You probably have a relative like my uncle. You know the type: the eternal bachelor. The uncle or aunt who was cool—especially when you were a teenager—but lately you’ve come to worry about. They’re the middle-aged relative who shows up to Thanksgiving dinner in a heavy metal t-shirt with a couple of store-bought pies and a carton of potato salad. The one who dumps them on the table, then makes a beeline for the beer. The one who never really grew up.
Well, last year my uncle surprised me by showing up with a serious girlfriend, two little girls, and–most shocking of all–a polo shirt. I was in a daze as he picked my brain about what to look for before agreeing to buy a house, and at some point during the meal, I agreed to help with some renovation projects on the fixer-upper he was looking at. He called in the favor back in September, and ever since my weekends have centered around drywall, paint, and sprucing up an old Victorian house. For the railings, he—or rather his new wife—wants wrought iron. I took one look at my uncle’s belly, took a moment to feel my aching back, and began to wax eloquently about the many benefits of aluminum railing that looks like wrought iron.
The Advantages of Aluminum Railing
The first advantage that sprang into my mind, prompted by my back’s complaints, is that aluminum is much lighter than wrought iron. Aluminum is a material with a lower density than steel, and this translates to less weight per piece. When you’re talking about the cumulative weight of an entire assembled railing section, the aluminum version is much lighter. This is no small thing when your only assistance is a middle-aged man in a Slayer t-shirt who insists the cooler open promptly at noon.
There are also some thermal properties of aluminum that make it appealing for a home with children. Aluminum is an outstanding thermal conductor. It absorbs heat swiftly, but also dissipates it swiftly, while metals like iron and steel retain heat. You can tell if a railing is steel because, if the sun is shining on it, a steel railing will be hot to the touch. Because aluminum radiates heat quickly it will be comfortable, or possibly even cool to the touch. Aluminum has other advantages:
- Aluminum is stronger than wrought iron. One of the reasons you might try using aluminum over actual wrought iron is that aluminum is actually the stronger material. But, because cheap aluminum can dent easily, you’ll want to find a high-quality, trustworthy railing manufacturer.
- Aluminum is the strongest railing material for its weight. Vinyl railings may be lighter than aluminum, but they’re far weaker. Children and teens have been known to break vinyl fences for fun, and railings are made of the same stuff. Vinyl also grows brittle in cold weather, making it easier to break. That’s not what you want from a material that should provide a safe, solid handhold.
- Aluminum is easier to find than wrought iron. Wrought iron was the metal that launched the industrial revolution, but it didn’t perform consistently. It had a tendency toward flaws, and toward breaking around those flaws. It wasn’t stable thermally, and iron rails sometimes deformed in the summer sun, derailing trains. Wrought iron was quickly abandoned after people found a process that could make steel in large quantities, meaning that true wrought iron, though attractive, is hard to come by these days.
For all these reasons, I felt comfortable suggesting aluminum railings to my uncle. The low weight of aluminum was a benefit for us, as the ones installing it, and its strength was a definite plus in a home with two mischievous girls. You always want to choose a child-safe balcony or porch railing, ideally one that’s long-lasting so that you don’t need to check it constantly for maintenance issues.
My uncle and I also looked into getting steel wrought iron-look railings, which are common nowadays. These are another good option, and they have some advantages which make them worth considering. In the end, though, after doing our research, we went with aluminum. Below, I’ll take you through our thought process.
Comparing Steel and Aluminum Railings That Look Like Wrought Iron
When you compare aluminum and steel railings made in the style of wrought iron they look essentially the same. The only real difference between old school wrought iron and its modern equivalents are that wrought iron had a visible grain. Steel and aluminum railings have the same classic lines, but modern rustproofing and powder coating make for railings that won’t rust like wrought iron tends to.
It’s true that steel railings are stronger than aluminum. However, aluminum railings are still more than strong enough to stand up to your average household–even one with two little girls who are surprisingly kicky. And in the appearance department, what is available in a steel railing is also available in aluminum. That means that the ornamental features found in steel railings can be constructed just as easily in aluminum with less effort. And since aluminum usually comes in a wider variety of shades than steel—like white, which would look good on my uncle’s old Victorian—aluminum railings can please all parties. After I extensively extolled the virtues of aluminum railings, my uncle—himself moving a little like the tin man—told me to look into it for him.
One of the decorative aluminum railing lines that my uncle and I are considering is the Al13 line by Fortress Railing. It’s a system of pre-welded panels coated with a DuPont powder coating for great looks, fade resistance, and corrosion protection. It comes in several finishes, too, like black sand–a texture that looks like the grain of real wrought iron–and white, which is what I’ll recommend to my uncle. It is a fully-developed railing system that is easy to install and comes with an I-support block to help hold the rail in place. This is a feature I’ll use and appreciate when working with my uncle. I’ve used this railing system on other homes, and I’ll continue to recommend it, because Fortress Building Products’ attention to detail is unmatched, and comes through in all their products, from their fencing to their decking.