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Team Railing

January 30, 2011
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An undertone of our BAB project is that we try to be open-minded to discovery, ingenuity, and economy as we solve our renovation and design tasks.

One such task recently completed has been a long time in the works – that’s our railing at the edge of the mezzanine. Railings are pretty simple – they just need to keep you from falling past an edge – so this was the perfect opportunity to be creative and re-use something interesting for our railing. We also wanted the railing removable – in the event we want to move something large to the loft, and it’s tough to move a bed mattress up a spiral stair.

There were many hands involved in our railing project, from material suppliers, fabricators, and simply “cleaners”. That’s why the title of this post has “team” in it.

Sue wrote this post about the day we committed to at least the main portion of our railing; here’s the pic

While it was definitely not long enough, and probably too short (to meet code), we knew we could work with the bones.

What was REALLY cool was that the gas line pipes on the second floor of BAB were the EXACT same size as these parts – so we could easily salvage whatever new pipes we needed for the railing.

A test fit of the railing was in order just to confirm one last time that we could make this railing work before we invested time in cleaning it up and modifying it.

Test fitting the salvaged railing

While the railing came with some screw-down plates for mounting, I wanted something quite a bit beefier for mounting, AND I wanted something that would be a bit more concealed. I always figured it would be something that would be hidden within the mezzanine structure. We sketched lots of details over several weeks – almost to an obsession – in fact one night at a friend’s party we had to break out the pizza box and start sketching on the box.

Sketches on a Pizza Box

Once we had the general idea for the hidden bracket, I went to my friend John’s scrapyard for metal parts. I wrote this post about that trip to the steel yard. The brackets would basically be a sleeve of slightly larger diameter than the railing posts, and then set screws would secure the railing in place. Franco fabricated the brackets from a quick “final” drawing.

Detail Sketch

Finished Brackets

The next step was to clean it all up. So I disassembled the entire railing – it was a bit of a puzzle, as some connectors were threaded, some not, and they needed to come apart in a specific order.

We used an assortment of wire brushes, the wire wheel on the grinder, sandpaper, and finally steel wool to clean up all of the pieces.

Then I rearranged some of the pieces to make the upper section taller, and in the end, I only needed to cut two new long pipes out of the gas lines from the second floor.  The gas pipes in a Big Ass Building are enormous and for salvaging more pipes, I had to break out the Big Ass Wrench…

Big Ass Wrench for big pipe problems

And here’s the remodeled railing after our refinishing and a clear coating…

Cleaned and Refinished!

The brackets needed to be placed in the exact location of the posts, so the railing was basically used as a “template” to locate the brackets. If the railing could be placed where it was needed, the brackets could be slipped in place and bolted in.

The Jorgensen wood clamps hold it at a consistent height – exact height isn’t important right now, but it is important that it be level during this “fitting”.

Clamped in Place

Post Clamped

With the other two posts still clamped tight to the LVL beam, a bracket could be slid up the third post and then clamped at the right height.

Bracket clamped in place

Then some drilling, and lag bolts would hold it firmly in place to the LVL beam.

Bracket bolted to LVL

Once all brackets were mounted in their right locations on the LVL beam, the “template” railing could be removed, and then horizontal wood braces could be installed between the LVL beam and the next joist. These would supply the structural support for lateral forces against the top of the railing and make it “feel solid”.

Bracket with wood supports

These brackets needed to be installed before we could put down the mezzanine decking. Here’s a pic a few days later, with the decking installed and holes cut out for the brackets.

Decking completed

So now the remaining task was to extend the railing to the wall with a new piece of pipe – and also the biggest design challenge: figure out how to attach it to the wall.

I felt that this attachment component was another opportunity to be innovative – and reuse something from the building. So I searched high and low looking for some kind of object that could be fastened to the wall and also hold up the end of a railing.

Exploring turned up these objects:

Radiator Bracket

These brackets are all over the place – Sue figured out that they used to hold the wall-mounted radiators that are long gone.

Deep in the basement pit

There are some interesting parts down near the “pit” of the old boiler.

Scrap parts

I found a large cast iron circular piece that was attached to these parts. It looked like it would work well – there were 6 holes around the perimeter which would make it easy to use masonry sleeve anchors to attach it to the wall.

Tracy cleaning the new (old) part

Below is  pic of our friend Tracy cleaning up what we’re just calling a 
“bracket” for now. Though we are leaning towards calling it an “escutcheon”; a big ass escutcheon at that.

