Top Rail is an ordinary pipe that is most commonly used in chain link fences and enclosures. On its own, it has a lot of features that make it great for those things, but today I am going to introduce a new connector that unlocks the potential of this ordinary pipe and allows you to use it as an extremely capable and sturdy building material.
If you’ve seen Maker Pipe before, this may not be news to you, but that’s the whole idea behind our business and building system of clamps and accessories. We strive to make it easy for builders of all skill levels to utilize ordinary materials and turn them into amazing things both practical and sometimes not-so-practical.
We started with a Kickstarter in a garage 6 years ago with that mindset and ever since then, builders have been turning ordinary materials like EMT Conduit into all kinds of different projects. A lot of those same builders have reached out and asked us to expand the connector system to larger pipes and tubes for more demanding projects.
With that in mind, we set our sights on 1-⅜” Top Rail fencing pipe. Just like EMT Conduit, it’s readily available locally in hardware and home stores, it’s galvanized steel and made to withstand harsh conditions, it’s fairly lightweight, easy to work with, and also has some other cool built-in features that we will talk about a little bit later.
First, let’s talk about the Top Rail T Connector and its design features. It’s made in our shop in Upstate South Carolina. We make it from American steel and then coat it with a corrosion resistant silver zinc coating.
It is made up of two mirrored pieces that interlock together and clamp down on two pieces of 1-⅜” Top Rail simultaneously. The two-piece design is great for builders because it allows you to add the T Connector anywhere you want along a pipe.
This is especially useful with Top Rail because as I mentioned earlier, it is most commonly used in chain link fences and other things. You may already have a fence in place around your yard or garden that you want to build off of. With this T Connector, you could simply walk up and connect to those existing fence poles and start building a canopy, or garden trellis, or really anything that you want off of it.
The T Connector relies on a friction fit which means you don’t have to worry about drilling through the pipe that you’re connecting. The included nut sits inside of this pocket here which means you don’t have to worry about it spinning while you tighten the bolt on the other side with a 5mm hex wrench.
Like all of our other connectors, you can use any hex wrench that you prefer, but I have found it best to use a ratchet and hex bit because it makes it really easy to torque down the bolt during assembly. I want to mention that the top rail should stop before the bump on the inside of the connector starts when you’re putting it together. If the pipe that you’re inserting here, is too far up, it will cause the connector to splay out more than it should and you won’t be able to tighten it completely.
The friction fit is plenty strong but if you need extra strength, you can add self-tapping screws through the pre-drilled holes and into the Top Rail that you’re connecting. This feature of the connector is a big help when you’re working on large structures that have long continuous spans of pipe.
This actually brings me back to another awesome feature that I wanted to mention about Top Rail. Typically, you can find Top Rail in 10ft lengths off the shelf, which sounds like a lot, and it is, but often times fences need much longer spans than that. Because of this, Top Rail has a built-in coupling. The end of the pipe is swaged so that you can insert it into another piece of Top Rail and potentially continue your spans forever and ever. This is a great feature that builders can take advantage of while working on their larger DIY projects.
What excites me the most about this feature is the fact that the coupling is internal. This means that you could join two pieces of Top Rail together and then add a connector directly over top of the joint and reinforce those longer spans.
Another benefit of Top Rail is that there are quite a few different accessories that already exist for it. You can get things like gate hinges, latches, parallel clamps, and more that will add a lot of possibilities to your builds.
Obviously, Top Rail is great for a lot of reasons, but I wanted to mention something else really exciting. 1-⅜” is a really common outer diameter for pipes and tubes which means there are going to be quite a few other options for building with these connectors.
This connector will natively fit 1” PVC, 1” rigid conduit, and 1” galvanized plumbing pipe to name a few. We will do a follow-up video that dives into more solutions but I can give you a basic rundown now. You can use them with round objects that have an outer diameter of 1.315 or 1-⅜”. Anything below that will need a shim for the gap. We will do a follow up blog and video on solutions for different pipes and tubes.
Next, let’s talk about strength. When we launched the 1” EMT Conduit T Connector a while back, we did some strength testing to help you get a rough idea of what to expect from the various sizes of electrical conduit that our connectors work with. I wanted to provide that same information for Top Rail so I did the exact same test as a couple of years ago, but this time with 1-⅜” Top Rail.
If you don’t remember the tests from before, I built simple 5-foot wide tables with T’s and conduit and loaded boxes of steel parts on top of them. Those boxes weighed roughly 30 pounds each. We’ve found that pipes and tubes are more likely to fail before the connectors so this test is good because it puts a lot of stress on the horizontal spans of pipe to see how much weight they can withstand before bending.
Next, I added two simple braces to the table and performed the same test again to see what a supported 5-foot section could withstand. Yesterday I did the exact same thing but with Top Rail and the new T Connector. I think the results are really impressive!
Before I share them with you, I want to remind you of the results from last time to give some perspective. In the previous testing, I considered it comfortable if the pipes could hold the weight and potentially flex a little bit without leaving permanent bends in the pipe. None of these numbers are meant to be a recommendation or guideline. You should always do testing for your specific projects and keep safety as your number one priority. The unsupported ½” EMT Conduit frame held right between 90 and 120 pounds comfortably. With braces, the frame supported around 150 to 180 pounds. I still that is pretty impressive for such a small diameter tube.
Going up in size, the unsupported ¾” conduit frame held between 180 and 210 pounds. With the two braces in place, it comfortably held about 300 pounds of weight before bending too much.
1” EMT was impressive at the time and still is now. The unsupported 1” conduit frame held between 300 and 330 pounds. With bracing it held roughly 720 pounds comfortably. Now that we’ve got those results in mind, let’s talk about the Top Rail testing.
The unsupported frame comfortably held around 15 - 16 boxes which comes out to roughly 450 - 480 pounds. The braced structure on the other hand comfortably held 35 boxes which is somewhere in the ballpark of 1,050 pounds. I think that’s the max weight that I would personally be comfortable with putting on this particular structure on a regular basis. However, just for the fun of it, I did add 15 more boxes to see how it would handle roughly 1500 pounds.
As you can see it took it like a champ. We did something similar with 1” EMT Conduit and the sides of the frame were bowing out pretty severely as you can see in the last video. The Top Rail frame did have permanent bends in the top pipes after I took the boxes down, but overall it took the weight really well and the sides didn’t bow and bend nearly as much as 1” EMT. These results are exciting because you can now take advantage of another great off-the-shelf material and build really sturdy structures easily with simple hand tools.
Remember also that I tested Top Rail here. If you need a really rigid pipe that has a thicker wall, you could use 1” galvanized pipe or 1” rigid with this connector right out of the box and get even more strength for your build. We’re thrilled to be offering this connector and hope you share our excitement. You can find it here if you want to check it out for yourself. Thanks for reading and happy building!