Fortress Blog

Saturday, July 14, 2018

How to Tell If Your Deck Railing Is Safe: Checking Your Railing

Last week, I met with a client to talk about installing a pergola. While we stood on his deck chatting, I rested my arm on the railing and almost lost my footing when it swayed beneath me. I was shocked by how much the railing moved! According to my client, the house had just been inspected when he bought it a couple months ago. Unfortunately, I told him, deck railings are commonly overlooked during inspections. As I examined the tops and bottoms of the rails, the railing posts, the balusters, and the fasteners, it was immediately clear to me that this railing needed to be replaced. It wasn’t safe for him or his family to be on the deck as it was.

This experience proved to me just how important it is to do periodic inspections of your deck and porch railings. Superficial damage like scratches, scuffs, and chips is usually contained to the surface of the railing and affects only the aesthetics, but structural damage is more serious and requires a closer examination. Let’s look at common causes and signs of rail damage and talk about how you can make sure your railing and deck are as safe as possible.

Sign #1: Spotting Structural Wood Damage

Wood is easy to work with and is inexpensive, making it a popular choice for deck railings. It does, however, require regular maintenance to prevent insect damage and weathering. Even then, damage can still occur. Below are the most common causes of structural damage to wood and the visual signs of each.

  • Wood Rot. This occurs when wood is continually saturated with water and then dries, creating conditions for wood-decaying fungus to grow. Signs include:
    • A damp musty or moldy smell
    • Cracking and softening
    • Discoloration (green or white) and darkening
  • These tend to be more prevalent in the South in what is known as the “termite belt,” which spans southeastern states from Virginia to Texas. Termites can quickly cause severe structural damage. Signs include:
    • A hollow sound when the railing is tapped on by a tool handle (like a screwdriver)
    • Hollow mud tubes in the surface of the wood that lead deeper inside
    • Small discarded wings that resemble tiny fish scales (these are the discarded wings of termites after they have left their reproductive state)
    • A thin gray-brown film over the surface of the wood
  • Carpenter Ants. Carpenter ants are more common in the North and are attracted to moist wood. Signs include piles of frass, a mixture resembling sawdust with tiny brown particles made of wood shavings and insect fecal matter.
  • Carpenter Bees. These guys are fairly common in most regions and are known for boring into wood. Signs include holes 1-2 inches in diameter in the wood. These holes allow even more moisture into the wood, increasing the likelihood for rot.
  • Powderpost Beetles. These critters bore into wood to lay their eggs, which then hatch and feed on the wood. This typically occurs in the warmer months, between May and August. Signs include powdery piles of frass and pinholes.

Sign #2: Finding Metal Corrosion, Pitting, and Rust

Metal railings don’t suffer from the same types of structural damage that wood does. Iron or aluminum railings layered with a high-quality powder coating and corrosion inhibiting finish are designed to prevent corrosion, damage, and rust for many years. Metal railings without a good quality coating, on the other hand, are more prone to structural damage.

Rust is the most common form of damage to metal and is caused by the oxidation and exposure of uncoated steel, iron, or a similar alloy to air, water, or salt. Non-ferrous metal, such as aluminum and stainless steel, doesn’t rust the way iron does, but corrosion can still show up as pitting, divots, or pockets on the surface of the metal. Aluminum and stainless steel typically corrode through chemical or galvanic means, when dissimilar metals come into contact.

To check for corrosion in your metal railings, tap on hollow places. When corrosion is present, the metal will be thinner, and the vibrations may help point out weaker areas. Applying pressure to the handrails and checking for wobbling or movement is another good test. Metal rails are meant to withstand at least 200 pounds of force to the midspan of the rail as per building codes. Any movement may indicate damage or improper fastening of the mounts.

You Need to Replace Your Railing -- Now What?

Once you’ve determined that your railing needs to be replaced, you’ll want to choose a railing material that will stay strong for years, so you don’t have to check for structural damage all the time. In the end, I replaced my client’s railing with a super sturdy powder-coated iron system from Fortress Building Products that complemented his wooden deck. He was ecstatic about the new style and thankful that I had his family’s safety in mind.

I’ve been satisfied enough with Fortress®’ railings that I intend to use them as a resource for materials for my other decking projects as well. They offer tough, beautiful composite decking, as well as fencing and decorative fastener materials. If you have any outdoor projects coming up this spring, check out their website at


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