Having worked in older cities in both North America and Europe, I’ve worked on a lot of properties that have called for porch and deck railings with a classical look to match the aged and dignified nature of the houses they’re used on.
One place like this I worked on was an old neoclassical revival house with a brick retaining wall that was topped with an equally aged and badly rusting wrought iron railing that lined the porch on three sides. My clients wanted to keep the grand, elegant look of the material but ditch as much of the rust and maintenance as possible. It seemed like a tall order, but with a little bit of research I found that wrought iron railing alternatives exist, making it possible to have a classically beautiful black steel railing that doesn’t come with the maintenance baggage of wrought iron.
The Beauty and Strength of Wrought Iron Railing
What’s so special about wrought iron, anyhow? If you are reading this, you probably already have your own list of special qualities. For me and my clients, the beauty of wrought iron railing lies in its weighty, solid presence, its capacity for ornamentation, and the Victorian-style black paint that it’s often coated in.
Functionally, the great benefit of wrought iron railing is its strength. It doesn’t bend or dent easily, and it’s solid enough that it can be leaned upon or grasped with confidence–something important in railings. It’s a sturdy material, and that also means that iron rails and balusters don’t need to be thick–they’re strong enough to function with a minimum of material, which provides a more delicate-looking railing that also doesn’t block your view.
The Problems with Wrought Iron Railings
While wrought iron railing provides strength and beauty, it has its fair share of weaknesses that ought to be taken into consideration before making any investments of time, energy, and money.
- Rust: The biggest problem with wrought iron railings is their tendency to break out in spots of rust. Cracks in the paint job or lack of protection at the welds are the prime suspects where corrosion is concerned. Once it starts to rust in more than one place, it seems to gain a momentum of its own as the corroding metal disturbs or causes cracks in the protective paint and opens up more metal to rust.
- Maintenance: Nipping rust spots in the bud is important, then, to keep an iron railing in good shape, but patching up the ever-multiplying spots can be time-consuming. As a young man working on old Victorian houses, I found that cleaning the rust with a stiff wire brush and covering it with fresh paint was such a frequent task that it became a new hobby.
- Safety Considerations: If maintenance work isn’t done regularly on a wrought iron railing, at its worst the railing can corrode all the way through at important joints, potentially leading to dangerous structural problems. But short of full-blown structural difficulties, rusting iron and the flaking and sharp edges it causes can be a hazard to run into.
Rust-Free Wrought Iron Railing Alternatives
In researching alternatives to old style wrought iron, I found that the secret for long lasting, rust free railing is in the coating process and materials. First, the updated version of wrought iron railing is not exactly iron. Instead, it’s a galvanized steel. Why steel, you ask? Here are the deets.
- Steel is stronger than iron. Because it’s an alloy of iron and carbon, steel is more durable than regular wrought iron, making it more resistant to damage.
- High-quality steel railings won’t rust or corrode. While the old wrought iron railings were often protected solely by a few layers of paint, the longest lasting modern steel railings are protected by layers of corrosion and UV-resistant coatings, along with a coat of protective zinc. For a truly maintenance free railing, find a manufacturer which uses a combination of an industrial grade e-coat and a premium powder coat. The combination of the two in one railing system is fairly unique, as most railings use either one or the other. Using both processes protects the railing from both the sun and from moisture, which are the main causes of weathering and corrosion, providing a much more comprehensive level of protection than paint.
- You don’t have to sacrifice appearance. Some of the charms of old fashioned wrought iron railing are the wonderful variety of ornamentation and that traditional slightly rough texture. While contemporary manufacturing processes often produce a sleek, streamlined railing, some manufacturers are also producing railings with surface texture options that mimic that of wrought iron. Some manufacturers also offer options for custom ornamentation including balusters with twists and basket details, and railing knuckles.
For all these reasons, I’ve come to the conclusion that premium coated galvanized steel is an excellent replacement for wrought iron, both aesthetically and functionally. It still has the solid, classic look and feel of wrought iron, while providing a much greater degree of protection against corrosion. Since it is less prone to rust, there’s no worrying about tetanus shots and hardware failure, either.
If your property needs a railing with the beauty and functionality of wrought iron, but without the maintenance load, then a premium coated iron railing might be the perfect fit for your project. There are certainly more than a few beautiful and durable steel railing systems on the market, but when recommending a system to friends, clients, and fellow builders, I often start my list with those made by Fortress Railing. Protected by a special coating system, they’ll last a maintenance-free lifetime in high style. Fortress also has a wide variety of other materials, like fencing, decking, and ornamental hardware, that are useful for creating a whole project or adding the little something that brings a project together. They’re all durable and well-designed, too, so they’ll last just as long as your gorgeous new steel railing.