The Inside Rail on Railings: An Expert’s Guide to Beautiful Decks

Here’s a fact that may surprise homeowners looking to build a new deck: Railings and related accessories will account for one-third to one-half of the materials cost of a typical deck project.

“Railings can help define a deck and complement or accent a home’s look,” says Josh Mozena, Assistant General Manager of Spahn & Rose in Dubuque, Iowa. “Railings shouldn’t be an afterthought. They serve lots of functions, and how you plan to use the deck will determine the type of railings [you need].”

Do you plan to host evening barbecues or other after-dark gatherings, for example? Built-in railing lights are a good idea. Here, Mozena shares other expert insights about deck railings:

How These 6 Parts Affect Railing Choice

Balusters: Also known as spindles or infill, these occupy the area below the top rail. JAM Systems railings offer traditional vertical balusters that can be standard (i.e., square), round or colonial, which have squared bottoms and tops and decorative rings along the lengths. Cable balusters, which can be either vertical or horizontal, are trendy now as well.

Bottom rails: These run parallel to the top rail. According to many building codes, bottom railings must be no higher than four inches from the bottom of the deck.

Lights: Railings can include solar or low-voltage lighting to provide ambience and additional safety by illuminating steps.

Post caps: These railing accessories help define a deck’s style. Post caps can coordinate with the material and color of the other railing and deck material, or they can be a different color that pops, adding style or matching colors elsewhere on the home’s exterior.

Posts: Also known as vertical supports, posts provide support for rails and horizontal balusters. One popular recent trend: corner posts that are slightly larger than those along the midsection of the railing, creating a distinctive look.

Top railings: Called handrails, these railings run horizontally between vertical posts. JAM Systems has three kinds of railing profiles: Standard (square), Breadloaf (curved at the top with flares to the sides) and Decorative (a beveled top with flares to the sides).

Advantages of Aluminum Railings

As a preferred Spahn & Rose vendor, JAM Systems supplies high-quality aluminum railings throughout the Midwest. When Mozena works with customers to select deck railings, he shares these benefits of choosing aluminum:

Zero to low-maintenance: Often, all that’s required to keep aluminum railings looking good is an annual cleaning. A light soap-and-water rinse is usually enough to get rid of any dirt buildup.

Longevity: Aluminum railings’ powder-coated treatment protects the finish. “Aluminum railings outlast wood and stain,” Mozena says. “If I were going to do another deck, I would [go with] aluminum, because staining a deck is a tiresome chore. With aluminum, you don’t have to paint—and even if there are some nicks, a little touchup paint will make it look new again.”

Lightweight: For contractors, one of the biggest advantages of aluminum railings is that they’re easy to work with because they weigh so little, allowing for easier transport and installation.

Sturdiness: Once an aluminum railing has been fastened correctly to a deck, it’ll stay there, able to withstand extreme weather.

Aesthetics: Aluminum railings combine sturdiness with beauty. Instead of the more common two-by-two-inch spindles, aluminum spindles can be as thin as three-quarters of an inch. “For decks that overlook a nice view, this allows you to enjoy the scenery instead of the railings,” Mozena says.

Readily available: JAM Systems’ manufacturing facility is in Dyersville, Iowa. “The JAM Systems rep is in our stores at least once a week,” Mozena says. “Because they’re so close, we have outstanding support. The service end is one of the reasons we have JAM Systems as a preferred vendor partner.”

Flexible design, height: With JAM Systems, the deck and railings can be designed with a homeowner’s specific needs in mind. “Recently, I quoted a deck for some folks who have a shelter for rescue dogs,” Mozena says. “They wanted their railings 42 inches high, six inches higher than the standard. JAM also has custom gates for deck areas adjacent to pools.”