Canadian Woodworking

Make a railing bar

Author: Rob Brown
Photos: Rob Brown
Illustration: Len Churchill
Published: August September 2023

If you have a small patio a project like this will give you a place to pull up a chair and have a meal or drink outdoors.

  • COST
Railing bar illo
Railing bar material list

We have a small front patio that overlooks a street that has lit­tle vehicular traffic but a fair bit of foot traffic. We’ve never sat out front because there wasn’t really enough room for a few mid-sized chairs and a table. When I realized a railing bar would be small enough so that it wouldn’t monopolize the area, yet large enough to pull a couple of stools up to it, I decided to build one. And when the stools aren’t in use they fit underneath the railing bar.

Ease the Edge
Brown routed a round over profile into the underside of the surface. He didn’t rout the rear edge.

Ease the Edge

A Blade Kerf
A blade kerf is all that was needed in the horizontal support rails. Position one edge of the kerf so once the mating tenon is machined the rear faces of the two parts are flush.

A Blade Kerf

Small But Mighty
Now that the mating tenon has been machined on the vertical support rail workpiece, these pieces can be ripped in half to form the two support brackets.

Small But Mighty

Ease Their Ends
The ends of the horizontal and vertical support rails can have their ends rounded so when users sit at the bar they won’t hit their knees on any sharp edges.

Ease Their Ends

Pilot Holes
With the horizontal and vertical support rails clamped together and the cross brace in place, drill a pilot hole through the rails and into the cross brace at both ends. Next, remove the cross brace and countersink the holes in the horizontal and vertical support rails so the screwheads sit flush.

Pilot Holes

Slat Spacer
In order for the support to come into contact with the slats and support the surface properly, a spacer needs to be attached to the rear of the support bracket. The thickness of the slat spacer underneath the groove should be equal to the setback of the slats from the railing.

Slat Spacer

Jig for Notching
Brown started the finger joint by machining the two outer notches in the vertical portion of the railing hooks.

Jig for Notching

Perfectly Centred
After machining the two outer notches, Brown adjusted the jig to machine another notch as close to centre as possible. After making one pass he rotated the workpiece and ran it again, ensuring the notch would be perfectly centred on the workpiece.

Perfectly centered

Fingers Are Ready
The finished workpieces that make up the railing hooks are now complete. Notice how each workpiece is the same, and mating parts will have to be cut from this blank to make each arm hook.

Fingers Are Ready

The Tape Trick
While machining the mating finger joints, Brown needed to move the workpiece ever so slightly to one side. Rather than trying to adjust the jig very slightly, he applied a piece of masking tape to the edge of the jig’s fence, moving the workpiece slightly to obtain a properly fitting joint.

The Tape Trick

Clamp Them Up
Ample glue will keep these finger joints together and act as the main joint keeping the railing bar in place for many years.

Clamp Them Up

Shapely Arms
The railing hooks are now assembled and their upper ends are being rounded. This could have been done before they were assembled.

Shapely Arms

Glue Groove
Brown carved a shallow groove into the glue surface of the railing hooks so squeeze-out would be minimized.

Glue Groove

Make Way
Brown had to cut a shallow notch in the rear edge of his surface to make room for a few brackets that hold a planter box on the railing.

Make Way

Protection From UV Rays
A finish that will protect against UV rays is critical for wood that will be used outdoors. Here, Brown applies Evo UVIO to the wood to offer a lot of UV protection. Once it dried, he applied another Evo product called Ligna Hybri-deck to stain and further protect the wood

Protection From UV Rays

Size the situation up

While there are common railing heights, not every railing is built to these standards. Also, not all patio and railing designs are the same, nor is the seating used on our patios the same height. I won’t mention too many specifics in terms of dimensions, as these differ­ences will affect your specific situation. The height of my railing is 42″ and the stools we have are 30″ high. You might need to adjust the height of your railing bar to suit your seating and railing. You may also have to adjust the dimensions of the wooden brackets you make to secure your bar surface to the railing.

You’ll also need the dimensions of the parts that make up your railing and the width and setback of the slats that run up into the railing. I made a full-sized sketch of the parts to be sure the dimen­sions I would be working with were accurate. The main surface will be positioned about 1/8″ away from the railing. The arm hooks will be adhered to the main surface so there’s about 1/8″ gap between the rear edge of the surface and the inner face of the top arm. The brackets will get screwed to the underside of the surface and rest against the slats that make up the railing, supporting the surface. The brackets can be removed at the end of the season when it’s time to store the bar for the winter.

