The mahogany handrails aboard our boat were toast. They had been sanded and refinished until they were to skinny to be safe. It was time to replace them. The question was with what would replace them. Teak or mahogany handrails are widely used aboard power and sailboats but, in most cases, they were custom made by the boatbuilding company to fit a specific boat.
There were stock wooden handrails, polymer lumber handrails as well as stainless steel ones on the shelf or in boat supply catalogs. The problem was none of them fit our boat. They were too long or too short. They were straight while ours were curved. The stainless steel models were too short and got too hot in the direct sun.
It was evident that I would have to build my own custom replacement handrails to get a proper fit. After very little thought, I decided to use polymer lumber, as supplied by King Plastics (Starboard (R)) or Taco Metals for example. Polymer lumber is strong, doesn’t absorb water, can be worked with regular woodworking tools and doesn’t need finishing.
The last property has sold me on this material for many of my exterior boating projects – I hate to varnish and exposed varnish doesn’t last long.
There are polymer handrails on the market but they weren’t long enough to replace my wooden ones. They were cut from 3/4-inch thick polymer, making the base only 3/4 of an inch wide. I didn’t feel this provided much support for a vital piece of safety gear. Even through-bolted, I felt the base wasn’t wide enough to provide stability to the handrail. Using a thicker polymer lumber proved much more expensive as well as proving harder to find.
After a few sketches, the design evolved into a 2-inch wide handrail cut from 3/4-inch stock. The wide dimension of the handrail was horizontal with all the corners rounded for a comfortable grip. A quick trial with a small piece of 2-inch wide stock proved that the design would indeed provide a very comfortable grip.
Some of the leftover stock from cutting the curved handrails was then used to make spacers to raise the handrail up off the deck. As a single layer of 3/4-inch stock didn’t provide enough room under the handrail, the spacers would be two layers of 3/4inch stock. The end spacers would be left a little long to allow the handrail ends to be sanded to a smooth tapered design.
The next step was to develop the pattern for the handrails. In a perfect world, the port handrail would be a mirror image of the starboard one. I’m here to tell you that this isn’t a perfect world; each side needed its own pattern. The patterns were made from strips of poster boards taped together to form a long strip. As the handrails were already off the boat, the pattern blanks were screwed down in place using self-taping sheet metal screws in the existing mounting holes.
The screws were threaded through 2-inch diameter paper washers. The washers defined the outside edges of the handrail and their outline was traced onto the poster board strip. I used a thin wood strip, bent to touch the circles traced around the paper washers, to define the exact shape and curve of the handrail. The pattern was then cut out with a pair of scissors and marked as to which side it fit and which end was forward
The two handrails and associated spacers required a piece of 3/4-inch thick polymer lumber about 12-inches by 60-inches. After tracing the handrail patterns onto the lumber, I cut them out with my saber saw. A new, medium tooth blade with slow but steady pressure worked well. As noted before, polymer lumber is easily worked with standard woodworking tools.
The leftover scraps were used to cut out the spacers for supporting the handrail. The end spacers were a full 2-inches wide while the intermediate spacers were only 1-1/2-inches wide. This allowed the edges of the handrails to be rounded over the full length of the handrail.
The spacers were cut to size and drilled for the mounting holes. I stacked all the intermediate spacers on a threaded rod so I could sand them to a uniform size. Once that was done, I rounded over all the corners of the spacers with a round-over bit in my router.
The end spacers were temporarily bolted together so the ends could be sanded to a smooth, tapered shape. I did the first end more or less free hand with a belt sander. I made a small pattern and traced the outline onto the polymer stock for the remainder of the ends so they would match the first end.
Once the ends were shaped, I rounded all the remaining edges of the handrail, top and bottom, with the round-over bit in my router.
I finished all the cut and routered edges with progressively finer sandpaper until there was a uniform finish. Polymer lumber can also be “flame polished” by passing the flame of a propane torch over the surface but that tales a careful and even touch to avoid burning the lumber. I didn’t try it…
I installed the handrails using stainless steel oval headed machine screws. I used stainless finishing washers on the top side of the handrails and large fender washers and acorn nuts on the underside.
One of the most important steps in installing anything that passes through a deck or cabin top is to properly seal the holes so no water leaks into the core of the deck. The core, if present should be cut back and replaced with epoxy and filler. The hole is then re-drilled through this solid epoxy plug.
I also used rubber washers under the spacers. This allowed me to tighten down the handrails without squeezing out all the sealant. One of the most common causes of leaks is a too thin layer of sealant under fittings. A thicker layer of sealant allows for more movement between the various materials as the deck and fitting have different expansion and contraction rates.
The handrails were a bit more expensive than wooden ones, but not by much, especially if the wood used was teak. I gained a set of handrails with a more modern look and feel, but best of all, freedom from future varnishing. This design is flexible and can be used on straight as well as curved handrails. In fact, straight handrails are even simpler as all the cuts can be made on the table saw.
Try ‘em; I think you’ll like them!