Deck Railing Styles and Installation Guide

Information on the Styles Now Available

The deck railing style you chose for your new deck is the piece de resistance of the project. Safety is the practical consideration behind the installation of railings, and you should also keep maintenance in mind. But there is an aesthetic component: choosing wisely from among the various styles is critical to the project from a design perspective.

Deck railings here refers to the whole unit placed at the edge of your decking to prevent anyone from falling off: posts, panels (i.e., "balusters," "rungs") and handrails.

Below you'll find everything you need to know to make the best railing choice for your project. 

Deck Railing Material Options

1. Typical Builder Deck Railings:

These are the beveled 2x2 wood pickets fastened to a 2x6 on edge at the top and fastened to the rim joist of the deck (outer band of wood in the deck frame).

2. Custom Wood Deck Railings:

Any shape and size you can imagine can be made from wood. It takes a pro, and sometimes an engineer's stamp of approval, but there are unlimited options for custom styles, an example of which is shown in this deck railing picture. The only thing to remember when letting your design imagination run wild is that railings should be functional as well as fanciful. 

3. Pre-Fabricated Vinyl Extrusions With Metal Sleeve Inserts (for Strength):

Aluminum inserts in wood deck railings are getting more popular as a sort of DIY metal deck railing without needing to weld.

Simply drill your holes in two 2x4's on the vertical and press them together. Add a cap handrail and it's done.

Aluminum pre-fab deck railings are available at most lumberyards. These screw-together extrusions often utilize Plexiglas (which yellows, but you can cut to size) or tempered glass inserts which either have to be used as is or made custom for the project in advance.

The glass inserts offer safety without sacrificing the view, as shown in this deck railing picture

Metal deck railings can range from the old basic welded metal (painted) deck railings, to architectural aluminum powder coated finish. You want to watch using metal with red cedar -- the tannins react with the moist iron to produce black stains -- but aluminum works perfectly in contact with red cedar.

4. Composite Deck Railings:

There are a few composite choices, most have metal reinforcement -- nearly all look like wood. Composite railings are a good option if you want the look of wood with the easy installment of metal and less maintenance. 

Deck Railing Design Options

Most of the pre-fab deck railings are colonial or modern in style as in minimalism which is stripped down and void of real style. These styles are very popular with many people. Metal deck railings are often similarly simple and standard looking. If you're looking for something more unique you can get custom metal and wood deck railings. When it comes to custom pieces are limited only by your imagination. An exterior designer can help you source custom deck railings. 

Choosing A Railing To Fit The Design Of Your Home 

Metal deck railings often blend well with masonry homes.

When you don't want to impose on the view, metal or glass deck railings will be less obstructive. A natural cedar or wood-trimmed house looks great with a semi-transparent finished wood deck railings. A Vinyl-clad house works well with a solid-color stained deck railing or solid-color vinyl deck railings. There are as many different styles of deck railings as there are homes. Have fun choosing the style that is most appealing to you. 

What to Know About Deck Railing Maintenance 

Because deck railings are exposed to the elements they will age over time and maintenance will be required. Different materials will weather and age at different rates and require different upkeep. Here's what you can expect from the different materials.

While composite railings can have long lasting color durability some products fade quicker than others.

It's best to do your research into what specific brands work best in your climate.

Similarly, a powder-coated aluminum deck railing's paint finish will discolor over time and should be expected to last a few years before a re-coat is necessary. However, if it is powder-coated white metal, it may break when you install it and drilled parts may rot within a couple of years. Many of these deck railings look just like aluminum.

A wood deck railings made of poplar may last 9 months. However pine deck railings, 5 or 10 years. Heart red cedar (old growth) or old-growth redwood, or ipe or mahogany deck railings may last between 20 and 40 years without stain.

 Part of the function of a contractor is advising the homeowner of what materials will work best for their project. Inexperienced carpenters can make errors that could cost you thousands.

Local Residential Building Codes Considerations

Many building departments enforce strict specifications when it comes to deck railings. Local home inspectors are normally well-versed in the local specifications. It's best to drop by your local building department to ask for building codes when starting your project. 

Building codes can affect anything from the height of the railings to the spacing between the balusters. It's important to know what's allowed in your town when making your design plans. There are also different specifications around pool decking.

Deck Railings Tutorial 

The simplest instructions for the do-it-yourselfer would be for installing "typical builder deck railings," as shown in this deck railing picture:

Step 1. The steps and deck frame should be built, in place and clad with decking -- trim the decking off flush to the rim joist (outer frame member that encircles the deck).

Step 2. Cut pieces of 2x6 (upper deck railings), so that when stood up around the outside of the deck, they mimic the shape of the outer frame member. Each piece of wood has an upward curvature when on edge -- this is known as "crown." Make sure the pieces are placed crown up for better strength and visual appeal.

Tack them in place temporarily with small screws or finishing nails. Keep in mind that these will be removed later when this becomes the upper part of the deck railing. Fasten them to each other using 3 suitable 3" deck screws or spiral ACQ nails per connection. If you need or desire to install 4x4 posts at the entrance or base of steps, this is the time to do it. The posts at the base of the steps should be at least 3' deep and keep the concrete in the bottom half of the hole. Backfill with gravel for durability. When the time comes, you will fasten the deck railings to these posts but allow the concrete to set a couple of days first.

Step 3. Using a framing square, mark out the baluster positions by drawing a line every 5". Make a mark on the side of the line (normally a line or x), to indicate which side the baluster will be mounted.

Step 4. Fasten the 4 balusters at each corner of the upper deck railing with 2 ½" deck screws (for pressure-treated, use ACQ rated fasteners only; for cedar use hot-dipped galvanized fasteners).

Step 5. You will likely need a friend or two to help with the next step. You will need to have them help you lift these upper deck railings into place while you fasten a screw through the bottoms to elevate the upper deck railing into place, 42" above the deck (blocks cut to size will help hold the deck rail up).

Step 6. As you fill in the other balusters confirm vertical with a level. You will notice the more balusters are in place, the stronger the deck railing will get. When the balusters are all on, fasten to the posts by piloting a diagonal hole and using a 3" deck screw.

Think about adding a 2x6 on top and a row or two of 2x2s or 1x1s below the cap to add a functional drink rail and a horizontal lattice look.