By Jim Cory. The days of the perfunctory wood railing system for a wood deck are gone. A huge variety of materials are now available -- vinyl, steel, aluminum, composites, wood/resin, plexiglass -- to provide safety with a unique look. Of course, wood itself is still available, as well.

So what kind of client wants a non-wood railing? David Tkach's company, Jones Doors & Windows, Mockville, N.C., installs a large number of vinyl railing systems. For him, the issues are maintenance and aesthetics. "You never have to touch the stuff," Tkach says. The system he uses, manufactured by ColorGuard, offers vinyl components in three colors -- gray, white, and beige -- which means "you've got a lot more leeway to match the existing siding or the brick," he says.

For the client who "wants something elegant," Dean Collins, Collins Construction, St. Petersburg, Fla., says he's apt to suggest a custom-made aluminum railing. Such railings, common in Florida hotels and other commercial properties, are made of powder-coated aluminum with a baked-on finish to resist salt corrosion. His rule of thumb in suggesting a choice of railing system is to pick one that matches the cladding and style of the house: metal rails for stucco, brick, or modern houses; wood or a wood imitation for older frame homes.

"To be honest, we find the alternative rail systems to be a bit pricey for the Florida market," Collins says. "There are upper-end customers who can afford it, and we steer them toward the aluminum." Collins, whose decks average about $5,000, says what dictates whether he suggests aluminum railings is "not the size of the deck but the size of the budget." Aluminum would add another $40 to $75 per linear foot, installed, to the cost of a wood railing. If clients aren't satisfied with aluminum or wood, Collins usually suggests a composite rail system, such as Trex, WeatherBest, or Choice. "If they do ask for an alternative rail system, I tell them to be prepared to spend another $10 to $15 per linear foot," Collins says.

Visual blockage

Gary Marsh, owner of All Decked Out, in Marin County, north of San Francisco, installs a powder-coated galvanized steel railing system on about half of the decks he builds. Codes governing the placement of spindles have become progressively more restrictive. "It depends on the county or the town," Marsh says. "In some, you can only have vertical railing systems because the horizontal are considered climbable." When Marsh started out in 1979, the minimum distance between vertical rails was 9 inches. Today it's 4.

Views make steel popular. "Typically," Marsh says, "with steel spindles you can get away with thinner stock. If you're using standard wood 2x2s, you have an inch and a half thickness in either direction. With steel you can get away with a 1/2-inch solid stock, or 5/8 or 3/4 inch.

Bob Kiefer's Decks by Kiefer, Pittstown, N.J., builds mostly in redwood, with wood railings he mills in his own shop. When the close placement of spindles obscures views, tempered glass panels are a solution. Kiefer recently built a deck on a house overlooking a lake. The curved glass panels he installed in place of conventional rails added $10,000 to the $40,000 cost of the deck. "You get the occasional person who has to have something different," Kiefer says, "and we have to find a way to do it."