The rule hasn't changed in years: Guardrails on decks must be at least 36 inches high with less than 4 inches between balusters. But how deck builders get creative within those confines has turned the railing industry into what TimberTech's senior product manager, Toby Bostwick, calls "a full-fledged fashion business."
Railing options range from glass balusters to modern cable rails, custom-forged iron, and PVC. Several companies have been promoting pre-fab railing kits, and deck manufacturers have increasingly been expanding their lines to include railing products. But deck contractors aren't always listening: "You'll see a lot of Trex decks with a white TimberTech rail," says deck specialist Lainie Sleppin of Somerville, N.J.-based Mid-State Lumber Corp.
Industry pros agree that it's not how they perfect the pre-fab kit, but how they use the parts to create a custom look that gives their decks the edge. Here are a few style trends they shared with ProSales:
Homemade PVC Sleeves To set his railings, and company, apart, Justus Lambros and his team from Maumee, Ohio-based Signature Decks craft their own post sleeves, finials, and base trims from Azek PVC sheets, finishing with aluminum balusters from Westbury or cable rails from Feeney.
Railing Free Deck builder Sean McAleer of Sparta, N.J., makes the mandatory rails invisible through clever terracing and 20-foot-wide staircases. He designs the upper level to overlook the top rail of the lower terrace so there is not a railing in sight for 20 feet. "When you're in the house looking out, it's like an infinity edge deck," he explains.
Subtle Lighting Tuck flat LED strip lights under the top rail for ambient deck lighting, recommends Charlotte, N.C., deck builder Mick Feduniec. "Cut a little groove in the bottom of your rail and run it the entire length. You don't even know where the light is coming from," he says. WAC Lighting offers its 1/8-inch-thick
InvisiLED Classic 24-volt outdoor tape light in 10-foot lengths and builders can cut Elemental LED's Waterproof Flexible LED Strip Light for a perfect fit.
Mix and Match "I combine multiple rails systems on a single project to achieve a unique look that fits my customers' desires for a totally custom feel," says McAleer, who recently rigged TimberTech's RadianceRail composite posts to hold cable rails. The traditional posts tone down the modern effect. In the builder's words: "It came out awesome."
Mod-Friendly Vendors Trex caters to creative builders. "We get people who do unorthodox things with our rails," says senior product manager Mike Onderko. So its Transcend Railing, a system with interchangeable baluster strips, includes blank strips for builders who want to forego traditional assembly.
Iron Balusters In Carrollton, Texas, deck builder Jamie Turrentine forges his own balusters, installing them between Trex or Fiberon posts. "Simplicity is what brings things together," he advises. "You don't want one thing to take the attention away from everything. It's supposed to blend." Other times, he twists the baluster iron into vines and accents them with hand-wrought leaves.
Cable on Demand Where Duradek used to fill one cable rail order every 18 months, it now averages one a week, says the manufacturer's sales manager, Blair Holliday. Lambros also sees a spike in popularity, saying the rails give his decks a cool modern edge, but adds: "It's got to be with the right client. Most folks with kids aren't too fond of them." The horizontal lines create a ladder-like temptation for little people, rendering the rail illegal in Canada.
Open Vistas Glass panel rails are a popular choice for decks with a view. Duradek introduced The Panorama Post in July; an adjustable channel angles glass panels up to 30 degrees to follow curved deck edges. The new posts cost roughly 35% less than the previous posts and are ready to ship in less time. And for a cost-effective alternative to cut-to-order glass panes, Deckorators' glass balusters allow air flow.
Black Is Back "Black rails are huge," observes McAleer, who uses more of TimberTech's RadianceRail in black than anything else. "White stops your eye dead. Black just disappears into the shadows." Blackline
Vinyl Fence Products biochemically engineered its black PVC railing to resist heat distortion up to 180 degrees Fahrenheit, and Trex caps its colored Transcend rails in acrylic, which withstands much higher temperatures than standard PVC. But for a time-tested black rail that the blazing sun will never deform, try Fortress Iron's Fortress Fe26 Iron Railing.
Plastic of the Past Ken Underhill, a custom builder in Solana Beach, Calif., says he could never use plastic railings in his high-end homes because they felt chintzy and sounded creaky. Until now. He uses Azek's polymer-capped wood-plastic composite rails in almost every project: "It's got a really nice texture and feel to it, almost like powder-coated metal." Another product builders are said to love is the Tam-Rail Railing System by Tamko Building Products. The maker layers a wood-foam composite core with polymers for a structural shell that eliminates the need for an aluminum center, the creak culprit.
Equipped with an extensive palette for building custom rails at a cost comparable to, or less than a kit, deck builders get the good end of the trend. But regardless of the brand, deck builders say one thing is certain: Clever use of the countless railing components is the height of fashion in the deck design circle.