Installing a new deck railing

deck railing
The original deck railing was too low to meet the building code.

The large back deck was one of the things that attracted us to the house. Our home inspector warned us that the railing did not meet code because it was too low. Unfortunately, he missed the fact that the rest of the deck was not built properly– something we later figured out on our own. The deck is attached to the family room addition, which is also in need of a tear-down and rebuild, so we did not want to waste money putting up a new deck. We did, however, want to replace the railing.

The deck railing was obviously not close to meeting code. The previous owner kept it low, apparently to take advantage of the views of the sloping backyard and neighboring woodlots. But once our daughter grew taller than the two foot high railing, we were no longer willing to compromise safety.

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Surgical demolition

The demolition was rather fun. I knocked out the boards forming the wall, and used a reciprocating saw to cut the posts down level with the deck. With no railing in the way, I could easily wash the deck giving it a new lease on life.

deck wash
Washing the deck was easy with no railing in the way.

I coated the tops of the posts with end cut preservative. Ideally, they would be covered by the deck boards, but I was not about to start restructuring the rest of the deck. As it was, the railing was expensive enough, and we were only looking to get a couple more years out of the deck.

Some of the deck structure was suspect, so I removed part of it. One end the deck was supported by a 4×4 resting on a retaining wall made of railroad ties that were rotting and falling over. Safety aside, I saved money on materials by removing this section of deck. Smaller deck equals less railing.

bad deck structure
One of the deck posts was resting on railroad ties that were rotting and collapsing
deck boards removed
Deck boards removed. Notice that the entire deck was built without beams (!)

Assembling the new railing

I kept the design of my new railing simple and affordable. The drop from the deck to the ground measures as much as 4 feet. Therefore, I wanted the railing to be 44 inches high.

I used galvanized carriage bolts to attach 2×4 “posts” to the 4×4 deck posts. Deck screws held the post in place while I drilled the holes for the bolts. I used four screws and two bolts for each post. The bolts go all the way through the existing posts.

All the posts were cut the same length. The railing is the same height at all points around the deck. The deck is not level so the railing was not going to be level.

The next step was to install a 2×4 rail which I attached to the inside of the posts using deck screws.

Next, I installed the 2×4 top cap. I left a one and a half inch overhang on the outside, the same thickness as the balusters. A small overhang on the inside creates a nice character shadow.

deck post
The 2×4 “post” is attached to the deck post using carriage bolts.
deck railing
The outer view of the deck railing structure.
deck railing
The railing structure as seen from the deck.
deck railing
The deck railing with the balusters and top cap in place.

The balusters are the common ones found at any lumber store– 2×2’s with tapered ends. I attached these to the top rail and to the deck skirt using deck screws (two at the top and two at the bottom). I took my chances by not drilling pilot holes. That shortcut ended up costing me money and time as I ended up splitting a number of balusters.

Spacing the balusters

To make sure the spacing between the balusters was up to code I used a spacer block measuring less than 4 inches. For each section, I started in the middle between the posts, making sure the center baluster was vertical. Then I worked my way to either side of the section using the spacer. The last baluster on each side is centered between the previous one and the post. I should have measured each section and spaced its balusters equally rather than using the same spacer block for all the sections.

I wish I had known about this neat trick at the time:

Guaranteed Equal spacing between balusters every time– no math involved!

To space balusters equally, Tom Silva of “Ask This Old House” uses a piece of elastic waist band material, available at fabric stores. On it he made a series of marks two inches apart. When stretched out, the marks stay evenly spaced. Now the elastic can be stretched out so the marks are close to four inches (or any other desired spacing) apart. This works well when the marks can be transferred to the top and bottom rail at the same time. It is necessary to have a helper since it takes two hands to stretch the elastic and another hand to make the marks. This method is virtually error-proof, since no numbers or calculations are involved.

Making the transition to an existing railing at the side of the house wasn’t too difficult. I simply cut off the balusters using the reciprocating saw. I achieved the funky angles for the top rail and capping through trial and error and whole lot of tweaking. It would have been a lot more difficult to miter the angles. Although it doesn’t look as nice, a simple trim with the reciprocating saw made my life easier.

deck railing
For this slope, the balusters were installed before the top rail and then trimmed.
deck railing
deck railing
Looks pretty good, if I do say so myself.

The finished railing looks a lot better than the solid two foot high wall that it replaces. We have a better view of our yard through the railing (as opposed to over a wall) and the structure is sturdy and safe.

deck railing
The new railing: safety with a view.


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