When I left college behind and bought my own home, I started to get restless. After a few months of spending my Friday nights at home and my weekends following my college friends’ social media feeds, it dawned on me that I was lonely. I made an effort to get out, but it was expensive. I could never get any of the people I met while I was out to come by the house for a less expensive evening. One evening I got an inkling as to why this was. I was talking with a friend in the neighborhood and he let slip that his kids were afraid of my house, and he himself thought it was a little creepy looking, too.
At first, I was offended. I’d put a lot of effort into fixing up a house I’d bought as a handyman special. It then occurred to me that all of my efforts had gone into making the interior more liveable, and that the exterior was still in pretty sorry shape. The railings, in particular, were in bad condition; they were aged and broken 2x4s with flimsy trellis panels nailed to them. I could have tried to repaint them, but I knew they’d just look terrible again in a few years, so instead, I decided to replace them. Steel panel railings for front porches are long-lasting and they look great with most house styles, so I took the leap and put in black steel railings with decorative knuckles. I don’t know if they have totally cured my home of its ‘house of horrors’ look, but it’s getting there. In this post, we’ll talk about how to choose a railing style for your front porch that updates your home’s look and is easy to install.
Updating Railings for Front Porches by Combining Metal and Wood
The traditional material for railings is, of course, wood. People who’ve grown up in a home with a front porch or a patio will probably remember having wooden rails of some sort. These have been falling out of favor for some time, and for obvious reasons. For one thing, a wooden baluster is pretty easy to break, even with an accidental kick. When this happens, the trick to replacing that baluster without taking the whole railing apart is to drill the top hole deeper, and use the extra leeway to slide a replacement baluster in. Unfortunately this usually creates a loose baluster for the rest of the railing’s lifespan. Even if the balusters remain intact, wood shrinks as it ages, which can cause balusters to loosen. Instead, think about other types of railings which combine metal and wood for an updated look with more staying power:
- Replacing wood balusters with metal: Wrought iron balusters between wooden railings is a classic, elegant look. These are also much more durable than railings made with wooden spindles. There are a variety of ways to get this look with more modern steel or aluminum that looks like wrought iron. The most obvious is to swap your existing wooden spindle balusters out for individual steel balusters—you can get these in lots of different styles and shapes, and they’re easy to install if you choose a quality manufacturer.
- Adding wooden touches to metal panels: Another method to combine wood and metal is to simply remove the entire wooden railing and replace it with pre-welded metal railing panels. To integrate the metal railing with the wood on your porch, you can add a wood or composite cap to the top rail of the panel, or use the metal railing panels in conjunction with wooden or composite posts, as in the picture to the right.
Another option for radically updating your home is to discard your wooden railings entirely, and choose something completely different and much more modern. Railings that eschew traditional balusters and use different materials like glass or stainless steel cables are very modern, easy to use, and widely available. These open up views and can do a great job of freshening up a frumpy home’s exterior.
Replacing Your Front Porch Railing Balusters
If you choose to replace existing wooden railing with new wooden railings it can be a hassle. First, you’ll need to demolish the existing rail, and while you might be able to save some of it, that’s probably not the best way to go. Wood rots (if you’re looking at replacing wooden railings you probably know this), and while the temptation to save some money by salvaging the solid parts of your rail can be strong, it isn’t the best course. Chances are good that you’ll spend more in time and labor trying to remove pieces you want to save than you would replacing them. Finally, your replacement wood will decay as well, and if you use all new wood, at the very least it will decay evenly.
For all these reasons, you may want to consider replacing wood balusters with metal ones. This is one of the simplest options and can make a huge difference in the look and durability of your railing. Here are the basics:
- Remove your existing rails. Place the new ones side by side, measure out your spacing, and drill holes for the balusters. You have to do all of this with the new top and bottom rails side by side so the top and bottom positions of the new balusters match.
- Next, install the new rails by inserting them into the holes you’ve made. This is pretty much the same process used to install wooden balusters.
- To make them easier to install—and to keep the rails from splitting on you as you insert the balusters—some manufacturers of metal balusters provide special mounts that are screwed onto the rail where the balusters will go. The balusters then simply slide over the mounts.
- Another way to attach metal balusters to wooden rails is to screw face-mounting balusters to the exterior face of the rail. Some people don’t like this look as much since you can see the attachment point of the balusters, but it’s a simple and relatively foolproof method for updating your railing.
Yet another option is to go with a complete railing system that’s preassembled. These systems may be more expensive than replacing just your balusters, but they last for a long time with almost no maintenance, and, if they’re well-designed by a quality manufacturer, are very easy to install as well.
The Advantages of a Complete Railing System
Pre-assembled railing systems, whether made of steel, aluminum, cable, or even glass, have several advantages over traditional wooden or metal railings assembled on-site.
- Spacing is already set. The only measurements you need to make is to determine the distance between the posts. You then cut the panel to length.
- Mounting a railing system is easier. Most railing systems are provided with mounting brackets that are already engineered to support the length of the panel.
- Installation of all railings on the porch is easier. Instead of assembling each individual section of railing from its constituent parts, with pre-assembled panels you can place whole railing sections in at a time, which makes installation easier as well as faster.
All of these advantages add up to considerable time savings. Without the need to measure and carefully work out the spacing for each individual baluster, installation is easy. On most front porches, installation of a railing system can be done in a single day without too many issues arising. This convenience applies to panel railings in steel and aluminum, and—at least for railings from some manufacturers—to more modern styles as well. Look for cable railings that install in complete sections with the cables already run through a frame. If you’re looking for a DIY-type glass railing system, choose one in which pre-cut glass panels or balusters drop into frames, and avoid those that require the glass to be custom cut and fitted. While these systems look perfectly nice, they usually require hours of professional labor to install.
The Pure View and Cable Railing systems from Fortress Railing are good examples of complete, easy-to-install systems. Their Pure View railings use a drop-in system, and their cable panels don’t use tensioners, which makes them simple to set up and maintain. That convenience extends to the Fortress’ Fe26 and Al13 metal railing panels, too. These are pre-welded, e-coated, and powder-coated wrought iron-look panel railings that, with their quality welds and unique multi-layer protective coatings, will stand up to nearly anything and stay beautiful. Fortress Building Products’ other product lines, such as their bamboo-based composite decking and virtually rust-proof fences, are also durable, thoughtfully engineered, and innovative. So if you’re looking for anything—whether railings for your porch, fencing, or decking—to make your home less intimidating to the kids in the neighborhood, Fortress can help.