Cable railing is a popular choice with my clients when I’m working on a contemporary home’s deck. The narrow cables and minimal posts give an open, airy feel that really maximizes the view while looking sleek and clean in a way that matches and complements the home’s style. On top of these benefits, the right railing system offers easy installation and can be pretty cost efficient.
But there are a lot of options when it comes to choosing a type of cable railing (horizontal or vertical cables? Metal posts or wooden?). In my mind, the most important decision is what material the cable is made of. This is key, because using the wrong type of cable can result in a railing that looks worn before its time or, even worse, is unsafe. Stainless steel cable railing systems for decks are most commonly seen, but stainless isn’t the only choice. Here’s the lowdown on what you’ll have to choose between and which direction to go.
Choosing Your Cable Railing Material
While you also want to pay attention to the material you choose for the cable railing’s posts (and top and bottom rails, if your system has them), pay special attention to the material that makes up the cables themselves, because there are big quality differences here and they’ll affect how good an investment your railing choice is. Basically, you’ll see three different options:
- Vinyl covered: Vinyl-covered cable will usually use a lower grade steel core along with a vinyl coating over the top. I’m not a fan of this particular option, as it tends to crack and break down in bad weather. Plus, there’s a lot of tension in your cables once they’re set and vinyl just doesn’t have the durability to hold up under pressure over time. On top of that, this type isn’t very good if you’re using horizontal railing and the cable needs to make a 90-degree angle, as the angle will speed up how fast the vinyl wears out. And once your coating cracks, the steel inside will eventually rust.
- Galvanized steel: The next step up from vinyl-coated cable wiring is galvanized steel, which some will use as it’s a much cheaper option. However, basic steel wire like this is cheap because it will inevitably corrode and break down over time, eventually losing its tension and needing to be replaced. In the end, when you use galvanized steel to save on initial costs, you pay more for maintenance, as you’re going to have to replace those cables eventually.
- Stainless steel: Stainless steel is the best option for getting the job done and keeping your railing strong for years to come. It’s capable of standing up against almost any elements, ensuring it won’t crack or fade over time, and giving you the best maintenance-free option for your railing system. But there isn’t just one kind of stainless steel. Stainless steel is an alloy, a mix of iron and chromium, plus a few other elements and the chromium and other added elements are what make it shiny and resistant to rusting and pitting. 304 is one of the most common types of stainless steel, and it’s what your stainless pots and pans and silverware are probably made of. 316 stainless steel has molybdenum in it, plus a few extra elements, and it’s mainly this added molybdenum that makes it extra tough–it’s used in marine environments (that’s why it’s often called ‘marine-grade’ stainless steel) as well as surgical applications. Some manufacturers make railing cables out of 316 stainless, and this is the stuff I look for when I’m choosing a cable railing system.
As you can tell, I have a definite opinion about which type of railing cable is the best–I’ve seen how well marine-grade stainless holds up, and I think it’s the clear choice. But before you go buy and install that stainless cable system, there are a few things you need to keep in mind.
Considerations for Stainless Steel Cable Railing Systems for Decks
Installing cable railing is much different than installing picket-style railing systems like steel or wood. It can be a bit more complex and expensive if you’re new to the process. You’ll need to remember that:
- Railing posts must be designed to work with a cable system: Cable railing systems will have different load requirements than picket railing systems, as most of the pressure from the cables is going to be on the posts in the railing. The cables have to have enough tension to keep them from being squeezed apart (for child safety reasons, railing systems cannot allow a sphere 4 inches or larger between the balusters), and your posts need to be able to hold that tension, or you could risk losing the tension in the cables (and failing inspection), or causing the posts to bow.
- Creating your own system is dangerous if you’re not an expert: Throughout most of this post, I’ve touted the benefits of pre-assembled cable railing systems which have the cabling already attached to a panel with a sturdy frame. If you’re not an expert, that’s the way you should go. Creating a railing system from scratch using cables can be extremely complex (not to mention frustrating), and if done incorrectly, is unsafe. In well-designed panel form, though, a cable system can be one of the easiest deck railings to install.
- Choose vertical cables if you have kids: Most cable railing systems are horizontal, but some are wary of this type of system because of the “ladder effect.” Horizontal cables create a ladder that can tempt kids–and even pets–to try to climb them. For many parents, this is a hassle they’d rather not have. For these clients, I recommend vertical cable systems, and while there are fewer manufacturers who make pre-assembled vertical railing panels, I know of at least one who makes excellent vertical panels.
With cable railings, a solid frame teamed with marine-grade stainless steel cables offers a minimal rail profile that’s safe and essentially maintenance free. While there are a lot of options out there for cable railing, choosing a panel system that uses stainless steel will offer the easiest installation with the most durability.
Fortress Railing is an obvious choice I often make when I install cable railing on modern verandas and decks, and it’s one I recommend to clients and other contractors, too. Fortress offers a vertical, marine-grade stainless steel cable railing system that’s ideal for DIYers or anyone who doesn’t want to fiddle with installation for hours. They also have all the hardware you need and you can even add post caps with LED lighting, to brighten your view at night. Cable railing systems are versatile, durable and provided you use the right materials, easy to install. Fortress offers the best products to complete the job fast.