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Deck Railings 101

These wood deck rails provide saftey and styleDeck railings and balusters serve as both decorative and functional components of any deck.

Decorative because they can be used as a design element, reflecting the architecture of the house or the surrounding landscape, and functional because they are required safety features.

Replacing your deck railings is one of the easiest ways to give your tired dated deck a facelift and in so doing add value to your home and enhance your outdoor living space.

Deck railings are composed of top and bottom rails, side-rails, protruding posts, balusters, and hand rails for deck stairs. Types of railings include: aluminum and glass railing, PVC, composite, and wood railings, and decorative inserts and panels.

Top and Bottom Rails:

  • Top rails can be made from 2x4s or 2x6s. They can be placed flat (horizontal) or on edge (vertical).

  • A 2x6 top rail has the benefit of width and can be placed over top intermediate posts, resulting in a stronger railing. If you allow for each post to protrude between deck railing sections, then the posts will have to endure the most of any force as the union between top rail and post will become the weakest link.

  • A smooth uninterrupted and continuous top rail over the post tops tends to define the perimeter of a deck more noticeably.


  • Posts can be mounted on the exterior of the rim joist and rise above each section of top rail to draw attention.

  • Posts can also be set into the inside of the rim joist and the posts either protrude above the top rail at corners which defines the look of the deck’s periphery.

  • Posts that protrude above the top rail at each section draw the eye toward them. Detail the post or dress it up with a cap. Or, make every second post larger or wider.

Post Caps:

  • Post caps provide a professional finished look to posts that protrude about the top rail. They are available in many styles, from simple to ornamental.

  • Lighted post caps provide added safety and decoration at night.

Balusters and Pickets:

  • Balusters (also called pickets or spindles) are the vertical members between the top and bottom rails.

  • Wide balusters or pickets create a more closed in heavier space, which may be desirable if you want to obscure a view or if your home’s architecture has a heavier structure to it.

  • Thin pickets create the perception of openness and accentuate the view. You can alternate narrower and wider balusters to create and interesting visual contrast.

  • Aluminum, steel or wrought iron balusters give a less obtrusive look. They can be thinner because they are so strong and give you a more open view.

  • Baluster spacing should not exceed 4” from inside edge to inside edge, but check with local building codes to be sure. In addition, most building codes prohibit horizontal balustrades because they facilitate climbing.


A hand rail has to be small enough that a person can easily grasp the rail with their hand.


Glass panels let you capitalize on views ? Semi-transparent panels provide privacy while allowing for maximum light ? Louvered panels between posts offer a very contemporary look and style and lend themselves perfectly to interior lighting. ? Side panels with matching siding stucco provide privacy.


  • Accentuate deck railings by staining the top rail or posts a different color than the balusters.

For more information on decks and deck railings, please read this article on deck railing designs.



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Wooden top and bottom deck rail

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