A customer of mine had an old concrete back porch that was in bad shape. It needed a new bottom stair poured which left an unsightly seem and it needed some handrail. Not only did it need rail on the landing and down the stairs, it needed rail on the ground along the side of the stairs that went down to the basement so nobody fell down there.
The plan was simple. We would parge the surface and add some black aluminum handrail.
PARGE: To add a thin coat of stucco onto the surface of existing concrete to improve the appearance.
First, I took a grinder and hit a few of the lumpy spots. The landing was pretty old and there was a hump right at the top of the stairs. Also, one corner of the landing had broken off so it had been formed up and re-poured which left a very uneven seem. I used a standard concrete grinding wheel to smooth those out. Next, you need to roll on a nice coat of concrete bonder. This is a product that is like thinned down Elmer’s glue and it allows the stucco to bond to the surface of the concrete to prevent it from just flaking right back off. Use a nappy roller and don’t be shy with the amount you put on. Then you will need to let it dry a little bit. The bonder should be tacky when you go to put on the stucco. This was especially hard in this case as it was blazing hot outside and the bonder was drying faster than I could apply mortar. In this case, it might be a good idea to just do a little bit at a time.
I use a sanded mortar for my stucco. It’s high strength and the sand leaves a nice texture after it’s been sponged. I basically just slap a good coat onto the surface and use a finishing pool trowel to work it into a consistent thickness. A finishing pool trowel is going to have rounded edges and makes it easier to get a nice smooth finish. Now you don’t need the stucco to be perfectly smooth though as you will come back with a sponge. Since this was such a hot day, I did the landing and one stair and then came back and sponged the mortar. You need the mortar to be set up a little bit but not completely dry. Where you could touch it without leaving a fingerprint, but still be able to dig in if you used more force. You are going to take a big yellow sponge that you’ll find in the tile department of your local hardware store, get it wet and wipe the mortar in a circular motion. Use more pressure where you need to if there are uneven lumps, but mostly just work out the lines left from your trowel and bring out the sand. This creates some nice traction on the stairs for when it’s wet out.
Once the stucco work is complete and dry, it’s time to start installing the handrail. I’m using a black powder-coated aluminum handrail from American Structures & Design. This has surface mounted posts that will be connected with 3/8″ wedge anchors that get drilled down into the concrete. You want to put your posts in place and mark out where the holes need to be drilled. This is risky because if you aren’t careful, you could blow out the edge of the concrete. Fortunately I got all the posts in on the landing and stairs with no issues. You’ll want to use some composite shims under the post baseplate to get them all plumb.
PLUMB: Determining if something is “level” only applies to horizontal surfaces. For vertical surfaces, you are looking to make the “plumb”.
Don’t use wood shims between the posts and the concrete because they will rot out and your handrail will become loose and unsafe. Always use composite shim or if you’re working with composite decking, you can cut some shims out of that.
The handrail system assembles pretty easily. There is only minor cutting involved. The top and bottom rails need to be cut to length and the wedge anchors needed to be cut down so the vinyl bolt caps could be clipped on.
The last thing I did was install the straight section at the top of the basement stairs. The upper stairs needed a grabbable rail to meet code but the stairs down to the basement already had a metal grab rail attached to the wall going down so the rail I installed is just for fall protection. There are some pretty specific codes for stairs and rail so make sure what you pick meets code. You can Google “Stair Rail Code” to help find your local building codes. Even if you aren’t having your work inspected, it could come up when you sell the house and if someone gets injured while using your stairs, you might be liable for their injuries if the rail is not to code.
I did have one blowout in the concrete when I was mounting these posts, but a little stucco touchup will fix it pretty easily.
You can also just paint your concrete stairs if the concrete is still in good shape. You might also be able to build a wood or composite deck over the concrete and hide the whole thing. You could find a local fabricator to create a custom metal handrail for you. The possibilities are endless.
If you have any questions about your ugly concrete porch, leave them in the comments. Thanks!