Decks, Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation, Patios, Resources

Choosing the Right Railing for Your Deck or Patio

Cable Railing

A critical decision in building a deck or patio is the railing system. One has to consider safety, durability, code compliance and aesthetics.

Railings represent a surprisingly significant portion of the overall deck cost (the below options range in material price from about $22 per linear foot to over $100). Yet they’re a great opportunity for design creativity and a chance for the homeowner to put his or her distinctive stamp on the project.

Here are some popular railing options to consider (see larger photos at bottom of post):

Cedar Railing
Cedar Railing

Cedar railings (or redwood or cypress) are a versatile and affordable option. I prefer the horizontal look, with minimal spacing between boards for privacy and to discourage tykes from climbing. They provide a warm, natural atmosphere and allow variation of the railing height for different sections and applications. A selection of grades are available — from clear vertical grain and clear all-heart (which can get pricey) to grades in which tight knots are permitted. These softwoods require minimal maintenance, although they will fade to neutral gray over time unless they are periodically sealed. By putting a piece of composite decking on top of the railing, we can provide a handrail and visually tie the cedar railing into the deck.

Metal Balusters
Metal Balusters

Metal Balusters (spindles) can be used with pressure-treated, cedar or composite posts / supports. On a large deck, especially, the composite spindle cost can add up, so the less expensive metal balusters provide a nice compromise. Using metal balusters with pressure-treated or cedar posts / supports is one of the most affordable and maintenance-free railing options, but the natural wood introduces a new material to the composite deck and can offend those with delicate design sensibilities.

Metal Railing
Metal Railing

Metal Railings (aluminum, iron or steel) also provide a wide style range, from simple to ornate. Metal railings come in sections, which allow high strength for long, unsupported spans. They need very little maintenance, and plain aluminum railings can be very affordable. As you get into iron or steel railings, though, they often require custom manufacture and can become expensive.

Composite Railing
Composite Railing

Full Composite Railing Systems are offered by most composite decking manufacturers. They provide deck uniformity, come in a variety of colors and don’t require any more maintenance than the composite deck itself (occasional cleaning). These systems are quite expensive, though, so they aren’t the default railing selection one might assume. We often use elements of composite railing systems (see Metal Balusters, above) combined with natural woods or metal to keep railing budgets from getting out of hand, especially on larger projects. See more photos of this deck.

Steel Skeleton / Softwood Railing
Steel Skeleton / Softwood Railing

Steel Skeleton / Softwood Railings are a welcome discovery I recently made while driving through South Philadelphia. I literally slammed on the brakes, took pictures, and dialed our steel manufacturer for pricing. A viable option for either a patio or deck, these railings combine a solid steel structure with short segments of softwood (usually cedar or redwood), resulting in a contemporary yet warm look. The cedar (as mentioned above) requires periodic sealing or it will eventually fade to gray — a small price to pay (in my book) for such a sharp-looking, durable railing.

Cable Railing
Cable Railing

Cable Railings, or wire rope railings, use horizontal or vertical stainless-steel cables in place of spindles or glass. They’re a terrific contemporary architectural approach and enhance the view with minimal obstruction. Frames can be built with a variety of wood, steel, extruded aluminum stainless steel metal post-and-rail components for different settings. These systems are certainly on the pricey side, though, and horizontal cables can provide climbing temptation for youngsters.

Glass-Panel Railing
Glass-Panel Railing

Glass-Panel Railings also provide a largely unobstructed view of the surroundings. They can be built with large glass panels or individual balustrades. They suggest a contemporary look, but rail frames and posts can be designed to accommodate a variety of architectural styles. Although using monolithic tempered, laminated tempered or heat-strengthened glass significantly reduces the possibility of breakage, they do require occasional cleaning to maintain optimal appearance and view. These railing systems are also among the priciest available.

There are myriad additional railing options, including vinyl, lattice, composite wood, galvanized metal sheets, etc. The above materials provide a solid base from which to start, and we are always open to exploring new and creative ideas.