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Building a Deck Railing Design to Installation – Step by Step Deck Building Part 9

Building a Deck Railing Design to Installation – Step by Step Deck Building Part 9
This entry is part 9 of 10 in the series Building My Deck Step by Step
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How I Went About Building A Deck Railing

Building a deck railing began long before I ever started building my deck. When I was planning the layout of the deck, its overall size, where the stairs were etc. is when I also took the time to design and plan the deck railing. I knew I did not like the typical deck railing construction that is used on cookie cutter homes.  I mean the usual 2×2 spindles that were beveled on each end spaced 4” apart, then screwed into the rim joist and a horizontal 2×6 capped off with a 2×4.  That design just bores me to death!

deck railing design

Click Photo To View Full Size

Next I knew that I did not like the aluminum systems out there, with either a metal spindle or the use of glass or lexan between the posts. This again bores me and is just too simple in my opinion. Plus again everyone is doing this these days since it is an easy solution for most do it yourselfers and also easy for the home centres to design and sell.

Okay, so I told you what I don’t like, now what about what I do like. Since I do not mind a bit of maintenance I decided that if parts of my railing need some staining or painting that is ok. So I can use spruce as a secondary wood along with cedar to create a nice look I feel.

Now I like to create shadow lines when I design things. Both in my furniture designs, my cabinetry designs, and deck designs all should have shadow lines so it creates a visual interest.  Visual interest is important to me because it is rewarding to me as a designer to bring about feelings in people when they see my work.

Add Shadow Lines For Visual Appeal

Since I need shadow lines, I need pieces of wood that are different sizes in both width and thickness. I also need pieces of wood that are structural, support people standing as well as leaning on them and something that will not sag over time.

railing-sections-installed-no-top-rail-3Since my posts are 4×4 I can then use 2×4’s to span between each post as they are the same width and are plenty strong enough for the spans I require.

For my main railing I wanted something wider then a 2×4. A 2×6 would work nicely here, as it is wide enough to rest a glass or a beer and also provide a substantial piece to lean on. Also the 2×6 railing would create the shadow line at the top I wanted and also be wider then the 4×4 posts as I wanted a continuous top railing.

Next I needed to choose my design between the posts. Here I have to work with my local building codes and they have two requirements. One is that no space in the railing should be wider then 4 inches. The other is that the railing system cannot allow anyone to climb. I guess that climbing part is for children. Any adult could easily sit on the top of my railing, since it is 36 inches off the deck.

Anyways, knowing what my city wants, and what I want as well I can design the spindle system.

Going back to the point that I do not like the spacing of spindles 4 inches apart over and over again, I decided to group my spindles. I tried drawing using 3 spindles at a small spacing and then a larger spacing and repeating but I didn’t like that and then I tried a grouping of 4. I took 4 2×2’s and spaced them 1 inch apart and then spaced that group of 4 apart from the next 4 at 3 ½ inches.  I chose these measurements only because I like to keep things simple and knew I can easily repeat these measurements over and over again by using materials I have on hand.

For the 1 inch spaces I got this measurement from the thickness of my cedar deck boards.  For the 3 ½ inch space I have 2×4’s or 4×4’s to use for that.

A tip here when designing your deck railing is to make a list of all the actual sizes not the nominal sizes you are using and then you can repurpose the material to assist you in making things easier such as spacing pieces of wood apart like spindles.

Lets keep on designing the railing system.

cedar-deck-complete-bround-level-view-of-lattice-and-railingNext I need a way to attach my spindles to the railing systems cross members and also I want another shadow line. My spindles are 1 ½ inches square, and my cross members are 2×4’s so that is 3 ½” wide. My spindles will not look very nice being fastened directly to the 2×4’s either so another element will add to both the design of the railing and also make installation easier.

What piece of wood should I use now is the question for this extra shadow line and to fasten my spindles to?.  Thinking about the typical sizes of wood for sale that is narrower then a 2×4 and wider then a 2×2 I have two choices. 2×3 or a 1×3. 2×3 would not be visually pleasing since it is the same height as the 2×4 which is 1 ½ inches, so the choice has to be the 1×3. Using the 1×3 accomplishes two things then for me.  One it will be very easy to fasten my spindles to using screws and also it will add that shadow line I was looking for.

Deck Railing Design Is Now Complete

The deck railing system design is pretty much complete between the posts, but what about up and down.

