How to Repair Split Porch Railing
Tom Silva suggests a few quick fixes for your old porch
Our front porch railing is split and rotted in places, and has mildewed, peeling paint. We want to replace it but don’t know where to begin. What would you suggest?
—Mike Doughtie, Suffolk, VA
Time was, all porch railings were made of wood. But these days, you can choose from low-maintenance railing systems made of cellular PVC, cast foam, and composites, which look like painted wood if they don’t have bulky caps where the rails join the posts. These synthetic materials are fairly expensive, however, and can’t be customized. That’s why we used wood to build the unique Victorian-style railings at the Belmont TV project (shown).
For those railings, we used Spanish cedar, but species like western red cedar and cypress are also good choices because they resist rot and don’t swell or shrink much as the humidity changes. Paint holds up much better on such woods. Pressure-treated pine is not a good option because it twists and splits as it dries out.
Besides materials, you’ll have to consider building codes and aesthetics, which often work against each other. By code, the bottom of the railing can’t be more than 4 inches above the porch deck, and the top of the railing has to be at least 36 inches above the porch deck to stop people from inadvertently tumbling over. But on porch decks that are 30 inches or less above grade, the 36-inch minimum height requirement doesn’t apply; you can make the railing any height you want or even eliminate it entirely.
The problem is, when you’re sitting on your porch enjoying the breeze, that code-compliant 36-inch-high railing might spoil the view and leave you feeling like you’re trapped in an adult-size baby crib. Before there were railing codes, most old porches had rails that were 30 inches or less above the deck. That height is easy to see over when seated and, to my eye, looks better from the street.
Shown: in Belmont, faced with the owners’ desire for a traditional look and the building inspector’s need to enforce the code, I devised this solution: I made the railings 32 inches high, then anchored a stainless steel cable to the porch piers at the required 36-inch height. The cable is virtually invisible from the street and doesn’t interfere with the view of someone sitting on the porch.