It’s one thing to make a wooden railing bar rock solid but remem­ber it’s only going to be as strong as its weakest link. In some cases that might be the railing. If you have a wooden railing that’s par­tially rotten or not built correctly, or if your metal railing is weaker than it should be, it might be best to upgrade your railing first. And making a railing bar for many people might cause undue stress on even the strongest railings, so please consider this before making a bar that fits your entire hockey team when they come over for a few drinks.

Materials for the great outdoors

Water and sunlight wreak havoc on wood, adhesives and wood finish. Having said that, there are products that stand up to the ele­ments quite nicely for several years. Choose them wisely and you’ll never regret your choice.

Some wood species deteriorate very quickly outside. Others, such as white oak, teak, ipe and cedar, stand the test of time. Not only will these woods last for a long time, but they look great. I made this railing bar out of white oak, mainly because I wanted a light-coloured wood in this situation.

Selecting the proper adhesives are also critical to the long-term success of this, as well as any, outdoor project. I used Titebond III on this bar, but there are many other waterproof PVA glues on the market. What adhesive you choose often depends on your level of familiarity with it and how easy it is to use.

A finish also plays an important role in the long-term look and function of a project that ends up outdoors. A finish that’s not for­mulated to be outside will break down very quickly. There are lots of options on the market, many of which are available in a wide range of colours.

Start with the bar surface

There are three main components to this build: the surface, the supports and the railing hooks. I’ll start with the surface, as the other two parts are built with its dimensions in mind.

After a few months of use, I find 11″ deep is comfortable for a regular-sized dinner plate. However, if there was room I would add another 2″ to this. In terms of length, this is going to vary for every­one. I made the surface 56″ long, which I find is enough for two people, with a bit of added room for drinks, napkins and cutlery. If you’re going to make the bar surface long enough for more than three people I would suggest adding extra brackets to support the surface.

And if you feel the crowd could be rowdy and exert a more-than-normal force on the surface while dining or drinking, an extra bracket will also reduce the chance of a catastrophe. The two brack­ets I used are quite strong and I have no worries about something giving way.

With the railing bar surface dimensions determined, machine the surface. I laminated two planks of white oak to give me enough width to work with. Next, I added a curve to both front corners. I sketched a shape onto the surface then faired the curve with a French curve template. A bandsaw or jigsaw will remove most of the waste and a belt or edge sander will smooth the cut edge. I added a round over to the underside of the surface at this stage. There will be a bit more work to do on the surface, but I saved that for after I had a chance to work out a few other details.

The support assemblies

I made two support assemblies to keep the bar surface square to the railing and assist in supporting it. The exact dimensions of these parts aren’t critical as long as they will fit underneath the top without becoming an eyesore. Because these parts are on the small side, and there are multiple parts that are exactly the same, I machined a blank that was just over twice the width of the fin­ished parts, machined the joinery, then ripped them to final width. I cut the parts to finished length, then ran a small blade kerf toward the ends of the horizontal support rails. This kerf would eventually accept a tenon from the vertical support rails and only needed to be about 1/4″ deep and the width of a blade. The location of the kerf needs to be positioned so when the hori­zontal support rails mate with the vertical support rails, the vertical support rails are flush with the ends of the horizontal sup­port rails.
Next, machine a tenon on the ends of the vertical support rails to fit into the kerf. At this point you can rip the workpieces in half. Dry assemble the support brackets and obtain the length of the cross braces. Cut these so the horizontal and vertical support rails finish an inch or so beyond the cross braces.

Mark small arcs on the ends of the hori­zontal and vertical support rails, then cut and sand their ends. This is to ease the sharp corners in case anyone bangs their knee on them in use.

Drill a pilot hole through the horizon­tal and vertical support rails into the cross braces, then counter sink the holes in the horizontal and vertical support rails. At this stage it’s a good idea to mark all the parts so you’ll know how they fit back together.

Once the parts are sanded, and you’ve broken any sharp edges, glue and screw the supports together.

