Building a Freestanding Deck Railing: Considerations for Safety and Stability

A freestanding deck railing can be more vulnerable to weather

Adding a railing to a freestanding deck helps frame the structure and provides an opportunity for adding lighting.

A guy I knew when I lived in Texas wanted to build a deck for his hunting cabin, but he had a problem. His cabin was a modified mobile home. With no foundation, it didn’t have the structural integrity needed to support the deck. But what he didn’t have in structure integrity he made up for with land. He had a good two acres to work with, so we decided to build a freestanding deck. Initially, he didn’t think that it needed a railing, but after looking at the completed platform deck, we both realized that a railing was the best way to finish the project.

A freestanding deck railing is almost always a good idea, even when your deck is low enough to the ground that you’re not required to have one. Generally, a deck under 30 inches high doesn’t have a railing requirement, but as my friend learned, sometimes a railing is necessary to make a deck look and feel like a finished, defined space. My friend also learned that although putting a railing on a freestanding deck is mostly the same as putting one on a deck attached to a house, there are some differences you may want to keep in mind.

Why Adding a Railing Improves Your Freestanding Deck

Initially, my friend didn’t want to add a railing because he technically wasn’t required to. Once we finished building though, he realized that the deck looked unfinished. He opted to add a railing and it wound up really tying the whole project together. There are more than a few benefits to a freestanding deck railing, including:

  • Added weight on the perimeter: A railing with some heft will add weight to the perimeter. This additional weight can help to increase stability and reduce the chance of wind uplift.
  • An improved aesthetic: A freestanding deck tends to look unfinished without a railing, especially if you choose to put the deck further away from your home. A railing helps to frame the design and give it a finished look. You can also use unique railing designs like curved or ornamented balusters to create a more elaborate style.
  • Safety: While your freestanding deck might not technically require a railing (see our post on the maximum deck height you can have without a railing), adding one is always the safest bet. Children or small animals can be injured by falling even a short distance. Having a railing prevents this. Just keep in mind that once you do decide to add a railing, it will have to meet codes set for railings. That means it must be a minimum of 36 inches high.
  • Space for lighting components: A railing can be a good place to hide LED deck railing lights that can illuminate and delineate your deck edges. LED lighting wires can be threaded through the posts and hardware and wires can also be hidden inside railing post caps.

While I almost always recommend adding a railing, it’s a good idea to remember that there will be additional costs and concerns when you add one onto a freestanding deck. While most of the requirements remain the same, you’ll need to keep in mind that there’s no home connection to anchor your freestanding deck.

Concerns Specific to a Freestanding Deck Railing

There are a lot of reasons that homeowners might choose a freestanding deck. Houses with irregular exterior walls can be difficult to fit with a ledger board. Materials like stone or stucco can also be a challenge to attach a deck to. Older homes or ones without a true foundation might not be able to provide the structural support needed, as was the case with my friend. In these instances, it might be better to opt for a freestanding deck. However, freestanding decks have their own safety concerns, which will also impact the kind of railing you decide to install. Keep in mind that:

  • Once you add it, you have to meet code: The biggest issue I see with individuals deciding to add a railing to a freestanding deck is that they don’t meet the code when doing so. Freestanding decks tend to be lower to the ground, meaning that they often aren’t required to have a railing. However, if you put one on, it should meet code requirements, including the 200-pound load bearing requirement and the 36” minimum height requirement.
  • You could have stability concerns: Another benefit of attaching a deck to a home is that it provides additional stability for the deck as well as some wind blocking. Especially if your deck is set away from your home in an open area, make sure that the railing is firmly attached to the deck surface to prevent it from pulling away.
  • Your railing’s infill material must also be weight bearing: The infill–in this case, the balusters–must be capable of holding 50 pounds per square foot of balusters.  This needs to be consistent all the way around the deck. In addition, you’ll have to make sure those balusters are close enough together that a 4” sphere cannot pass through. These are basic code requirements that most pre-assembled railings should take into account, but they’re good to keep in mind if you’re building your own railing.

While the railing requirements for a freestanding deck don’t change significantly from an attached one, the important thing to remember is that you’re not going to have the additional stabilizing presence of the house. This is why a good, sturdy railing system is key.

My friend opted to use a surface-mounted aluminum railing set with a finish that complemented his deck’s design. By buying it as a system, in pre-welded panels, he was able to install it all in one weekend. He also used post cap lighting as a finishing touch.

He was able to get everything he needed from Fortress Railing (which I, of course, recommended to him). He selected their Aluminum railing in black sand for its strength, durability, and minimal required maintenance. By using a few of their 8’ panels, along with their aluminum posts, he was easily able to install the railing as a one-man job. Of course, he had already built the deck itself (out of pressure-treated lumber), but I told him that when that wood starts to decay and splinter, he should try one of Fortress Building Products’ other products: long-lasting, bamboo-based composite decking.  

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