Maintaining a view while still having something sturdy to lean on is one of the simpler descriptions of a railing’s job. Case in point, a client of mine had just bought a 4-plex of condos that sat high on a ridge, overlooking the city below and the mountains in the distance. All of the main rooms had little patio areas. Unfortunately, the railings of the patios were, in fact, little solid walls, which made it so that the best views were only visible when sitting right up close to the railing. What we needed was to swap out those shingle-clad half walls for a railing system that would make the gorgeous views accessible even from the living room couch. I needed to find the best railing for a view–a railing system that was sturdy, attractive, and provided clean lines of sight. Here are the railing materials I considered.
The Best Railing for a View: My Picks
As with most projects, there were plenty of options to choose from! I’ll list a few of the choices I looked at below. All of them have multiple strengths that work well in a variety of settings.
- Steel: Although it doesn’t create a perfectly clear view, sometimes a steel railing makes the most sense as a railing choice when you take into account the overall aesthetic of the building. Often a metal element is the perfect thing to break up a visual monotony of wood, concrete, brick, siding, or stone. I’ve had great success using powder-coated steel railings in both Victorian houses and modern factory refits. It’s a material that can complement a lot of styles. As with any metal railing, steel railings require a good coating to keep them from rusting. Finding a railing that combines an e-coating (what they use on the underside of cars to keep them from rusting) and a powder coating will go a long way toward ensuring your building’s railing won’t rust or require a lot of upkeep. And while it’s true the view may be more obscured compared to other materials like glass, the strength of steel allows for its balusters to be narrower than weaker materials like vinyl or wood.
- Aluminum: Aluminum is lightweight, generally corrosion resistant, and can be very sturdy. I write “can be” because there is certainly a range of quality of aluminum railings, from those that are easy to dent and bend to those that are strong enough to be used on a Navy ship. While the balusters are usually thicker than steel balusters since aluminum isn’t quite as strong, higher-quality aluminum railings can be almost as narrow as steel. With balconies, I use as strong an aluminum as possible and, as with steel, I also opt for one with the strongest possible corrosion-resistant coating. Good quality aluminum railing combines lightweight strength with corrosion resistance. The only drawback is that, as with steel railing systems, you’re still seeing the view through bars.
- Wood with Steel: The combination of wood or composite top (and sometimes bottom) rails with steel pickets is an increasingly popular feature in residential construction. Stylistically, it’s both a little rustic and a little industrial. With this type of system you can choose the type of baluster you want separately from the top and bottom rails, and you usually have more choice when it comes to balusters with details and decorations (and when it comes to choosing the narrowest baluster to create the best view). If you are putting the railing together yourself, I recommend looking into specialized rubber connectors that make it very easy to attach the balusters to the rails. The only negative aspect of this railing system is that the top and bottom rails, being wood, will take up more visual space than other view-saving options.
- Cable Railings: Due to their nautical look, cable railings have been especially popular with my clients who own beach houses. As far as sheer view preservation, they are probably second only to glass. Usually consisting of two or three cables strung horizontally between metal posts or a series of vertical cables strung between rails, the most important consideration with these is investing in materials that have some kind of protection against corrosion. I typically use stainless steel, and it’s wise to look for the highest quality stainless steel you can find (higher quality stainless steel will have more chromium in it), such as marine-grade stainless. The great positive of this railing type is the relatively uninterrupted view it provides and the nautical/industrial/modernist look.
- Glass: Railings that utilize glass panels have become increasingly popular in situations like my client’s (the one with the 4-plex) for the obvious reason that they provide clear sight lines. Personally, I consider glass the very best railing for a view if the view is the only consideration when putting in the railing. DIY builders and some contractors I’ve known have sometimes been put off by glass as they feel that it’s a difficult or temperamental material to work with. But there are some easy-to-install systems that work by simply sliding glass panels into the rails from the top. Glass might be the perfect system for retaining a view. High-quality systems aren’t prone to breaking easily and are easy to install. The only real downsides to glass are its tendency to warm up a deck or balcony area by trapping heat from the sun, and the issue of keeping the glass looking good. On that last point, I can attest that glass isn’t as hard to keep clean as most people think it is.
In the end, my client and I went with a glass system on that 4-plex. The installation was smooth and happily uneventful, and after a few years it looks as beautiful as ever and has probably contributed to some very loyal tenants. In the years since, we’ve put railings on more of his properties with views, using a couple of the other systems I’ve mentioned (cable and steel) with equally wonderful results.
When asked for a good place to start looking for railing, I will frequently mention Fortress Railing as a starting place. Their glass railing is genuinely easy to install (they use the drop-in method I mentioned earlier), and their metal railings utilize a combination of a zinc precoat, an e-coat, and premium powder coating that make them super long lasting and almost maintenance free. If Fortress railings seem like a good fit, then I also recommend poring through their full catalog of building materials, where they have things like super durable bamboo-based composite decking and beautifully designed HDG ornamental hardware.