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Options Abound for Railings and Balusters

Materials such as glass, wire and engineered composite products are winning over traditional wood offerings in railings and balusters. Consumers are interested in the new products with an eye toward durability and design.

April 30, 2006

Composite balusters and railings offer design options wood doesn't. 
Photo courtesy of CertainTeed

Materials such as glass, wire and engineered composite products are winning over traditional wood offerings in railings and balusters. Consumers are interested in the new products with an eye toward durability and design.

Deck railings and balusters have the capability to turn a ho-hum deck into a showpiece, or discretely carry out their purpose of offering support and preventing falls while meeting building codes. "Railing materials also depend on geographical location," says Kim Katwijk, president of Olympia, Wash.-based Deck Builders Inc., pointing out the enduring popularity of white hand railings on the East Coast and the modern looks such as glass and cable found in the Pacific Northwest and California.

Form Meets Function

When offering customers railing and baluster options, Katwijk advises deck builders to consider both the use of the deck and design of the materials. "Find out what the customer plans to do on the deck," Katwijk says. "If it doesn't need railings, don't necessarily try to sell the customer railings. Some areas require railings for decks 18 inches off the ground, while other areas are 30 inches. When you design, design for function first and then form."

"With some 50 to 100 different railings on the market today, the learning curve can be steep, and you don't want that every day," advises Pat Nicholson, CR, CEO of Upper St. Clair, Pa.-based Deckmasters Technologies Inc. "That's where only having half a dozen products you work with from the low end to the high end helps."

George Drummond, president of Casa Decks in Virginia Beach, Va., recommends builders closely follow installation instructions. "Most manufacturers require you to install supports beneath the bottom rail every 24 inches or so. Don't cut that corner because your rail will sag over time." He notes that some new products have glitches. "A couple of manufacturers have had problems reported to them on installation, and as a result, some have changed their instructions to improve them."

Drummond further advises deck builders to make sure they pre-drill when working with composite material. "You can split some of the composite materials if you don't pre-drill at the ends."

Composites Gain Ground

Reclaimed vinyl as well as wood and plastic composite products can translate to a higher-end deck design with less maintenance and added color options. These materials represent popular railing and baluster choices today. "We're seeing more diversity in product choices," says Barry Klemons, owner of Archadeck of Charlotte, N.C. "Eighteen years ago, pressure-treated wood railings were common. Now, vinyl and composite railings are gaining popularity."

Be prepared to quote a higher price to your clients when including vinyl and composite products, among other materials, on railings because they are more expensive than pressure-treated wood. Plastic wood composite materials render skid-free and splinter-free surfaces that don't require painting, staining or sealing, ultimately making these products maintenance-free besides occasional cleanup. When treated with UV inhibitors and impact modifiers, these products can withstand heavy impact and take a beating from the sun or other harsh weather elements, rendering longevity.

Glass allows for an unobstructed view.
Photo courtesy of Deck Builders Inc.

Cost Considerations  

"Pressure-treated railing can be one-fifth of the cost or less than composite rail, which can run around $50 to $60 per linear foot," Klemons says. Also adding to builders' costs is the additional time involved in working with these materials. "There's more pieces to these products which often come in boxes in 6- or 8- foot lengths," Klemons says. "If a carpenter drops a piece or cuts it short, these products aren't as forgiving. The average carpenter may not have the proficiency or even the ability to work with these products, which can slow down production."

Drummond says consumers are usually willing to spend more on railings to get a great look accented by decorative balusters. "In the last two to three years, manufacturers have made major improvements in composite railing systems," he says. "Cost runs anywhere from $27 to $63 per linear foot installed in this region versus up to about $16 per linear foot for treated wood."

Tubular balusters offer low-maintenance and design variation.  Photo courtesy of Casa Decks

Balusters Make the Difference

Spindles or balusters can set the design tone of an entire deck. "Seek only ICC-approved products and follow spacing recommendations to the T," says Nicholson, noting local building codes also dictate the maximum gap between balusters.

Both Drummond and Klemons cite innovations in balusters such as Deckorators' Architectural Series; its Arc and Baroque styles feature balusters in a wave shape. The balusters, available in black or bronze, resemble hand-forged wrought iron but are made of powder-coated aluminum. "These railings aren't ho-hum," Klemons says.

"Tubular balusters are very popular," Nicholson adds. "They're less view-restricting, and people consider the fact they won't have to stain or seal all these tubes, which are made with aluminum with a powder-coat paint finish."

For markets with particularly scenic views, such as mountain or lake homes, tubular-shaped balusters can help preserve the view, as do other materials. "Some people pay millions for a view and they don't want a railing system that blocks their view," Katwijk says. "So you're left with glass or cable."

Many customers prefer an open view and choose tempered or laminated glass. Glass railings are relatively new and can be integrated with wood, bronze or steel to achieve a custom look. Entire panels of /-inch tempered glass, for example, impart a clean look while keeping dogs and children out of harm's way and withstanding high winds. Klemons recommends using laminate glass because plastic can turn yellow over time.

Rick Shore, president of Rick Shore Builders in Brooklyn, Mich., installs Deckorators' Scenic Glass Frontier Style balusters because he says they exceed ICC load requirements and withstand more than 350 PSI. "It might be triple the expense of other balusters, but with the glass you get 100 percent of the view," he says. With regular cleaning, glass products can provide a clear view for years. Shore recommends that his customers clean glass balusters with a surfactant cleaner such as Rainex, which allows water to run off.

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