What are the Pros and Cons of Wood Deck Railing?


Traditionally the railing of choice for decks. Wood is a versatile, resilient, malleable, and very common deck railing material. A workable material, the design options are almost limitless. But before you install wood railing on your deck, what are the pros and cons of a wood deck railing.

Pros of Wood Deck Railing

  • Natural aesthetic
  • Custom design options
  • Staining colour options
  • Economical Material

Cons of Wood Deck Railing

  • Requires regular maintenance
  • Rot
  • Mould
  • Will fade, warp, split and twist
  • Splinter
  • Obstruct view more than other railing material
  • Combustible

Before explaining the pros and cons of a wood railing, we will need to clarify a few items. There are many different kinds of wood you can use for railing. The type of wood selected will impact the railing’s durability, workability and costs. Commonly treated pine is used for wood railing, but cedar, redwood and cypress can be used.

Also, the design of the railing will significantly affect its cost, installation and usability. When considering the pros and cons, we are going to stick with wood deck railing that meets code as required for deck guards. Which will limit some design options but still allowing great diversity in appearance. At the end of the article, we will go over in more detail the code requirements for deck railing, but lets first discuss the pros of wood deck railing.

Pros of Wood Deck Railing

Being thetraditional railing material of choice. One of the pros of a wood railing is its Natural aesthetic properties. Wood railing has a natural beauty to it and compliments most wood decking. With consistent use of material, both decking and railing blending seamlessly together for an ideal match. The railing reflecting the decking and the decking reflecting the railing.

Because wood is such an easy product to work with, especially for DIYers, wood railing has endless custom design options for railing. Wood railing including spun, jigsaw, horizontal, woven or sunburst baluster allowing wood railing to complement any deck design. Most of which can be built with basic wood tools and skills.

Wood railing can also be stained to match or compliment the decking. There is almost no limit in wood railing colours. Allowing traditional white railing or stained to match the decking. Or tie in the railing with the house colour. Wood railing allows versatility in colour.

The number one pro of wood railing is the price.No decking railing material is more Economical than wood railing.Especially when using treated pine, in a basic vertical baluster design. Wood railing material can cost less than $15 a lineal foot. Providing a very economical railing option.

Cons of Wood Deck Railing

Most of the cons of wood railing can be summed up in; it’s a natural product. Meaning it expands and shrinks, it gets wet and dries out. It needs maintenance. The level of wood decking cons is directly related to the level of maintenance done.  A well-built wood railing regularly cleaned and stained will have few other problems. But if not maintained, it will have many. The biggest con of wood deck railing is the need for frequent maintenance.

Wood railing needs to be stained every three to five years, depending on the quality of stain and exposure. Staining deck railing is slow, tedious work, but consistent coverage of the wood is essential to be effective. Spraying can help to speed up the process but will often require more frequent application as the stain is not worked into the wood when sprayed as with a brush. But brushing the wood railing will easily take twice as much time as staining the decking.

If you neglect regular maintenance of wood railing, the wood will quickly deteriorate and need to be repaired, involving removing and replacing parts of the wood railing. Often taking more time to fix the railing, then it took to build the original railing.

Neglected wood railing, unlike many other popular deck railing material, will rot and grow mould decreasing the structural strength of the railing and appearance.

Wood railing, if not regularly sealed/stained, will not weather the elements well with the railing boards splitting, warping and twisting. This is especially true for the top rail horizontal rail, with rain sitting on it and being dried out by the direct sun.

Another con of wood railing is splintering. If not regularly sanded, small pieces of the railing will break off, stabbing hands running along the handrail.

Wood railing, with its larger balusters and railing, will obstruct the view off the deck. Preventing you from enjoying your surrounding will sitting on the deck, glimpsing through bars, not soaking in the panorama deck view.

Decks are great for eating and barbequing on, but wood railings are combustible limiting grill location. A gas grill will require less clearance from wood railing but still will need to be pulled into the centre of the deck to prevent damaging the railing. Or worse, starting a deck fire.

Wood railing can be protected from the grill’s heat with a blanket. You can read more about protecting your railing by clicking hereOpens in a new tab.. Where I more fully explain the value and type of blankets to use to preserve the deck railing.

Summary of Wood Deck Railing Pros and Cons

In short wood can make a beautiful, economical deck railing. But the biggest con is maintenance and the deterioration of the railing if not maintained. Wood railing can last for years, providing safety and beauty to your deck but only with long hours of maintenance. If you are willing to do the work to maintain the railing, it can be a great choice, but if not, the cons will quickly outweigh the pros. When the railing becomes ugly and unsafe, it won’t matter how much you saved or what the original design was. It is a waste.

Deck Railing Code to Consider with Wood Railing

Recently many intriguing wood railing designs are being created. Such as the rustic woven branches and horizontal boards wood railing, adding a beautiful touch to the appearance of the deck but, unfortunately, often are not an option for deck guards. In the United States and Canada, railing is required for higher decks, and there are limitations to the design.  

The IRC, which most States base their building code off, requires railing for any deck higher than 30” (762mm), but in Canada, decks required railing if higher than 24” (600mm). Decks below these heights you are free to be creative with wood railing designs, but any deck requiring railing by law needs to comply.

“Openings in guards in all non-industrial buildings shall be small enough to not permit the passage of a 100 mm (4”) diameter sphere.”

ABCOpens in a new tab.

If you can slide a softball through the railing, it doesn’t meet code. This requirement eliminates most rustic wood railing designs and many more.

“Guardrails must be designed so no part, including ornamental fixtures, will allow for climbing.”

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This eliminates almost every wood railing designed that is not vertical balusters. Horizontal boards or weaving wood create toe holds, allowing climbing, which doesn’t comply to code.

The more common wood railing design meeting building codes are Flat slats, 2×2 balusters, Vertical decking boards, or turned baluster. All of which prevent climbing and add beauty to the deck. While being simple in design, which allows homeowners to build their own wood deck railings.

“Guardrails must be at least 1.07m (42”) high, from the deck surface to the top of the guardrail. Guardrails serving a single home can be 0.9 m (3’) high if the deck surface is not more than 1.8 m (6’) above the ground.”

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When designing wood railing height must be considered. Deck railing needs to be both beautiful and safe. Preventing accidental falls and injuries off the deck.

Deck railing post can only be spaced a maximum of 6’ (1.8m) apart. The IRCOpens in a new tab. also requires that 4×4 wood railing posts not be notched. Restricting some wood railing designs and post locations.

Regardless if you build with wood or another material, deck railing is for safety. It may restrict in railing design, but it will ensure that all who enjoy your deck will be able to enjoy it for years to come.

Ryan Nickel

A Red Seal carpenter, passionate about building decks to be enjoyed.

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