If you’ve ever seen Back to the Future then you are at least passingly familiar with the American Craftsman style. The wild-haired time traveler Dr. Brown’s family home is filmed in two of the most triumphant examples of this architectural style. California’s Gamble House provided the exterior while interior shots took place at the larger Blacker House. Both homes were designed by Pasadena’s famous Greene and Greene architectural firm. Craftsman style is an extraordinarily influential style, with examples found on both coasts, and even Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School of architecture was a follow-up to this movement.
Wright’s chief departure from the Craftsman style is in his rooflines. The mark of a Craftsman house is usually its shallow pitched roof. Eaves overhang porches, and are supported by square pillars that taper towards the top. The rooflines can be either gable, or hipped, but most people associate Craftsman style with a Dutch gable or gablet roof. A gablet roof has a triangle peak that can be seen above an overhanging eave. This is where the style’s East Asian influences are most visible, and without this gablet roof many people have trouble identifying a home as a Craftsman. Regardless of the rooflines, outdoor Craftsman-style railings can be an elegant addition to the clean lines and outdoor spaces these homes are known for. Here’s how to find a railing that looks great with your home.
What Railings Suit the Craftsman Style?
The Craftsman style was developed as a rejection of Victorian ostentatiousness, and the mass production that enabled it. To go with a Craftsman home, a railing needs to be simple, and the cleaner its lines the better. This rules out wooden railings with balusters that have been turned with a lathe, as they would clash with the tapered verticals of this style home. Overly ornate wrought iron railings are out as well. This is not to say that there is no room in Craftsman style for ornaments. They just need to be simple. Repeating geometric shapes work well, simple decorative insets also compliment the Craftsman style, and there is also room for deck railing accent lights.
The overall shape of most Craftsman homes is tapered towards the top except for a wide flare just below the top of the structure. Narrow, simple balusters with a thicker top rail tend to look good with this style. Here are some of the materials and styles I think work best:
- Simple round or square railing balusters in wood or steel. These look best with a Craftsman home if the balusters are narrower at their tops than their base. There is some room for light ornamentation, like simple curves, a twist, or a basket. These go well with wood posts and rails.
- Glass balusters or panels open up the view and can look very nice installed on the upper stories, as they go with the theme of lightening as the home rises. On the lower stories, though, they can end up making a home seem top heavy to the eye. This effect does vary from house to house though.
- Cable balusters are unobtrusive and work very well with a Craftsman home for the same reasons as glass, and since they are more visible than glass they work well on lower stories, too. Cable railing may not seem like an intuitive choice for a Craftsman-style home, but I’ve found that it’s a great match.
- Metal railings in steel or aluminum with wood or wood-look handrails suit these homes well. The contrast between materials in the vertical and horizontal position works well with a Craftsman home’s tendency to flare at the top.
Craftsman style depends heavily on an overall taper leading the eye upwards to the bold horizontal bands made by the eaves. The trick to finding the right railing is to look for one that compliments that look. For instance, you might leave off the railings on the first level if a Craftsman has a walkout porch or deck, or add substance to the first level railings with additional ornamentation, and leave the ornaments out on the next level. In the end, though, all of this is subjective, and it’s up to you to decide what best complements your home.
Installing Outdoor Craftsman-Style Railings
The ‘crafts’ in Craftsman comes from the term “arts and crafts,” which in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a serious social movement that wanted to preserve traditional handiwork. The reason we tend to think of arts and crafts as something for afterschool and nursing home programs is because the social movement succeeded in getting them added to the curriculum. Under ideal circumstances, Craftsman-style railings would be prepared by a dedicated craftsman with a skilled hand and keen eyes honed by years of railing work.
Unfortunately, craftsmen aren’t that common anymore, and ensuring that you get a final product that meets code and looks well-crafted means going with something that has been pre-engineered by a professional. These pre-designed railing systems are also easy to install, and if you have some basic skills, you can be the craftsman your home takes its style cues from. You do need to know some things about installing different types of railing systems before you get started though.
- Metal panel railings offer the choice between steel or aluminum deck railings, and the panels come pre-welded and coated. Installing them is a simple matter of cutting them to the appropriate length, installing the mounts on the posts or other vertical supports, then tightening the screws. Wooden or wood-look handrails are installed with clips that go around the top rail, and screw into the underside of the handrail.
- Wooden railings usually attach directly to the post (normally a 4×4) with fasteners. They can be a little complicated when the posts are made of a different material, like the tapered stone pillars of many Craftsman homes, or when the post isn’t an integrated part of the deck or balcony. In these cases, installing will require specialized mounts and brackets to anchor the posts or to mount the top and bottom rails to a column. The balusters will fit into holes in the top and bottom rail. If you’re using metal balusters with wooden posts and rails, you can use hidden connectors that screw onto the top and bottom rail to make it extra easy to install iron balusters without drilling any holes.
- Composite railings offer the same look as wood, but are much more dimensionally stable, and are more resistant to the elements. They install similarly, but usually a composite post uses a sleeve that goes over a wood or metal post.
- Cable railings get their support from wood or metal posts or frames. Wood is a weaker material than steel, and it can be hard to install a cable railing that has the necessary tension on it if your frame is wood. I recommend a cable railing kit for wood posts if you’re using wood, preferably a cable panel, where the setup is already done for you. Cable railings usually use stainless steel, and with the right kit they’re simple to install and the tension can be set with a hand tool.
- Glass railings are like cable railings, in that they can have posts and rails, or just posts, and those posts or rails can be made of metal or wood. Some glass railing systems use clamps or narrow posts and no top or bottom rails, but many of these systems are custom jobs with an increased expense as a result. If you’re looking for a simple, DIYable glass railing, seek out a drop-in system that lets you slide glass panels into slotted rails, with no measuring or custom cutting involved.
All of these different types of railing systems have inherent contrasts which really complement the Craftsman style, and can add to the beauty of your home. As a caveat, though, in my experience, because the Craftsman style is more unusual and more formal than farmhouse, rustic, or ranch styles, it does take more thought to find a railing system that truly compliments this style of architecture.
The Craftsman style has been popular for more than a hundred years, and your Craftsman-style home is likely to be appreciated for many more years, as it is truly a timeless style. This means it’s important to choose materials that will last. Both the Blacker and Gamble houses that were featured in Back to the Future had to undergo extensive multi-million dollar renovations to preserve them. While your home may not be recognized as a landmark, it is important to make sure it lasts, and any additions you make to the home last, too.
One of the best manufacturers of home improvement products that last is Fortress Building Products. Fortress Railing’s lines of steel, aluminum, cable, and glass railings offer many options that complement a Craftsman-style home. If you’re in the market for other high-quality materials, they also offer decking and fencing options that are guaranteed to last for years. They’re definitely worth looking at for any owner of a Craftsman-style house looking to keep their home looking beautiful well into the twenty-first century.