With straight pipes cultivated from the second floor, and the wall escutcheon cleaned and clear-coated, the last remaining part was to find some kind of “wedge” that I could tap between the straight pipe and the center opening of the escutcheon.

And here’s where a bit of serendipity enters the picture.

Later that day, we were going to our old neighborhood for Allan & Karen’s annual holiday party. The first person we met when we walked in the door was Steve Barzee, a friend of Allan’s. We’ve met Steve before – we see him and his wife Megan every year at this party. Just minutes into our conversation, I remember that he’s a real “shop” guy and likes to make things – he even has a metal lathe and a mill. So I asked him how his metal shop was, and asked his advice on our current railing problem. Sue just happened to have a set of drawings in her purse, so I flipped them over and started sketching the railing detail, the “escutcheon” and then some thoughts I had on this “wedge” idea.

It was one of those great collaborative moments where we were both excited to bounce ideas back & forth – me the guy that had a problem that needed to be solved, and Steve the guy that knew he could solve it. He suggested that he mount the escutcheon to his lathe, and straighten up the center opening and put a slight angle or taper on it, and then make from scratch a “circular wedge” with the same matching taper on the outside, and an inner opening that would match the pipe railing diameter. Sounded perfect.

The detail I worked out with Steve

He then said “I’m available Tuesday night”, and I said “Really?”, not expecting to have this part done so quickly. He wrote down his phone number and address on our plans, and told me go to to Shapiro’s Steel to pick up the blank material. He and his wife needed to leave the party, and I told him I’d call; and as he was walking out the door, he mouthed to Sue: “Make him CALL me…”

At lunch on Monday I went to Shapiro’s and got some thick-walled tubing. (That’s a crazy place – if you watch “American Pickers” on History Channel, Shapiro’s was on a recent episode.)

I called Steve and confirmed; I’d go there after work on Tuesday. I wasn’t sure if that scrap steel tubing would work, so I had this stack of metal gears that’s been sitting under my desk at work for at least 5 years; maybe they might work. I took them with me.

It was amazing watching Steve work – watching him run that lathe was like watching Jacques Pepin chop garlic. (Okay, that means he’s a MASTER at it…)
The pictures below will tell the details; you can click on them to get a description that explains each step.

After a few hours, he handed me a perfectly made “circular wedge” for the railing! And Steve is such a nice guy – he didn’t want anything in return! He said “Some day, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me…”
And it was a lot of fun!

Now with all the parts in hand, Sue & I could install the railing.

Some quick leveling…

Making sure it's level

The posts slid into the sleeves almost perfectly. We held the railing in place with some stainless steel set screws.

Then with the main railing in place, we could measure the length of pipe for the final straight piece – Sue took it into the shop, cut it to length on the chop saw, ground the rough edges with the grinder wheel, and brought it back to me ready to install.

After sliding the escutcheon and wedge onto the straight pipe, I screwed it into the main railing. Then I could slide the escutcheon to the wall to indicate where it needed to be mounted.

Loose fit of the escutcheon

The hammer drill made quick work of making holes for the sleeve anchors.

Hammer drill for six holes

Tapping in an anchor

Escutcheon with anchor bolts

All I knew was that I wouldn’t be happy with these nuts & washers when I bought the sleeve anchors, so I immediately cut them off with the Dremel tool.

Dremel tool to cut anchor bolts

Much better nut

The escutcheon completed

Sorry for such a long post – but this railing project has been going on for a long time and I thought it needed the extensive documentation.

Ta-da!

A Team's accomplishment!

Oh – and a few nights ago I thought I’d look up the patent number that was cast into the escutcheon – and amazingly – there was a drawing of a gigantic boiler with a valve attached to it!
Click here: RailingEndPart

5 Comments leave one →
  1. lauracm permalink
    September 3, 2011 11:55 am

    Thanks Tom–
    I’m inferring from your response that my suspicions are correct– the people generally do “something” to pass code, and then alter as desired post-inspection. Which I suppose is not too difficult in most cases of open railings if you just add solid panels of something (unless your inspector is lax on the issue like yours was!)

