What makes a good landscape rail?
It has to serve its purpose while complementing its surroundings. When I am designing and realize a rail needs to be installed for code reasons, I am initially disappointed. This disappointment comes from the fact that the rail might obstruct a crucial view or make a space feel too enclosed. Bulky pickets on a guardrail can look so busy and distract from the house and garden because it is a vertical element that sticks out like a sore thumb. It is also an added expense that might not fit into a tight budget. But code is code for a reason and if there is danger of falling off a patio or deck, or tumbling down a long stretch of stairs, following code is a must. When the project is finished, I usually love the effect the rail adds to the garden. There are a lot of options out there and the rail can really complement the architecture of the house or add whimsy to the garden. There are also low profile options to help achieve the function of safety while not being obtrusive.
Handrail vs. Guardrail
There are two different types of rails. Handrails are simply a top rail to grasp, while held up by posts. They usually line the side of steps. While code can change from city to city, the general rule is if there are more than four steps, you need at least one handrail 34”-38” high from the tread of each step. Guardrails have the top rail along with pickets down below to keep you safe and contained. Guardrails are needed for staircases, patios, and decks that are 30” or more above grade. Guardrails need to be at least 42” tall with pickets that have an opening less than 4” wide.
Wood rails are perfect when they blend into the architecture and existing decking. Oftentimes, if a new wooden deck is being built, extending the 4×4 foundation posts up through the decking to create the posts for the guardrail is easy and more cost effective. Wood rails are very appropriate for Craftsman style houses. Because of the bulkiness of wood, rails made of wood definitely don’t go unnoticed. There are opportunities to create whimsical cutouts in wood panels if you want to create a more solid barrier. You could also combine wood posts and wood caps with metal pickets to create a rhythm of solid posts, and more transparent panels. The width of the wood cap is usually a minimum of 3.5”, making it a convenient coaster for drinks.
Metal and Wrought Iron
Metal and wrought iron rails are sturdy, long-lived work-horses in the garden that offer a lot of flexibility. Unlike wood, they can be easily curved to follow a curved staircase. They can be powdercoated different colors and finishes to add an extra level of detail. Metal and wrought iron can also be shaped into very intricate and playful patterns to create an artful statement in the garden. The strength of metal allows it to have skinnier posts and rails, creating a much more see-through effect compared to wood.
Cable rail finishes off a sleek and modern garden. It can also be used if you want to achieve the feeling of spaciousness. The horizontal stainless steel woven cable comes in a variety of diameters which are all very thin and unobtrusive. The cable can be threaded through wooden posts if part of a wooden deck, or through metal posts for a more modern look.
If you really want to keep the feeling of spaciousness or must capture a view, glass panels are the way to go. The thick, tempered glass panels provide safety and protection from wind while allowing full views.