What is Composite Deck Railing?
Many would assume composite deck railing includes anything that is not natural (wood). Composite deck railing contains a variety of ingredients that make up its consistency, strength, and texture.
Assuming composite railings are all the same is equivalent to walking through the produce department at the grocery store and believing every apple will taste identical. While all varieties of apples offer similar benefits, each tastes, feels, and looks different.
It will benefit us to spend some time evaluating the main ingredients of composite decking, how they are made, and the varieties in an effort to explain what composite deck railing is. This will help you make a truly informed decision on if composite deck railing is appropriate for your needs and which types might be best for you.
The Quality Spectrum of Composite Deck Railing
Like most materials, composite deck railing comes with a variety of makeups that influence cost, durability, and overall quality.
With that said, composite deck railing is almost always superior long term than “natural” options like pressure-treated wood deck rails.
A closer examination at the construction of composite deck railing will help us understand why the disparity exists.
What goes into composite deck railing?
Plastic and wood, often recycled, serve as the fundamental ingredients in making composite deck railings. The fact that composites are frequently made from recycled materials encourages many buyers that the product is an environmentally friendly choice.
Some composite railings are made from up to 90% recycled material. These materials come from both construction and general consumer waste. Many composite manufacturers elect to use materials sourced relatively near their facilities.
This ecologically responsible manufacturing process is beneficial because it eliminates a percentage of waste entering landfills and limits the need to transport materials across long distances.
For those wishing to make their deck, railings, and other projects eco-friendly, composite deck railing is likely the best choice.
How does composite decking end up in its final form?
If you have seen a composite deck board lately, you might wonder how so many recycled materials end up looking so much like natural wood products. It all starts with a process called extrusion.
Raw ingredients get mixed then placed into the extruder, where the mix gets melted into a batter. This is then pushed through a shaping die, which creates the final realistic look of lumber.
Each manufacturer includes some unique processes in addition to the general extrusion mentioned above. Some will include extra steps that toughen the material, make it more UV resistant, and/or prevents staining.
These extra steps create the unique features offered by different composite deck railing manufacturers.
What types of composite deck railing can I expect to find?
The different types of composite deck railing usually come down to the plastics used in the extrusion process. There are two main types of plastic used: polypropylene and polyethylene. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is also used but is a less popular plastic for the purposes of composite deck railing.
Polyethylene is wildly popular and is used extensively in packaging. Milk jugs, soap bottles, and oil are all made from high-density polyethylene. It is known for its strength and recyclability.
Polypropylene is used in many of the same settings as polyethylene but offers a unique quality - flexibility. It is resistant to harsh chemicals and melts at higher temperatures than other plastics.
Both plastics receive a fair share of attention amongst composite deck railing manufacturers with polyethylene being long favored for its ease of procurement and recyclability.
The age of consumer awareness has brought a new focus on the arguably favorable polypropylene. Manufacturers are eschewing lower costs for the quality of polypropylene plastic in their composite blends.
Most of the negative attributes assigned to composite decking stem from the polyethylene-based composite deck railings. This “bad reputation” led manufacturers to explore using polypropylene more extensively.
When reviewing your composite deck railing options, keep the quality differences between polyethylene and polypropylene in mind. Like other materials, you will need to evaluate your cost versus quality needs.
Pros and Cons of Composite Deck Railing
The differences in materials discussed above can impact the overall quality of your composite deck railing. However, all composites have similar pros and cons. We will cover them extensively here:
Composite Deck Railing Pros
- Low maintenance
- Long lasting
- Less wear and tear
- Easy to install and offers design flexibility
Do you enjoy staining, bleaching, stripping, and all the other maintenance requirements of wood? No? Well the low maintenance needs of composite deck railings should pique your interest.
Low maintenance is a benefit in and of itself but the overall impacts are great. The lack of stain and other harsh chemical requirements increase the positive environmental impacts of composite decking materials.
The low maintenance requirements also reduce the need for costly materials like stain. Depending on deck size, this can help recoup the upfront cost disparity between composite and wood.
Composite decking material also boasts a longer life expectancy than many deck railing materials. Bugs, rot damage, and warping are some of the typical threats that disappear when considering composite deck railings.
