Volume 35, Number 8, August 2000



Glass Handrails for Dummies

simple steps to successful installation

 by Larry Morse

If you’ve been to a bookstore lately, you have undoubtedly seen the familiar yellow and black books with titles such as Computers for Dummies or Gardening for Dummies. The publisher of the Dummies series has enjoyed tremendous success with its straightforward, instructional guides covering a wide range of business and personal topics. The “goof-proof” approach has struck a responsive chord with people looking for understandable how-to information.

As prolific as the books have become, there is still no book for every topic—including a volume offering advice on installing glass handrails. Until the day one is introduced, following are some helpful guidelines to ensure a proper installation.

My company provided the handrail system referenced in this article. However, the instructions apply equally well to the most common types of glass handrail systems available from any supplier.


1. Know the Code.

To clarify terms, most building codes differentiate between handrail and guardrail, based upon their function. The word handrail is used when describing a system used for support and/or guidance, while guardrail is used to describe a system that can prevent accidents. In this regard, a typical handrail varies from 34- to 38-inches in height and a guardrail nearly always measures 42-inches in height. In addition, most model codes have some basic load requirements. At a distance of 42- inches above floor level, the system should be able to handle a 50-pound uniform load or a 200-pound concentrated load. The bottom line is that each system designer should consult governing code, local ordinances, project specifications and regulatory authorities to determine requirements for compliance.

Many installation subcontractors do not take any chances when it comes to meeting codes. “We like to draw up our projects and submit them to an engineer to get his/her blessing,” said Mike Boydstun of Eastside Glass of Kirkland, Wash., a firm with more than 25 years of experience installing glass handrail systems. “We have to be sure that the structure will withstand imposed loads. Since each individual glass handrail or guardrail system differs in some way, it is advisable to have an engineer review every project.”


2. Put your shoes on first.

The first piece of a glass handrail component to be installed is the shoe molding. It will act as the base for the entire system by attaching to the substrate. It is imperative that each shoe molding is level. “Sometimes we find floors that are not level, so we place shims between the molding and substrate to make the shoes level,” said Boydstun. Once the pre-drilled shoe molding is level, attach it to the substrate with stainless steel cap screws or bolts. The size of these can vary depending upon the substrate, but Morse suggests ½-inch on most applications. When attaching the molding to steel, Boydstun recommends using a threaded fastener whenever possible.

Once all of the shoe molding is secured, cover the screws or bolts with a sealant. This guarantees no moisture or setting cement will leak through where the screws or bolts have been driven.


3. Block it up.

Place setting blocks inside of the shoe moldings to provide support and cushion for the glass panels. These flexible blocks will hold the glass panel in place without letting it come in contact with the shoe molding. The blocks should be placed at quarter points within the base, that is, one-quarter of the width of the glass from each end. Once these have been set into the base, the glass panel can be installed.

4. Set the glass.

The process by which the glass panel is secured in the shoe molding is fairly consistent within the industry. The glass panel fits into the setting blocks and is held in place temporarily (at Eastside Glass, installers have found that spraying glass cleaner on the setting blocks first can make glass placement easier). Use shims at various points throughout the system to help position the glass properly, then utilize a level to align and plumb the glass along these points.

The glass is now ready to be affixed within the base permanently. An installer has a number of options for filling the remainder of the base. An expansive cement or non-shrinking metallic grout often is used at the discretion of the specifier. While some applications call for a specific material, it is often left to the installer to decide what type of filler to use. Boydstun prefers a product called Por-Rok® for its ability to mix to almost a watery texture and harden quickly.

“Because it is so much like a liquid when it is first applied, make sure the ends are capped so the mixture does not run out,” added Boydstun. If faced with an extremely short run, the ends can be capped easily with duct tape. Most of the time, however, small end caps affixed to the shoe molding are advised.


5. Give some space.

In order to prevent glass-to-glass contact, place a temporary vinyl spacer between panels. The spacer typically measures from ¼- to 4-inches depending upon how much space is desired between the panels. The spacers can be removed once the installation process is complete.


6. Top it off.

The next step is to add the top rail and any handrail that may be needed. Railing comes in a variety of materials (brass, stainless steel and aluminum) and finishes. You can also choose from a wide range of railing diameters, ranging from 11/2- to 4-inches outside diameter (OD). According to our railing specialist Dana White, some glaziers overlook the need to check the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements when they are choosing railing for a particular job. “It can make a big difference in product selection,” he said. “While there is some flexibility regarding size, we commonly supply 11/2 inch OD railing to our clients when the application needs to be ADA-compliant.”

The top rail is manufactured for use over the top edge of the glass panels and often functions as the handrail. In cases that it does not, the handrail is attached to the glass with brackets mounted directly onto the glass.

Prior to installing the top rail, place a rigid protective insert over the top edge of the glass. This fits snugly inside the top rail and is hidden from view when the installation is complete. The protective insert and rail can be affixed to the glass by using a bead of silicone or clear adhesive. The rail should be hammered into place using great care in order to protect the rail and glass. When doing this, remember to protect all surfaces.


7. Add the finishing touches.

Lengths of rail can be joined together by internal splice connectors, resulting in a nearly seamless appearance. End caps have a connector sleeve of its own that provides a finishing accent. These end caps are attached with adhesive or screws. Boydstun prefers the use of silicone for a quick and safe installation.

The structure of the system is now complete and fully functional. At this point, you may wish to add cladding material to the exposed base, in order to match the look of the rail. Silicone or two-way tape can be used to adhere the cladding to the base moulding. The cladding can be installed quickly, giving the system a finished look in a short period of time.

If installed correctly, a glass handrail system can offer both beauty and stability making these systems a popular choice for both new construction and remodeling projects.

Larry Morseis a partner of Morse Industries in Kent, Wash., a national supplier of handrail components and other architectural metal products.


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