    In our case, we really need a CO (ASAP, though we’re still a frighteningly long way from it). We have a LOT of railings that need to be dealt with. We have a good friend who is a fantastic metal worker, and ideally we’d have him fabricate something for us. But because he’s really good at what he does, he always has a huge backlog of work, so he has a huge lead time (plus I think he enjoys making bikes more than railings or solar thermal tanks). And of course, the required quantity of railing means that it’s going to be a spendy proposition (just at the time when we’re getting hit with lots of other construction expenses). We’re trying VERY hard to resist the age-old urge to leave things “unfinished” by promising ourselves that we’ll come back at some magical mythical date and make it “perfect”. (I think this explains why every single project on the house renovation is about 80-90% done. I think it also explains something about my blog– and perhaps my life.) But in this case, maybe our best bet is to give in to the urge (as you suggested), and build a quick and dirty railing out of 2x4s (or 1x2s) and plywood (or corr. metal/welded wire mesh– or orange construction fence) and then do something nicer at a later date when we wouldn’t need to adhere strictly to code.

    Codes are great and all for keeping people’s limbs firmly attached to their bodies, but we’ve just spent about 3 days laboriously reworking an existing stair when it probably would have been easier to build a new stair — but if we did so, we’d have to bring it up to code (make the stair less steep), and there simply isn’t room to do that in this crooked old house. So we detached it from the house, raised the whole thing (to deal with revised floor heights), detached and re-attached the landing, etc. etc. etc. You basically can’t tell that we did anything at all beyond building a new support wall beneath it– and I have to say this experience has taught me that visible progress is MUCH more satisfying than invisible progress.

    Anyway, thanks for your insight!
    BTW, I think your railing is great… very appropriate for a (semi) post-industrial space!
    -Laura

  2. lauracm permalink
    September 2, 2011 10:43 pm

    I have a question for you two. I probably should know the answer to this question by now, but I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t. How do you get an inspector to pass a railing that clearly doesn’t meet code? Just about every stair railing/ detail featured in architecture or shelter mags doesn’t meet code– ‘cuz let’s face it, if it meets the local building code, then it is nearly impossible for it to not be ugly (particularly if you’re going for “modern” and “open”). I have always suspected that people put in something that meets their local codes and makes it impossible to pass a soda can thru, and then they replace the ugly soda-can railing with a lovely cable confection as soon as the inspector has left the premises. However, this is not realistic for us mere mortals who have real (small) budgets, and very limited labor/energy. Clearly you got your open railing past your building official. Was there bribery involved? How did you deal with the issue?

    We’re dealing with this issue at the moment on our eternal remodel, so I just wondered if you had any words of wisdom to share on the subject. Thanks so much!

    • Tom permalink*
      September 2, 2011 11:48 pm

      Hi Laura –
      No bribery! We were prepared to have a fully solid infill on the railing for inspection and then convert to this open railing later, but… our city inspector just let it pass. We didn’t question it.
      First, I’ll apologize if I say anything here that you know, so you can just slap me and say “Duh!”…
      The codes have evolved to protect people from themselves; and from shoddy construction, for better or worse. If you want to create something dangerous in your own house, like a big hole in the floor, so be it and you run the risk of falling through. And a building inspector would only be allowed in to see that big hole during required permit inspections. You can do anything you want to a house while you’re living in it, but as soon as you cross the threshold of requiring a permit or inspection, you expose yourself to an inspector seeing any violations (a big hole in the floor) and require you to bring it up to code. When Sue & I decided that we wanted a really open railing (and if you can tell from other photos, an open well in the loft floor at the windows), we accepted the risk of “falling through”. I like to tell people: “We have no kids and a very smart dog…” Enough on that…

      Our advice: go cheap and temporary to meet the code. The code for a railing is all about not falling past it – it doesn’t matter if the railing has plywood infill, or hell, even orange construction fence – it just has to meet the minimum diameter pass through and height. We built our railing at 42″ AFF, and we planned to put up sheets of plywood attached to the metal posts with plastic zip ties. Had we needed to, it would have cost just a few bucks to bring it up to code. I wanted 42″ cuz I’m just more comfortable standing at a simple bar at that height. (We contemplated not making it that tall only because the original railing parts we salvaged were shorter.)
      If you want, we can take a look at what you want to do and help you come up with some cost-effective ways to meet the code. Hope this helps and sorry if I’ve rambled on needlessly. Feel free to email us: spruchnicki@bondwolfe.com and tom_p@mackeymitchell.com

  3. dby permalink
    January 31, 2011 10:39 am

    I like how you hung the building off that escutcheon. 😉 That thing’s huge.

    Your post shows why it’s not possible to hire something out and expect a decent end result. You just gotta tackle the work yourself.

    • Sue permalink
      January 31, 2011 12:37 pm

      I think it also shows why it takes so much time- it looks simple enough, now that it is installed!

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