Thursday, August 17, 2017
Last weekend, I made an effort to get out to one of the local haunts around my city: a bar downtown whose gimmick is being on a rooftop deck. You’re probably familiar with the decor: a lot of pressure-treated lumber topped off with gas torches for light, and, as the weather cools, warmth.
I struck up a conversation with an interesting young lady and we were getting along pretty well. Unfortunately, disaster struck when I went to rest my foot on the railing’s bottom rail. I wasn’t the only one doing this, and apparently I also wasn’t the first to do it along that particular stretch of rail. The nails holding the rail to the post--and the balusters to the rail--were loose from a combination of wear and rot, and the rail broke loose, making my foot slip. My whole body lurched forward and my drink ended up on the ground—as well as on my conversation partner’s shoes. She was pretty understanding, but it wasn’t a great start to the evening. After she wandered off to catch up with her friends, I suggested to the bartender that they look into replacing the wood deck balusters with metal ones, both to make the whole railing more sturdy and to give the place a more unique aesthetic.
Problems with Wood Deck Balusters
The main reason that people use wooden balusters is the same reason they use wood rails and posts: they’re cheap, widely available, and easy to work with, not just on commercial properties but on single-family homes, too. They can be made from simple 1x1 lumber with a hand saw, and a single worker can install simple railings like this on a large deck in an afternoon. Another benefit of wood is that it’s versatile, and it can be used to create ornamental balusters that have been given a design by turning them on a lathe. However, a lot of these balusters are actually meant for indoor use, and aren’t pressure-treated to resist insects and moisture. If installed outdoors, they won’t last nearly as long as the deck they’re part of. There are treated options for turned balusters, but they are more expensive than their untreated relatives, and it’s easy to mistake one for the other. In my opinion, it’s a shame that the majority of deck and porch railings use pressure-treated lumber, because this material isn’t the best-looking one out there, and it isn’t the sturdiest material, either. One big issue is rot.
To stave off rot, lumber generally comes pressure treated with copper compounds, which gives it a greenish cast. Until recently, the compound was chromate copper arsenate, which included both arsenic and chromium. It was eventually replaced over concerns that it was leaching out of the wood and into the soil. One of main compounds that is now used is alkaline copper quaternary (ACQ), a much less toxic substance, but one that is corrosive to metal, meaning that it can cause fasteners like screws to corrode over time. Wood has plenty of other potential issues as well, such as cracking, swelling and shrinking (which can cause nails and screws to pop out of the wood), splintering, and graying. The bottom line is that wood requires maintenance, and the more wood a railing contains, the more maintenance it requires. Fortunately, it is easy to update wood deck railings with stronger, lower maintenance side mount iron balusters, or metal balusters that slide into the holes already in your wood rails.
Replacing Wood Deck Balusters with Metal Ones
Steel is arguably an even more versatile material than wood. It can be worked into many more shapes without losing strength than wood can, and steel balusters come in a variety of forms and finishes. The rooftop nightclub I visited currently has a rustic vibe despite its urban surroundings. It could choose to keep that aesthetic by going with simple round or square steel balusters for its railings. However, it could also opt for something more ornamental, perhaps balusters with a twist or ones that curve outward, to provide more knee room for patrons leaning up against the railing. Whatever they choose, it will make their venue more distinctive--and it can do the same for a home deck, too, without requiring any serious construction skills.
Installing metal balusters is just as intuitive as installing wooden ones. They have the same two main methods of installation: you can either use screws to attach the balusters to the exterior faces of the rails, or you can install the balusters between the rails. Installing to the outside face of the rail is the easier of the two methods. A steel baluster designed to be fascia- or face-mounted will come with holes for screws on both ends of the baluster. You simply mark your spacing on the rails, then screw the balusters into place.
Installing between the rails is slightly more involved and requires taking apart the entire railing by removing the top and bottom rails and detaching them from the posts. When the railing is disassembled, you’ll mark your spacing on the bottom rail, then place the top rail next to the bottom rail and mark it to match. Then you’ll drill out holes in both railings with the appropriately sized bit, using a bit stop to ensure you don’t drill too deep. Once this is done you can insert the balusters into the bottom rail, then place the top rail on top of the balusters. When you’ve reunited the railing segment, then it’s time to reattach it to the posts.
Choosing a DIY-Friendly Mounting System
Some baluster manufacturers sell specially designed mounts that balusters can slide over. These make for very easy baluster installation, removing the need to own a special drill bit as well as the risk of drilling the baluster holes too deep or in the wrong place. Instead, you simply mark the top and bottom rails in the appropriate locations and screw the mounts to the rail. The balusters are then attached by sliding them over the mounts.
Metal balusters may cost slightly more than wood ones, but in return, they look better and last a lot longer than their wooden counterparts. With the variety of styles available, from simple to ornate, it’s easy to find metal balusters that complement the existing style of any property. Replacing wood deck balusters with metal ones is an easy way to refresh and upgrade a deck without spending a lot of money or having to bring in a professional to do the work.
There are lots of baluster manufacturers to choose from, but the company I’ve relied most on in the past (and which I recommended to the bartender at my favorite rooftop bar) is Fortress Building Products. They’ve thoroughly engineered their balusters for long-lasting, almost maintenance-free durability. Their Vintage and Mega balusters are pre-galvanized, e-coated, and powder coated to resist rust. They come in different finishes, from classic glossy black to oil-rubbed bronze, and in different shapes, such as curved or with a twist or basket. If replacing your railing balusters makes you realize that other parts of your home and yard could use some attention, too, I recommend taking a look at Fortress Building Products’ other products as well, such as decking and fencing.