On Problem Solving and Deck Repair

One of the things I love about my job – probably the thing I love most about it – is that it provides me interesting problems to solve.

Yes, I like writing code, and writing clean code probably prevents having to solve problems in the future, but the code itself is just a tool to solve a problem.  Over the Memorial Day weekend I spent some time working with a completely different set of tools to problem solve and it was a ton of fun.

Back in mid-November there was a pretty violent wind storm that came through our area.  Lots of trees and power lines down and we were among the many who lost power.  With a baby at home and no way to heat her food, we decided to evacuate for the night.

When we got back in the morning, I saw this on our deck.

A look at our damaged deck, with the railing broken, a post cap missing, and balusters strewn around.
A look at our damaged deck, with the railing broken, a post cap missing, and balusters strewn around.

We didn’t see what caused it but given that our neighbor’s trampoline went missing in the storm and debris from it was stretched across four yards, our working theory is that it got picked up, carried across one yard, slammed into our deck and snapped the railing, and then continued on.

A couple more looks at the damage, after a little bit of cleanup:

I managed to recover all of the balusters and the missing post cap was found cracked in half.  The screws holding in the missing side of the railing were sheared off, still stuck in the post.

Now, I’m extremely proud of this deck.  My dad, uncle, and I built it ourselves a few years ago and even though I can point out every tiny flaw in it, it’s something I look at and say “Holy crap, we made that.”  So it being damaged was unacceptable to me but I figured this was something that wouldn’t be hard to fix.  The pieces that were broken could be replaced, no big deal.  I figured I’d wait until Spring to take care of it in good weather.

Of course, it couldn’t be as easy as that.

Solution #1
Spring rolled around and I headed over to Home Depot to order another rail kit and post cap.  They managed to find my original order in their system and got the part numbers but it turned out that none of that is actually made anymore.  You can’t order those parts.  So that’s one option gone.

Solution #2
It was suggested that I just buy whatever rail kit came closest and live with the fact that it wouldn’t match perfectly.  As I said, I’m proud of this deck, so that was unacceptable to me.

Solution #3
Similar to the above, it was suggested that I have a piece of wood milled to match the design of the existing composite railing, then paint it to match.  This was also rejected out of hand because there’s a reason we went with composite in the first place, we didn’t want anything we’d have to re-paint every couple years.

At this point, I went back to the two pieces of railing I had and started looking at them more closely to see what could be made of them.

Solution #4
Glue the two pieces back together.  Construction adhesive isn’t strong enough to hold up enough for it to actually be a functional railing, so this one was out.

Solution #5
The rail kit is hollow.  Run a piece of wood through that gap to provide strength and then glue it back together.  I still think if I knew more this would have been the right solution but I couldn’t find anything that fit that space properly and was still strong enough to hold.

Solution #6
Run a piece of metal through the hollow rail.  Unfortunately, the screws from the studs that the balusters are held in place by go into the hollow space, so filling that area with metal was out.

Solution #7
Is there some kind of concrete foam I can spray in that gap?  Something that will harden and give me the strength I’m looking for but can be sprayed in to work around the odd shape of the opening and the existing screws going into it?

At this point I’m clearly grasping at straws, walking up and down aisles at Lowe’s looking for something I can use when it hits me:

Solution #8
Epoxy.  I’d been thinking in terms of tools I had used before, like construction adhesive.  Where construction adhesive is too weak, this particular epoxy can (supposedly) handle 4400 PSI.

I ended up running a thin piece of wood through the gap in the rail and screwing the baluster studs into it, then slathering a ton of epoxy onto the rail at the point of the break and joining it back together.  After drying, it has no give.

With the epoxy having worked so well, I used a little more of it to piece the post cap back together.

The broken screws and bracket were easy enough to replace (though I had to spray paint them to match the existing ones a little more closely) and now everything is back together.

The crack is still visible and there’s a bit of a stain where excess epoxy got out but I’m thrilled with the result.  From more than a couple feet away, you can’t tell it was ever broken.

Of course, I’ll see it every time I walk past it, but at least now I’ll look at it with pride in having found an acceptable solution instead of disdain for having had to settle.

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