Contrary to popular belief, composite decking and deck railing is less vulnerable to fading over time. There will be some initial fade after installation but this stops while wood will continue to fade until a new stain coat is required (or the wood goes to rot.)
Composite deck railing can be installed featuring longer boards than other materials. This can mean easier installation and greater design flexibility.
We have already discussed the superior ecological benefits of composite materials, with composite deck railing being comprised of up to 90% recycled materials.
Composite Deck Railing Cons
- High cost
- Vulnerable to scuff damage
- Unable to sand and repair
- Vulnerable to staining from spills
- Can get hot
- Can look unnatural
As we mentioned earlier, some of the cons associated with composite railings may stem from earlier iterations of composite materials using less-desirable plastics like polyethylene or PVC.
Nonetheless, there are some cons to consider when it comes to composite deck railings.
The initial cost of composite materials can be shocking. Entry-level composites can cost significantly more than standard lumber with luxury varieties featuring costs comparable to exotic hardwoods.
While composite deck railings are generally durable against the elements, aging, and pests, they can be vulnerable to scuffs from sharp objects, sand, or hail. The fact these scuffs cannot be simply sanded and corrected is problematic.
If you have a pet dog that likes to put paws on your railings to peek into the yard, you might consider the impact on your composite materials.
Composite deck railings can be susceptible to stains from spills like wine or food. This stems from the natural wood fibers used as part of the ingredients absorbing the spill.
If you select a darker composite deck railing material, it can get quite hot in the heat of the sun. This can lead to uncomfortable temperatures when resting arms or hands on the railing. A light-colored or composite with deeper grooves can help counter this tendency.
Some composites on the lower end of the cost spectrum can give off an obviously unnatural look and feel. This should be considered if your design requires the impression of hardwoods.
How to Install Composite Deck Railing
If you have decided composite deck railing is right for your project, you might consider installing the railing yourself. This is feasible for someone who is confident in their skills and who has the appropriate tools for the job.
This installation guide is not comprehensive but represents a typical basic composite deck railing installation. Use this information to judge whether you feel capable of installing your composite deck railing.
If you feel underqualified, unprepared, or just do not want to do your own deck railing work, skip down to the next section titled Using a Professional Installer for Composite Deck Railing. There you will find a helpful resource for finding a great professional deck railing installer in your area.
First, we will assume the deck is ready for railing and any old railing is removed.
Pre-drill posts for railing brackets. The good news is, most composite deck railing is sold in a customized kit made specifically for your project. With that said, there will likely be some cutting to make sure your railing is the appropriate length and all the segments fit appropriately.
Most composite deck railing uses a sleeve over the wooden post. The sleeve fits over a typical wood deck or railing post.
Attach the brackets to the post. The brackets are screwed to the post at the appropriate heights to allow for the top and bottom rails to meet local codes or regulations.
Install the bottom railing. The bottom rail goes first and is likely pre-routed to fit the balusters you have selected. The rail fits into the bottom brackets and is secured with screws.
Install the balusters. The pickets, spindles, or balusters are installed into the bottom rail by simply placing them in the pre-routed holes.
Install the top railing. The top railing is secured into place atop the balusters installed in the previous step. The top railing is then secured to each baluster to ensure a tight fit.
Affix all bracket caps, rail caps, and post boots. Most composite deck railing kits offer caps to hide hardware and brackets. These are installed as the final step along with boots around the post bottoms.
Professional Installer for Composite Deck Railing
Not everyone enjoys spending their precious free time adding composite railing to their deck. Whether it is a lack of time, motivation, or the expertise required to complete the task, it is reasonable to prefer someone else do the work of installing your railing.
If you find yourself seeking out the help of a pro, use our simple, convenient tool to find someone in your area who can help you plan, purchase, and install your composite deck railings.
Sample Costs and Comparison Guide
It is always valuable to evaluate the cost of other deck railing materials when deciding on whether composite deck railings are the best choice for you. Review this comparison chart below for an idea of what costs you might expect.
Composite deck railing manages to rank as the least expensive deck railing material while offering some major benefits.
Deck Railing Materials Pricing Comparison Chart*
Price Per Linear Foot
Stainless Steel Cable
* It is important to note that these costs are estimates and many variables can impact the final cost of a project per linear foot.