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Choosing an outdoor railing

An outdoor railing is not only a safety feature required by many local codes, but it can also serve as yet another design element to your backyard as you pack a punch of personality or simply frame the beautiful view beyond. Here are a few tips to put your mind at ease with the protection a railing provides, and stylize your backyard at the same time!

Components of an outdoor railing

The basic components of an outdoor railing are listed below.

Handrail

The handrail is the horizontal material that runs along the top of the balusters. It is the portion of the railing that one would hold on to.

  • The height of the deck’s surface above the ground determines the requirement for the railing height:
    • If the deck height is under 24", a railing is optional and is used for decorative purposes.
    • If the deck height is between 24" and 5' 10", the handrail must be at least 36" tall.
    • If the deck height is over 5' 10", the handrail must be at least 42" tall.

Balusters

A baluster is a small post or column placed in series that supports the handrail or coping. They can range from simple wooden sticks to elaborate, twisted metal works of art. Balusters are then topped with a handrail and/or toprail.

  • International Residential Code requires the space between balusters to be less than 4" at the widest part. (Codes often vary greatly, so check with your local authorities for accurate information.)
  • Horizontal balusters (whether wood, cable or other) can be used as climbing rungs for little children. Keep this in mind as you plan your railing.
  • Also note that the maximum distance between the balusters and under the bottom rail is 4".

Post Sleeve

Post sleeves are similar to balusters but are thicker and stronger and usually are placed every 4-6' or so. These are placed periodically to increase the strength of the railing system.

Panel

The size of each panel varies greatly among materials and manufacturers, but they typically run in 12" increments such as 48", 60" and 72". However, if you opt to build the railing

Pro tip

As always, check with local codes to ensure your railing meets the local requirements in your specific area.

Types of outdoor railings

Wood essences

There are many different types of wood available on the market and only a handful are suitable for outdoor construction. Consider the advantages and disadvantages of each one before you decide on the type that is best for your project.
Type of wood
Advantages
Disadvantages
Appearance & maintenance
Redwood
  • Impervious to rot and insect damage (in high-grade lumber)
  • Expensive
  • Soft wood that can be easily damaged
  • Must be treated with a clear wood finish or redwood stain to keep its natural, rich red colour; otherwise, it will turn to silver-grey.
Cedar
  • Impervious to rot and insect damage
  • Great for decorative portions
  • Not typically used for structural components because it is not very strong
  • Must be treated with a clear wood finish to keep its natural, golden-brown colour; otherwise, it will turn a greyish tone.
Pressure Treated (usually yellow pine or fir)
  • Resistant to rot and insects because of its treated nature
  • Durable—often used for the structural components because of its durability
  • Inexpensive
  • Often the chemicals used to treat the wood are toxic
  • Appearance is not exquisite like some of the other woods
  • Initially a greenish colour that will turn grey over time.
  • Can be stained.
  • Should be sealed with a water repellant sealer unless previously treated.
Cypress
  • Impervious to rot and insect damage
  • Great for both structural and ornamental portions of decks and railings
  • Depending on where you live, cypress can be more expensive than redwood
  • Varies from tan to reddish hues.
  • Usually lighter than redwood.
Type of wood
Advantages
Disadvantages
Appearance & maintenance
Redwood
  • Impervious to rot and insect damage (in high-grade lumber)
  • Expensive
  • Soft wood that can be easily damaged
  • Must be treated with a clear wood finish or redwood stain to keep its natural, rich red colour; otherwise, it will turn to silver-grey.
Cedar
  • Impervious to rot and insect damage
  • Great for decorative portions
  • Not typically used for structural components because it is not very strong
  • Must be treated with a clear wood finish to keep its natural, golden-brown colour; otherwise, it will turn a greyish tone.
Pressure Treated (usually yellow pine or fir)
  • Resistant to rot and insects because of its treated nature
  • Durable—often used for the structural components because of its durability
  • Inexpensive
  • Often the chemicals used to treat the wood are toxic
  • Appearance is not exquisite like some of the other woods
  • Initially a greenish colour that will turn grey over time.
  • Can be stained.
  • Should be sealed with a water repellant sealer unless previously treated.
Cypress
  • Impervious to rot and insect damage
  • Great for both structural and ornamental portions of decks and railings
  • Depending on where you live, cypress can be more expensive than redwood
  • Varies from tan to reddish hues.
  • Usually lighter than redwood.

Installation

First of all, research the local codes and regulations in your area — you don’t want to install a railing and later find out it isn’t up to code! You’ll also need to apply for a permit if required.

Next, gather all of your measurements for the railing and weigh the advantages and disadvantages of the various railing materials. When you’ve chosen the material, decide whether you will construct the railing piece by piece or through the help of an pre-assembled kit.

Installation and the tools necessary to complete the job depend on material of choice. Most installations will require:

The basic installation requires sturdy posts into the ground or deck spaced at regular intervals. Balusters are then placed vertically (or horizontally in some cases) between each sturdy post (post sleeve). Top rails and/or handrails secure the top of the balusters and provide a railing to grab on to for balance.

Pre-assembled sections are easier to install as many of the steps have already been completed for you.

Trends

  • Two tone painting: Paint the handrail a different colour than the rest of the railing. Black and white lend themselves towards a traditional or sophisticated style, while two shades of bright colors can be fun and adventurous. This look can be completed thousands of different ways.
  • Minimalist: Many homeowners are turning to minimally invasive railings—cable systems, glass or even traditional materials in simple, streamlined designs.
  • Post caps: Caps placed on the post sleeves help dress up or add personality to otherwise plain railings. They are available in an array of materials and designs to complement the style of any home’s exterior. Some post caps are even outfitted with low voltage outdoor lights, functional when the deck is used after dark.
  • Combined materials: You’ll often see a wooden handrail with wrought iron balusters or perhaps a cable system. Combining two different types of materials is becoming increasingly popular as owners get the durability of one material combined with the aesthetic qualities of another.