A little more work will finish deck After installing railing, balusters, steps, you can sit back and enjoy


May 11, 1997|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

CONSTANT READERS will have figured out by now that we have made a major commitment to helping you build your deck (short of actually lifting a hammer, that is).

We would like to assure you that this is the last installment, and soon you should be lolling on a lounge chair, sniffing flowers and fresh wood, quaffing a soda or a brewski in the sun. (That is, those of you who are not soaking in a nice warm tub to soothe all those newfound sore muscles.)

Take heart. The next part of building the deck, installing the railing and balusters, is not difficult.

For the railings, we recommend pressure-treated 2-by-2s with a 2-by-4 top and bottom rail. The 2-by-4 rails are secured to 4-by-4 posts and the balusters are screwed to the 2-by-4 rails.

The whole thing is topped with a pressure-treated 2-by-6, which is mitered at a 45-degree angle at the corners.

Begin by setting the posts that will support the balusters and handrail. We like to use 4-by-4s, notched to half their depth for the length of the joist, so they will sit on the decking and not just be supported by bolts.

To locate the posts, divide each side of the deck into equal segments of 5 to 7 feet. Where the rail meets the house, you can bolt a 2-by-4 or 4-by-4 to the wall for extra support.

Use a level on adjacent sides to make sure that the posts are vertical (plumb). Don't fully tighten the bolts until the post is plumb.

It's hard to install the railing if the posts aren't in line.

You may need to use tapered cedar shingles as shims to make the post vertical against the side and end joists before tightening the bolts.


Don't try to make all the posts on each side of your deck the same distance apart. Usually it can't be done. Instead, divide each run of posts evenly along the edge of the deck, and keep the baluster spacing at about 2 1/2 inches within each section.

The building code specifies that balusters be spaced at 4 inches on center, or so a baby's head can not fit between the balusters.

The 2 1/2 -inch space should make a 2-by-2 baluster work out to about a 4-inch center.

Install the first baluster and make sure it's plumb. Then use a spacer block to install all the rest. This way, you don't have to check every baluster for location and plumb.

The top cap of your rail should meet at a neat angle. For rails that meet at right angles, the cut should be 45 degrees. But don't assume that two 45-degree cuts will fit precisely. The posts or deck will probably be slightly out of square.

Instead, mark your cuts in place. Lay one rail on top of the other, and use blocks of scrap to level the one on top.

Mark the corners where they intersect. Use a straight-edge to connect the corners, then cut the angles.

Let the boards run long at either end until the miter is tight. Then cut the other ends to length. That way you have a second chance to cut it if the first cut didn't work out perfectly.

Last steps

The last step is building stairs from the deck down to the lawn. You might want to consider several options here.

Building steps by calculating the rise and run and cutting the stringers -- the side pieces that the treads rest on -- to fit can be pretty complicated. If you're good at math, and fairly handy, you can certainly tackle the task if you want.

You can also buy pre-cut stringers at most lumber yards, but they come in standard sizes, with the largest being about five treads.

That limits you to a certain vertical rise, which means the deck can be no more than about 40 inches off the ground.

You can also build cleated stairs, bolting cleats to an uncut 2-by-10 to support the treads. The cleats can also be bought at most lumber yards.

There are several good books on deck building that can educate you on the philosophy and practice of stair-building.

Or, you might consider hiring a contractor to build the stairs for you after all the other work is finished.


Once the deck is built, sand the rails until they are smooth to the touch, using 80- or 100-grit sandpaper, using either an orbital power sander or a sanding block.

Always sand along the direction of the wood's grain.

If the wood is too wet to sand, give it a chance to dry out. Round out all sharp edges.

Remove any splinters and then sand the splinter area smooth.


And here it is, the very last thing: The most important step in deck ownership is maintenance. Without good maintenance all your deck-building efforts will be wasted.

Forget that line about untreated wood "aging gracefully to a silver gray."

Aging destroys the deck. When wood absorbs moisture, its fibers swell.

Over time, the surface becomes rougher and small cracks will open.

Although this doesn't usually cause immediate structural flaws, eventually the fasteners can loosen and the boards will tend to develop small cracks, called checks.

Penetrating sealers will help your wood shed moisture, and some also block the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays.

So buy the best sealer you can find, and use it faithfully. To remain effective, sealers must be renewed, usually every year or two.

That's it. You're done! Enjoy the summer.

Randy Johnson is a Baltimore home-improvement contractor. Karol Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, e-mail us at homeworlark.net, or write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

Pub Date: 5/11/97

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