Turn Your Deck Railing into a Bar by Retrofitting Your Wooden Top Rails
I love reinventing spaces to transform an existing area into something new. The pavilion I built in the backyard recently was a fabulous project, but it lacked one key component: a bar. That’s when my wife had the idea to turn a section of the wooden deck railing into a bar top, complete with bar stools. Genius. Now we can enjoy an outdoor bar under my mini cooking pavilion.
This bar top project was actually a bit more involved than I’d expected, and it required some special hardware, but once all was said and done, we had a wonderful bar that let us enjoy a few drinks while looking out at the grass and woods behind our home. So what did it take to transform a normal deck railing into a bar? Well, it required some creativity, the right hardware, and a desire for a fabulous outdoor entertainment area.
Evaluating Your Railings Before Adding the Bar
Before you get started, you’ll need to evaluate your current wood railing to determine if you’ll have to make any railing modifications in order to build your bar. For instance, if your railing posts are topped with metal or wooden finials, then you’ll need to remove these prior to proceeding. That’s because the bar will need to sit directly on top of the fence posts.
You may also need to evaluate the overall condition and quality of your wood railing and railing posts. You’ll be adding top-heavy weight to the structure and the posts will be under added strain since people tend to lean on a bar. It’s important that the posts have the structural integrity required to support this added strain, or you could see degradation and damage in the not-so-distant future. Once you’ve taken a close look at your railings, you’re ready to get started.
STEP 1: Level your railing posts. Use a level to determine if the top surface of each railing post is perfectly flat and horizontal. If there’s any unevenness or if the surface is not perfectly flat, then you’ll need to use a plane or sander to level it.
STEP 2: Seal your deck railing. Now is a good time to seal and stain the railing, since it will be less accessible once you add the bar components. I used an oil-based wood stain and sealer designed to resist fading and repel water to prevent wood degradation over time.
STEP 3: Design your bar and determine dimensions. The sky is the limit when it comes to the design of your bar top. Your options are flexible in terms of length, but you should allow for about three feet of length per person. In terms of the depth of the bar (distance from front to back), that’s something that’s also flexible. I recommend having a depth of about two feet, so you’ll have plenty of room to eat, drink and relax. But you can certainly opt for something more narrow if you’re just looking for a place to sit with a glass of wine in the evening.
STEP 4: Build your bar top. Basically, you’ll want to build a flat rectangular wooden panel to serve as your bar top. This panel can range be a solid piece of plywood that’s covered with a mosaic of tiles, or wooden planks that are arranged side-by-side. Or, if you’re adept at woodworking, you can get very fancy with this part of the process, using different species of wood to create various designs and even inlays. You can dress up your bar top using a wood burning tool, carving tool, or a durable outdoor-friendly paint. You could even opt for a stone bar top, although your deck railing would need to be very robust to support the weight.
Whatever bar top surface you choose, it must tolerate exposure to the elements and it needs to stand up to the moisture rings, scuffs, and scrapes that will arise from normal use. This may mean that you apply a thick layer of lacquer, or perhaps you’ll find that a good stain is sufficient. If you go this route, over time you’ll end up with a distressed, weathered look that’s more in line with that shabby-chic style that my wife tells me is “in.”
STEP 5: Build a frame to support your bar. You’ll need to attach your bar top to the actual deck railing, so this is where your frame will come into play. You’ll need to get some two-by-fours, some L-brackets, timber screws, and sturdy rafter clips. The exact quantity of each item will vary depending upon your dimensions. A simple 6-foot bar might require four L-brackets (one for each corner of the frame), and 12 rafter clips so you can situate one every half foot. If the bar top is heavy, you may want to place rafter clips every 4 or 5 inches, whereas if your bar top is lightweight, you may place one rafter clip every 8 or 12 inches. You’ll need enough timber screws to secure the brackets and to build the frame (and in some cases, to build the actual bar top, depending on what style you choose).
The frame will support your bar top, and if viewed the frame from above, it would look like a long rectangle coming forward from your deck railing, parallel to the ground. The railing will form one of the long sides of the rectangle, and the two-by-fours that comprise your rectangular frame should be a few inches shorter than each side of the bar top. This way, the rectangular frame will sit inside the larger rectangle that is your bar top. This will result in a frame that’s inset beneath the bar top (and therefore, less visible.)
The easiest option is to assemble the three sides of the rectangle using wood screws and L-brackets to provide added support at each joint. Then, align the frame with the deck railing and use the screws and brackets to affix the frame to the railing. You may opt to place an extra wooden support or bracket at the point where the frame sits perpendicular to the deck railing posts. This is a wise idea if you’re using a bar top that’s especially heavy or if your railing’s wood isn’t in perfect condition.
I should note that if you’re simply building a wider lip atop your deck railing—essentially creating a bar-like shelf where you can place your drinks—then you might be able to get away with affixing a wide board or mini-shelf to the top of your railing without necessarily building a frame. This could be done with screws alone or with screws and some small rafter clips positioned at the point where the underside of the “shelf” sits at a right angle to each railing post. The only downside to this is that you’re limited in terms of size and weight. Make it too wide or too heavy and you’ll end up with a structure that’s top-heavy and likely to fail.
STEP 6: Affix the bar top to the frame and railing. The last step involves placing the bar top atop of the frame and railing, positioning it precisely how you’d like it to sit. Then, affix the bar top to the frame and railing using short screws (so you don’t penetrate the bar top surface!) and a small bracket, like rafter clips.
That’s really all there is to transforming your deck railing into a bar. You can really let your imagination run wild on this project, as there are no hard and fast rules. It’s just important to make sure you use good quality hardware. If you opt for cheap hardware, you’ll find that the hardware fails long before the lumber even shows signs of weathering. This is not to mention that corroding or failing hardware could make your bar area unsafe and unattractive. It’s also especially important to choose the right fastener for ACQ treated lumber projects.
I recommend OZCO’s products, as I’ve used them for many DIY projects, including an arbor and pergola. They make hardware that is incredibly tough–hot-dipped galvanized with a tough powder coat on top–and stylish, too. This hardware actually adds to the way your project looks. OZCO also has handy detailed plans (with material lists) on their website, if you need some inspiration or guidance. So gather up some beautiful, uniquely designed hardware and some lumber, and start working on your bar top! Your significant other will love you for it, I promise.