Having lived in several different cities during real estate booms, I’ve had plenty of requests to spruce up a home’s curb appeal. Apart from the paint job and the front garden, the railings on the front porch and particularly on the front steps can be some of the most important on the whole property. Functionally, the steps are the busiest area of a home’s exterior, and they are one of the first impressions you’ll make of a home. The front stair railings can truly tone for the whole experience of the property. Finding a railing that looks beautiful, is durable, and requires very little maintenance is a wonderful thing indeed. If you’re looking for railings for the front porch steps that will complement your home while staying strong, read on for material and style choices.
Material Choices for Front Stair Railings
For maintenance-minded homeowners and builders, the choice of material is often the most significant consideration. Some materials simply require more care than others, and the budget, time, and appetite for maintenance will vary among homeowners. Here are some of the most popular stair railing materials, along with their pros and cons.
- Wood: Wood is a versatile material that can be styled to suit Victorian homes or sleek modernist ones. It also makes a strong, beautiful, and reasonably inexpensive railing. Because wood railings are versatile and easy to come by, they’re often a common choice for homeowners. The biggest issue with a wooden railing is that the wood needs to be protected by a paint or a high-quality stain. If there is plenty of money in the budget for hiring painters--or an innate enjoyment of painting and staining on the part of the homeowners--then wooden railings are a safe pick. However, those choosing wood should know that they’re also choosing many future years of sanding, painting, and re-staining. You’ll also need to perform regular inspections for safety issues, so that you’ll know right away when it’s time to replace your railing.
- Vinyl: Vinyl railing systems usually feature square forms and straight lines. Since they are plastic, they won’t require any painting, and the better brands of vinyl railing don’t exhibit too much color fading over their lifetime. It’s a great railing system to use in a moist climate as long as the screws are corrosion resistant. While vinyl is reasonably strong, it is certainly not as strong as a well-made wooden railing, and nowhere close to a steel railing. If there is a chance that significant weight or force needs to be put on the railing, I would opt for a middling steel system over the best vinyl.
- Metals: Due to its strength, the most common metal used for railings is steel, typically a galvanized steel with some kind of coating, whether paint or a powder coat. For the front steps, steel railing systems that are rackable, or adjustable, are ideal. This type of system comes with the stair railings already assembled in a panel that is hinged to allow it to adjust to the grade of the steps. Not all manufacturers make railings like this, but for DIYers looking to easily install railings on their stairs, a rackable system can save a lot of time and trouble.
The material you choose to use for your front porch stair railing will vary depending on the look you’re going for--maybe Craftsman-style railings would work best for your home or maybe you need railings with a more modern look--but it will also depend on practical considerations. For many of my clients, steel is their material of choice because it offers durability and very little maintenance, yet also comes in a range of styles and colors and can even be mixed with wood for a softer look.
Style Options for Railings for the Front Steps
Once you’ve thought about what material might work best for your porch steps, you’ll want to consider your home’s architecture and how your railing will mesh with that style. Not all materials are equally fit to carry forward different styles.
- Classical/Vernacular: There are a multitude of classical and vernacular railing styles, ranging from neoclassical copies of the Greco-Roman look to the fancifully lathed railings of the Victorian period. Owing to its classic looks and ability to be shaped, wood is well-suited to these styles. Ornamented steel is also a good alternative to the wrought iron railings sometimes found in Victorian and other similar style houses.
- Contemporary/Traditional: The clean and crisp lines of contemporary stylings are often the antithesis of the vernacular architecture that preceded the 20th century. The mid-century period, arguably one of the high-water marks of the modernist period, favored steel over earthier materials, and saw a marked increase in the use of metal. With this in mind, when I’m working in a contemporary or modernist setting, or on a traditional-style home, steel or a combination of wood and steel (such as wood posts and steel balusters) is typically a safe bet.
- Industrial: The paradigmatic industrial railing is actually made of regular old plumbing pipe. I love constructing railings out of pipe, but it isn’t for everyone. Creating an industrial or even a steampunk look can also be achieved through cable railing systems that use steel framing and stainless steel cables.
As you can tell, there is certainly no single material perfect for all settings. Still, when I need strength, durability, and design utility across architectural styles, I very often turn to galvanized steel. Some of the most beautiful and sturdy steel railings are produced by Fortress Building Products. By combining advanced coatings, ease of installation, rackability, and a constellation of additional features like custom lighting and design ornaments, railings made by Fortress typically beat out the competition. If other parts of the house could use work as well, I always recommend Fortress®’ wide range of other products, such as decking and fencing, to builders and DIYers alike.