Finally, build the slat spacer to make up the difference between the inner face of the slats and the inner face of your railing. This will allow the supports to sit close to flush with the rear edge of the surface, but still come into contact with the slats. This was 5/8″ in my case. These pieces are essentially rectangular pieces with a dado in them slightly wider than the width of the slats.

The railing hooks

The railing hooks are high on the list of importance to the suc­cess of this project. They need to be strong enough to support the surface and whatever force users add to it.

Small pieces are harder to machine, so I left the blanks long enough to obtain two parts from. I broke out two blanks that each contained a horizontal and a vertical railing hook combination.

It’s important to note that while the two blanks each have one horizontal railing hook and one vertical railing hook, the joint cut on one blank will actually mate with a joint cut onto the other blank. This is just so you can test fit each joint while it’s in a lon­ger, more easily machined, blank. It’s obviously impossible to test a joint’s fit with the mating part if that mating part is connected to the other end of that blank.

Although other joints could be used to connect these two pieces, a finger joint provides lots of glue surface area and will create a strong joint. I started by cutting the outer finger notches in the ver­tical railing hooks. With a jig that held the parts at 90° to the blade and a dado blade in my table saw, I adjusted the jig to cut a notch in one side of the workpiece, then rotated the part to notch the other side. I repeated this for the other vertical railing hook.

After adjusting the jig to cut another notch as close to centre as possible, I machined the centre notch. Then, to ensure the notch was perfectly centred on the workpiece, I rotated the workpiece 180° and recut it.

Next, the mating finger joints were cut in the horizontal rail­ing hooks. I started by marking the locations for the finger notches on the workpiece. Use a dado blade that’s a bit narrower than the finger notch you need to cut. Adjust the jig to machine the outer face of the joint first. You can check this setup by making a pass and then laying both parts of the joint edge-down on a flat surface and bringing them together. When they align you can cut the other workpiece, then rotate both workpieces and machine the other fin­ger notch on the opposite side of the joint. If you’re going to err on either side, I would leave a bit of extra material on the joint, as you can always shave it down with a shoulder plane or chisel. Gluing on a piece of material to make up for a gap is possible, but it takes more time.

Adjust the jig to cut the inner sides of the finger notches and run the parts over the blade. The final fit should be snug, but not super tight. Sand the inner faces of the parts and glue up the railing hooks. When dry, mark the curves on their ends then cut and sand them smooth.

You can now screw the railing hooks to the surface. The gap between the rear edge of the surface and the inner face of the hooks should be 1/8″ more than the width of your railing. Just screw them in place for now.

Test fit

At this stage it’s time to head to the patio and check for fit. If you’re like me, you’ve probably done this earlier in the building process, too. A helper is very handy. I had to notch the rear edge of the main surface so it would fit around some metal brackets holding up a planter box. Otherwise, it fit perfectly and I could con­fidently move forward.

Final details

Back in the shop I notched the rear edge of the surface for the planter box hardware and sanded all the surfaces. The arm hook-to-surface joint needed to be strong. Because I didn’t want glue squeezing out when I glued the arm hook onto the surface, I carved a shallow groove in the glue surface of the arm hook. This groove caught any excess glue before it squeezed out.

Finally, I added a few contrasting plugs in the surface. This was strictly for aesthetics.

Apply a finish

Like I said previously, there are many options when it comes to what finish you could apply. Test any finish you select on a piece of scrap before committing to the entire project to ensure you like the colour and final look. I went with a product called Ligna Hybri-deck from Evo Home Finishing. It’s formulated to stand up to the moisture outdoors.

The colour I choose (Maple Sugar) didn’t have the UV protection I needed so I applied a coat of Evo’s UVIO first. I brushed it on, waited four hours, then applied two coats, separated by less than 30 minutes of Hybri-deck on top of it. It was a simple process that has so far stood up to what Mother Nature has thrown at it.

With the cured Hybri-deck product, if the finish gets 10 hours or so of sunlight per day, you should reapply the same Hybri-deck after two years after a basic cleaning. If the finish gets less sunlight the need to reapply will be greatly reduced.

Once the finish has cured, and the railing bar has been installed, it’s time for the payoff. Grab a snack and a drink and say hi to passersby.

Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement. Instagram at @RobBrownTeaches

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