The Deck Handbook: Part 9
Railings, Lighting, Pergolas & Seating]

The feature that brings the most character to a deck is its railing. Deck railings are required in most localities on any deck higher than 36" (24" in some places) from the ground. Most building codes specify criteria for deck railings by char­ac­ter­is­tic and per­for­mance rather than material.

This gives deck railing designers a lot of flexibility. Railings must be a minimum of 36" high (measured from the deck boards) — 42" if the deck is higher than 5'-10" from the ground, depending on your local building code.

A deck rail should be strong enough not to be pushed over by people leaning against it — even a lot of people. In technical terms, it must stand a horizontal force of 200 lbs. per square foot. The balusters should be close enough so that a 5" (4" in some localities) diameter ball cannot be pushed through the railing at any point. This keeps kids from getting their heads caught in the railing. (It used to be a 6" ball — apparently a child with a head smaller than 6" has been discovered somewhere. Lord knows where — but better safe than sorry).





By far the most common material for home decks is wood, and the most common railing pattern is the vertical baluster. In many localities in Nebraska horizontal rails are discouraged, even prohibited, because of the "ladder" effect that tempts small children to climb the rail.

However, railings can be found made of metal, composite materials, vinyl, fiberglass and even tempered glass. Composite and vinyl decks usually feature matching composite or vinyl railings. All of these must be tested to comply with national building codes and the test results must usually be submitted to the local building code authority in order to get a permit.

Metal railing, however, is usually assumed to be strong enough without special testing. Inexpensive coated aluminum balusters are now on the market. Available in an increasing range of colors and shapes (black and round being the most popular), these are installed in guide strips available from the manufacturer or into holes drilled on site using templates. These balusters are a striking improvement on the standard 2-inch square wood baluster and only slightly more costly.

The Most Common Wood Railing Styles


Wood Railing Types From top to bottom: vertical balusters, lattice, horizontal rails. (Horizontal rails are illegal in many jurisdictions because of the "ladder" effect that tempts small children to climb the railing.)

More stringent building code requirements have definitely made deck, stair and porch railings safer in recent years. The consequence, however, has been to increasingly hide the view through the railing. As more balusters are added for safety, more of the view through the railing is blocked.

One effect has been to force designers to come up with materials you can see through

The cable rail is one such product. It is a series of wires strung close together under high tension. The wires, nearly invisible, provide protection without hiding the view but, because they are strung under high tension, very strong, usually metal, deck posts are required. More recently low-cost tempered glass balusters have been offered to the market. Glass is, of course, the ultimate see-through material. Tempered glass panels are attached to top and bottom rails using special hardware. Strong but still somewhat fragile, glass is probably not the material of choice for homes with small children or very active deck usage.

Pergolas, Roofs, and Other Overheads

Deck overheads offer shelter, add an interesting architecturally feature and can help re-define the space of all or a part of a deck. Roof beams and rafters can be ornately carved or painted to offer a little extra design excitement.

Deck overheads can be partially or fully covered. Wood is a common material used both in the structure and in the features of many overheads.

Many choose to hang flowers or wind chimes from them or grow climbing vines on the sides. Deck overheads can cover just a part of a deck such as a sitting area or a hot tub. Some choose to cover their deck entirely. Partially covered decks are offered in many styles. Some have small gaps between the boards similar to those found on the deck flooring. These gaps will let water pass through.

Some overheads, called "pergolas", feature large openings that add some protection from the sun but none from the rain. The can be, however, striking design elements that greatly change the feel of the deck. They also provide support for climbing vines that shade the deck in the heat of summer, but allow ample sun during the other three seasons where more warmth is appreciated.

Some pergolas have rafters that are tilted on their side to better stop the sun from getting in. Some have actual shutters, and others roller shades.

These types of overheads shelter but also make one feel like they are still in nature.

Fully covered deck roofs are common over hot tubs. Fully covered enclosures provide constant shade and shelter from inclement weather. Deck roofs that are fully covered often have gutters installed to drain the water off — just like a regular roof. Fully covered roofs often are built with a slight pitch to ensure the water flows off readily.

Benches, Tables, and Storage

Benches can be either built into a deck or unattached to allow for easy furniture rearrangement. Benches add a comforting and inviting look to a deck.

Benches are best situated around the perimeter of your deck so that they are out of the way from general traffic. Bench styles range from the simple to the ornate. A built-in L shaped bench along two sides is even more elegant with cushioned seating. Portable benches also offer extra convenience and give a deck a distinct look. Benches can also be painted or feature carved designs for extra panache.

Benches require proper framing support. Built-in benches should be part of the initial deck design to ensure that they are properly secured to the joists and are adequately supported. Additional framing is often needed under a bench. New building codes also require that bench seats be treated as if they are a deck floor, so that the back of the bench or the handrail behind the bench must be treated like a handrail, including being just as high as a handrail when measured from the bench seat. This makes sense as a safety measure since children can stand on the bench seat to more easily climb over a lower railing, but it does make perimeter benches much less practical.

Many choose to also build in tables beside the bench to guarantee a consistent look and add even more practicality. Portable tables that match the deck and the benches are great in that they can be easily moved for different occasions.

Storage can include chests, boxes and even cupboards. Frequently these are made off-site and attached to the deck when it is completed.

Electricity and Lighting

To make the most use of your deck, you will need at least one electrical outlet and some sort of lighting. Without lighting, your deck is largely unusable at night when, especially in the summer, it is the most enjoyable.

Deck lighting is a subject for an entire book. In short, though, you will see three general types of lighting on decks:

For general lighting, we like line voltage (120 volt) lamps at the top of newel posts, carriage lamps attached to the house and, if the deck has an overhead structure, overhead lamps often integrated into exterior fans. Dimmer switches make it possible to have as much or as little general light as you want for any particular activity. We frequently also install motion sensors that turn on at least one lamp when movement on the deck is detected.

For perimeter lighting, we generally install small, 12-volt, exterior lamps at the base of each newel post, at the top of the stairs, and on each stair tread. These are the spots you want to mark so guests and family do not fall off the edge or down the steps. They make it possible to use the deck at night without the glare of the main lights.

Other interesting lighting effects can be incorporated using rope lights and spotlights aimed at the deck from the yard.

Rev. 05/20/18