A trend I’ve seen in new build construction is the tendency to set garages four feet or so below the level of the main floor of the house, which calls for a short set of stairs to lead from the garage into the house (often the kitchen or the mudroom). Because of code considerations, as well as practical needs, these stairs usually require a sturdy railing, and over the years I’ve put plenty of railings in garages like this, sometimes for homeowners and sometimes for developers.
In my opinion, the best railing for garage steps is one that takes up as little space as possible in this tight situation, leaving as much room on the stair treads for feet as can be left. And, of course, the railing ought to look good, match the aesthetic of the house, and help turn the garage itself into an interesting space.
Why Put in a Railing?
We certainly don’t always need to put railings on the steps leading up into the house. Obviously, if there isn’t a large rise, there is generally no need for it. Typically, after 30” or two risers (whichever comes first), local building codes will kick in requiring railings. Building codes aside, they can often be helpful even on sets of just a couple steps, allowing one to rest heavy or bulky packages or groceries while going in and out of the house, and as a hand rest and guide for older members of the family. Beyond the functional reasons, railings on interior steps give the garage a far more finished look.
The Best Railing for Garage Steps: Material Pros and Cons
Any material typically used for deck or porch railings can also be used in the garage. In fact, garage steps offer even more latitude in terms of material choice than outdoor areas do, since their indoor location means that weathering isn’t an issue.
Wood: Wooden railings are a simple, inexpensive go-to. I usually build these out of cedar or redwood, using a horizontally oriented 2×4 as the top rail. The main drawback of using wood is that wooden railings have a tendency to take up more space than I’d like when mounted on the stair treads. They can certainly be installed using a fascia or side mount system, but this puts a lot of pressure on the wood posts, and in situations when a lot of force is applied, the wood can sometimes give in. Wood also needs to be painted or stained to look finished, though some homeowners choose to leave their wood railings unstained. Another issue is that the top rails of wood railings, if made from a 2×4 as they often are, can be a little wide for easy grabbing. For an older homeowner this makes wood a less than ideal choice. None of this is to say that wood is never a good choice for garage steps, but before you use it, or install it in someone’s home, it’s always a good idea to consider some other options as well.
Steel: Steel might seem a little overboard for a short flight of stairs in the garage, but it’s an incredibly strong material, which allows it to take up less space on the steps than wood. In my experience, this can be very helpful when the passage between the house and the garage is narrow. The less space the railing takes up, the more space there is to move supplies, people, and large objects in and out. Apart from its strength and space economy, steel just looks cool, and depending on the color and finish can look chic and classy or hip and industrial. For longer sets of garage stairs, some manufacturers have started making stair railings that are pre-assembled, with the balusters attached to the top and bottom rails on hinges, which lets the whole railing assembly adjust to the slope of the stairs. If you’re looking to add a stair railing to your garage stairs as a DIY project and wondering what the best method is to install railings on stairs, this is definitely the way to go. Adjustable systems do away with all the measuring and tedium involved in trying to get each baluster perfectly vertical while keeping the top and bottom rails parallel.
Wood with Steel Balusters: One of my favorite looks is the combination of wooden handrails and posts with steel balusters. It’s an arrangement that marries steel’s strength and industrial aesthetic with the earthiness and warmth provided by wood. Many manufacturers will have a variety of individual balusters to choose from, and you can even mix and match, combining balusters that have a little extra flair–like a twist in the center or a basket element–with plainer ones for a unique look. To hide the connection between the balusters and rails, choose a system that uses screw-on mounts that the balusters slip over. These make for easy iron baluster installation, and look great in a garage setting.
After lots of time spent working on houses and railing systems, I’ve decided that even garages can be interesting spaces. The most inspired project I did involved a nine-tread stairway with a black steel railing in a steampunk-themed garage workshop. The owner is always transporting heavy pipes and machinery up and down those stairs, giving the railing plenty of abuse. Thankfully, the railing has passed its trials by fire with flying colors. You may not have a busy garage workshop, but you’ll never regret going with a tougher railing than you think you’ll need. The railing I used in the steampunk garage, as well as railings of other styles, can be found at Fortress Railing. I often go with their products because they successfully combine sturdiness with classic good looks–a trend which is consistent throughout Fortress’ other product lines as well.