at the porch. I'm finally getting there!

I installed only the first and last baluster to the top and bottom rail and see if I can still get the angle I need. Nope! So using a Dremil tool with their rotary saw blade, I cut an 1/8” off the front and rear of the first and last balusters holes (in both the top and bottom rails) and reassembled. I set the assembled rail in the swivels, and it fits! There was a pretty large gap now around the balusters So I tried only cutting 1/16” off the front of the 2 middle baluster holes, installed these two middle balusters and test fit. It still fit and the baluster holes were a lot cleaner looking. So I suggest removing only 1/16” at a time.

Railing Mock Up
Railing Mock Up Using The Destroyed Railing Kit
Now I knew I only needed to cut 1/16” off the front of the baluster holes. I slid the “I” beam out of the top rail to extend the railing and inserted it into the bottom swivel and mounted the swivel.

When my wife came home from work and saw the new height she really liked it. She was happy! Even though this was just a mock up. I’d have to use the other stair rail kit I’d purchased to finish this side and then get another stair rail kit for the other side. But if fit!!!

I guess I could mention that if you remember your trigonometry you can calculate the maximum distance you can have your posts separated. But I won’t bore you with any fancy math.

Wednesday I got brave and took out the other stair railing kit and decided I‘d mount it.

Tip 5. I started by writing the words “yard” and “house“ on the bottom, ends, of the top and bottom rail. So I’d always have a reference as to which way the railing should be going.

Then I proceeded to remove the balusters from the railing, and trim 1/16” off the front (yard) side of each baluster hole in the top and bottom rails, and inserted only two balusters, one at each end of the rails. It was time to test fit. The instructions said to clamp the railings to the posts and try to adjust the distance from each baluster to the post to be equal. But I didn’t have enough length. Since I still had the throw away railing up, I took some scrap 2x4s and clamped them to the inside of both front and porch posts, under the top rail, so I could hang the new railing.

Mock up.jpg
Mock Up With New Railing Sistered To The Scrap One
Following the instructions I held the end swivels up and marked the top and bottom rails and marked the position of the swivels. I drilled the swivels, and inserted the “locking” screws as per the instructions.

Tip 6. I don’t recommend installing the "locking" screws until the job is done. I had to pull the “locking” screws out to adjust my swivels a little more.

Measure the distance from the baluster to the posts to center the railing to center it and adjust as necessary. Mark the railings as per the instructions.

It was time to make my cuts on the top and bottom rails. I held my breath, and decided not to take as much off the rail as was indicated. I’d rather make a few more cuts than take too much off and ruin another stair rail kit. That can get real expensive. I used my hack saw to cut the bottom rail. Cutting just the vinyl on the bottom railing was easy, and I had very good control over the saw. Then I started to cut the top rail. Remember there’s an aluminum “I” beam inside. So that means 2 cuts of the “I” beam. But cutting the “I” beam is a little tough and you loose control of the saw. I light bulb went off in my head!

Al I Beam
Removing The Aluminum I Beam To Cut Top Rail
Tip 7. Remember the “I” beam can slide in the upper rail. So remove it from the rail so you are only cutting the vinyl. Test fit the vinyl rail. Once the vinyl rail is cut to the right length, slide the “I” beam back so it is flush with one end, mark the other end of the “I” beam at the end of the vinyl railing. Remove the “I” beam again, and cut it with a hack saw. This gives you a lot more control of the saw, and you only have to make 1 cut through the aluminum instead of two or more. Slide the “I” beam back into the top rail making sure the longer side of the “H”, that is formed by laying the “I” beam on its side, is to the bottom of the rail.

Install the end swivel end caps and set into place.

Tip 8. After my final cuts, the top rail was about 1/8” from touching the front post. To me this is the most critical fit. You want the top rail as tight as you can get it as it will be taking all the force of someone pulling on it. I would have to raise the rail to get it to meet the post just a little. So I cut a 1/16” off the bottom rail, and fit again. Both of the swivels met the post nicely. The top of the swivel for the top railing on the porch is about 39 1/2” above the porch. The top of the swivel at the bottom of the steps is about 40 1/4” above the stair. Not bad, and you’d be hard pressed to see this 3/4” difference.

Tip 9. Now is the time to install the "locking" screws into the swivels. Mark the swivel brackets for position by marking a line with a pencil across the tops of all 4 of the mounting brackets at the swivels. Remove the railing, and the swivel brackets. Align the swivel to your mark and mark the base with a pencil. Use a center punch to highlight you mark and to give the drill bit something to bit and center on. Drill a small pilot hole, and then screw the screws in to lock the swivels.

Problem #9. In the screw package for the lower swivels, there are 8 screws for attaching the swivels to the end posts and an additional 4 flat head screws with the head painted white. According to the instructions there are supposed to be used to lock the swivels in place. But there are 2 counter sunk holes in each top rail. Assuming that these are to lock the hand rail to the end caps, there should be 4 more screws in the kit. Not so.

Tip 10. You’ll have to come up with something, or leave the 4 counter sunk holes in the 2 top rail caps with nothing in them. Or what I think I’m going to do is: use four 3/4” dry wall screws in these holes and put some white nail polish on them. But first I’ll have to run a small drill bit through the holes to create a pilot hole in the Aluminum “I” beam.

With one railing under our belt, my youngest son, ScottE, and I tackle the 2nd railing. It took us about 3 1/2 hours to install. It went pretty much without a hitch. We purposefully left the post sleeves a little long to allow us to trim them to the same length.

All I have to do now, is replace the front post with a shorter one, and fill the hole with cement. My learning curve was pretty slow, but I had a lot to learn. I ended up spending about 2 and 1/2 days trying to get just one stair railing up. I also managed to ruin one 4x4 by 8 foot post, two 4x4 by 8 foot vinyl sleeves, and one stair railing kit. I‘m hoping that this article will help you not have to waste as much material as I did. I sure wish some of the tips I’ve given you were in the instruction manual. But then again, who reads the instruction manual anyway.

MAC with good railing
My Wife With The Final Railing Installation
The next project is to replace the column on the left side of the stairs, and see if I can put a hand railing in there in less than 2 1/2 days.

Continue on to Part 2 - Replacing the columns and installing porch railings

Return to the Main page

To email me with comments or questions.