My company often works with homeowners who have been in their house for years and are in the market for more than just a basic deck. I typically start by asking them for their ideas, preferences, and goals; then I look for creative and less-traditional solutions to build a backyard destination that is just right for them. More often than not, I end up designing custom railings for these clients.
For the sake of discussion, I define a custom rail as anything that doesn’t come in a box with a set of instructions. It could be a rail that’s custom-made to our specs by a manufacturer, or one that’s created on site using a mixture of standard rail components and raw materials. We build enough custom rails that we’ve developed relationships with several local metal fabricators, a vinyl-railing manufacturer, and a few glass shops, and we continue to seek out additional relationships.
Being successful in this business often comes down to the small details — including a unique option a competitor hasn’t thought of — that swing a job your way. In this article, I talk about a few custom options I’ve installed and why I chose to use them. There is no single solution to rail needs, however, because each client is different and material options are constantly evolving.
Be sure to think about the long-term safety of your clients; stepping away from the instructions in the box brings liability and a responsibility to ensure that the rails are not just attractive but will hold your clients and their guests securely on the deck.
Preserving the View
Many of my clients want a railing that doesn’t obstruct the view. Cable rails are a good option for this, but they aren’t popular in my area; I think they make an architectural statement that just doesn’t resonate here. I have found that using glass balusters or panels can accomplish the same end — in a dramatic fashion. Glass can be integrated into wood, metal, and many composite railings. Some vinyl- and composite-railing manufacturers have even begun to offer glass as an option.
But glass does need to be cleaned, which discourages some clients from choosing it. I’ve also had a couple of clients who were worried about keeping it intact with rambunctious kids around. Though this last concern is pretty much unfounded (the tempered glass used for railings needs to meet strict standards), for such clients there are other options. Often, a simple vinyl rail dressed up with black metal balusters works well, because the black color causes the balusters to fade from view. Another possibility is a low-profile all-metal railing, which can be given extra character by combining it with a larger, composite rail post.
If the clients like low-profile metal rails but want a wider, more-traditional cap rail that can hold a cup, either use brackets that attach around the top rail to connect to the subrail and the newels, or predrill holes through the top rail so a flat cap rail (often a matching deck board) can be fastened from below with short screws. For additional support, drive longer screws through the deck-board cap down into the rail posts.
Hiding the View
But what if your clients are not concerned about viewing nature, or worse, are trapped next to a difficult neighbor and want to enjoy as much privacy as possible? That might call for a custom wall.
When clients don’t want to see or hear the neighbors at all, I’ll build a solid privacy wall. After framing it, I install decking or fascia boards on one or both sides and cap it with a matching deck board up top. Covering both sides can get pretty pricey, so I often use simpler construction on the side facing the neighbors.
If clients like the idea of a wall but don’t want to completely cut off the breeze, a shadow-box-style privacy wall with openings between the slats may be good compromise. In that case, since much of the PT framing will be exposed, I often stain the lumber to match the slats (before installing them).
For clients who like the view from their deck but want some privacy from the neighbors when sitting down to eat, try a low solid wall. A similar design idea may work to mask objects such as air-conditioning units or utility boxes, but first check to make sure the rail doesn’t violate codes regarding access.
Sometimes clients require several different rail solutions, all blended into a single project. Perhaps they want to see the creek out back but want privacy from the sides — while not eliminating the cross-breeze. In one case, I worked with a local vinyl-railing manufacturer (GreenWay Fence & Railing Supply; greenwayfence.com) to create a standard-height rail using bottom rails in place of the top rails (see “Lessons From the Field”). This allowed me to install a flat Azek cap rail around the perimeter of the deck, with some sections filled with standard vinyl balusters and others with vinyl privacy panels. The railing thus offers privacy in some places and access to views in others, while still being consistent in design throughout. On a similar job, we built a custom pergola into the rails.
Custom railings provide an almost unlimited range of options for solving your customers’ design problems and for setting yourself apart from your competition. Don’t be afraid to combine different products to achieve the look you’re after. A little boldness can make the difference between you and someone else getting the job.
Matt Breyer owns Breyer Construction and Landscape in Reading, Pa.