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Friday, January 5, 2018

What Is the Easiest Deck Railing to Install?

I first met my friend Ethan in college French class when I was in my third year and he was in his first. I graduated the next year, but we stayed in touch as he went on to study for his master’s. Since I was the only one he knew who had experience in construction, I was the one he contacted to help him fix up his deck when he bought his first house.

I was happy to help, but when we started discussing ideas it was obvious that he didn’t have even a basic knowledge of construction. Fortunately, decks are rough carpentry and something that even a brand new DIYer can pick up easily with some guidance. Guidance, in this case, was me marking a measuring tape with two different colors of Sharpie and yelling “red,” or “black,” at him when asked questions about length and spacing. Railings are a little more difficult than decks, though. The spacing is more complicated, and a bent or broken baluster isn’t as easily replaced as a bent nail. It got me thinking about what’s the easiest deck railing to install for someone who hasn’t worked much with their hands before.

The Different Types of Deck Railings

For the DIY newbie looking for the easiest railing to install, it helps to start by understanding the two broad categories of railing types:

Custom fabricated railings are made of wood or metal and each individual component comes separately.

  • It is up to the builder or DIYer to cut and assemble everything onsite. This includes anchoring posts to the ground or deck substructure.
  • The builder must cut top and bottom rails to fit, drill matching holes in both for balusters, and place the balusters into the top and bottom rails.
  • The builder must also choose an attractive way to mount each segment to the posts, using either simple screws and nails driven into the wood at an angle, or a bracket.
  • Similarly, any functional or aesthetic add-ons like handrails are up to the builder to choose and install.
  • Finally, the choice of whether or not to add an aesthetic coating (such as paint, stain, or a powder coating) and what color and texture that coating will be is entirely up to the one assembling the railings.

Prefabricated railing systems are railing panels that come fully assembled from the factory.

  • Everything between the top and bottom railings is put together in advance. The advantage of these railings is that all measuring and attaching–including, for metal railings, welding–was done by a trained professional in a controlled environment.
  • This includes the aesthetic aspects like coatings and textures which generally means that these coatings are higher quality than what would be applied onsite.
  • All that is left for the installer to do is to cut the panels to length and install them with pre-engineered mounts and brackets from the manufacturer.
  • Customization features like ornamental top accent panels and handrails are usually offered.
  • While pre-assembled railings have a lot of benefits, you should be aware that not all prefabricated railing systems are created equally. Often a budget offering is just that, and corners are cut to lower prices. This leads to greater costs in the long run as these railings will need replacement within a short period of time. It’s worth it to do the homework and buy a quality railing system to begin with.

Of the two options, prefabricated railings systems are the easiest for the brand new homeowner to install. The majority of measurements are already made, and detailed step-by-step instructions are usually provided for the rest of the installation. The only drawback is in customization. A homeowner’s ability to choose colors and add-ons is more limited with a pre-assembled system. However, these railing systems have an advantage in being much more durable because the controlled conditions of their construction make for railings that don’t need painting. On pre-assembled metal railings, protective coatings will be more effective as they are applied after welding. And for the picky homeowner, there are plenty of styles and materials of pre-assembled railing to choose from.

The Easiest Deck Railing to Install

Railings that come as fully integrated panels are sold in several varieties. The railing types we’ll be talking about are all metal; wood railings aren’t usually sold pre-assembled. Wood railing systems can be bought in kits, but in my experience pre-assembled metal panel railings are both easier to install and longer lasting.

  • Steel panel railings are the original panel railings. These are an evolution of the wrought iron railings that appeared at the end of the 19th century. Unlike those old railings, newer wrought iron railing alternatives are more streamlined in form, with simple uprights that match both modern and classic architectural styles. Steel is also a lot stronger than iron, and hollow steel tubing is less prone to twisting and bending that solid steel stock while being lighter and easier to handle.
  • Aluminum panel railings are very close to their steel counterparts, and are generally manufactured in a similar range of styles. Aluminum isn’t quite so strong a material as steel, but unless someone is deliberately trying to damage the railing, this isn’t likely to matter. For an installer, especially for a DIYer, aluminum’s incredible lightness may make up for its decreased strength.
  • Cable railings are a development of the new millennium. These are railings that use stainless steel cables instead of balusters. Since these cables are narrower than solid balusters they increase visibility through the railing. Cable railings come in both horizontal (cables running between the posts) and vertical (cables running between the top and bottom rail) versions. Most cable systems will require a professional to install them, but there are some pre-assembled versions that come with the cables already threaded through a steel frame.
  • Glass railings have a surprisingly long history. Custom fabricated versions have been in use in large upscale buildings for a long time, with the earliest U.S. patent for glass railing issued in 1965. Use in private residences starts around 2005. There are several varieties of these railings, from versions that are nearly wholly glass save for the posts and the handrail to ones that are steel frames with drop-in panes. For DIYers, the drop-in versions are far easier than more minimalist versions, which tend to rely on fussy custom fittings to mount large panes of glass safely.

All of these railing systems, if they come from a good manufacturer, will arrive largely pre-assembled, and the main thing for a DIYer to do is mount them. The manufacturer will also usually offer additional features that integrate with the system, like lighting options that fit into the railing post caps or ornamental top accent panels. These systems are by far the easiest deck railings to install, both for new homeowners who are developing their DIYer skills and more experienced DIYers who want advanced features without too much hassle.

While (in my opinion, anyway) pre-assembled is the way to go, as we mentioned before, not all railing systems are created equal. Quality manufacturers will give their railing panels an additional coating following welding to proof it against rust, as well as a high-quality powder coating. Good examples of carefully-designed and engineered railings are the Fe26, Al13 PLUS, Cable, and Pure View Glass Railings from Fortress Railing. These railings are given an e-coating after galvanization to prevent rust and a high-quality layer of DuPont powder coat to keep them looking gorgeous for years after installation. They’re a special kind of high quality, as are Fortress Building Product’s other unique products, such as decking and fencing.


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