Starting at the deck, having a space between the deck boards and the first cross rail is necessary. Why? This space allows for snow removal, easier sweeping and washing of the deck surface. So the space I chose here is 3 ½ inches. I chose this because like I mentioned above I have 4×4’s that are 3 ½ inches wide which I can use as spacers instead of measuring.

Simple Solution Right?

The next dimension I need to calculate is the height of the spindles. I started by coming down from the underside of the top railing 3 ½ inches to mirror the spacing at the bottom to create visual interest again. Remember I had to keep all spacing within the deck railing less than 4 inches to meet code as well.

Now that I know where my bottom rail is going along with the rail at the top of my spindles I can figure out the heights.

I have a post that is 34 ½ inches above the deck. (add the 2×6 top rail and I have a 36 inch high railing which meets code)

Next I have a space off of the deck that is 3 ½ inches and also a space at the top between the top railing and the top rail of 3 ½ inches, totaling 7 inches.

cutting-railing-spindle-to-lengthNow I can take the 34 ½ inch post height and subtract the 7 inches to get my next dimension of 27 ½”. This is my overall height of the bottom rail, top rail 2×4’s, my 1×3 trim that my spindles will be fastened to, and my spindles together.

The next dimension I need is my spindle height and I can get this by subtracting the thickness of my bottom and top rails, plus the thickness of my trim and this will end up being: 27 ½” – 2 x (1 ½”) + 2 x (3/4”) = 23 inches.

Okay now we can rock and roll, get cutting and building our deck railing sections.

The first thing I did was making a jig on my cutoff saw so I could cut all my spindles to the length of 23 inches. I believe I needed over 100 pieces and I certainly only want to measure once and then repeat the cutting process over and over again. I have a picture of my jig below.

closeup-spindle-sections-building-jig-3After cutting all those spindles I needed another jig so I could assemble my railing sections with ease and not have to measure something that is repeatable like the spindle spacing and the spacing between the spindle groups. The jig was not complicated by any means but it did require the use of a large section of plywood as my main underlying structure to fasten some spacers to.

You can see in the images my jig and how I used it along with its simplicity. (If you have questions about it please ask in the comments below)

To build each section of railing, I first measured between two of the posts that I was going to build the section for and cut my rails and my two trim pieces to that length. After cutting those pieces I then went about fastening the spindles to the 1×3 trim using 2 screws into each end and then took all of those elements and installed each section of the railings between the posts.

building-spindle-sections-using-a-jigI positioned a 4×4 block at deck level between the two posts I was installing the section into. This blocking will let me sit my bottom rail onto them. What this does is it positions my bottom rail at the right height above the deck and also it is going to be level without ever using a level since the deck is level.

I fastened the bottom rail into the post on each end by screwing down through the top of the bottom rail into the posts with a 3 ½” screw. These screws will not be seen as soon as we install our spindle sections. By installing the bottom trim 1×3 used to attach the spindles on top of the bottom 2×4 cross member our screws disappear on each end.

Once the bottom rail was fastened I removed the two 4×4 temporary blocking as they are no longer required for this section.

Installing the spindle assembly is the next thing to do and I just placed it onto the bottom rail, centered it side to side, and clamped it there.

To fasten it to the bottom rail, I predrilled some holes for my screws between each spindle group, and then screwed it in place.

Click On The Images Above To Open The Gallery

If You Want A Professional Looking Deck Pre-Drill All Your Screw Holes

Note – Pre-drilling is recommended not because I was really worried about the wood splitting but it just makes for a much cleaner look when you countersink your screws like this compared to just screwing them directly into a piece of wood and getting tear out.

After screwing the bottom of our spindle section to the bottom rail we can then place the top rail onto the spindle section, clamp it in place making sure things are centered again and also clamp it in place horizontally to the posts. Again, I repeated the process I did on the bottom rail by pre-drilling some holes into the top rail through the trim on the spindle section so I could attach the spindle section to the top rail.

Now that the top rail and spindle section is all attached together we need to attach the top rail to the posts, much like we did on the bottom rail, just our screws will not be underneath the trim of the spindle section. What I did here was toenail a 3 ½ inch screw from the underside of the top rail into the deck post from each side. In total 4 screws were used for this.

Well that is one section complete in building a deck railing, only 11 more sections to go, but all I need to do is rinse and repeat all the steps above to complete the deck spindle section installations. Then I will continue onto the 2×6 cedar railing installation to finish off the deck building series.

Series Navigation<< Deck Fascia Installation – Step by Step Deck Building Part 8 .... Installing My Cedar Deck Railing Top Rail >>
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Warning: The topics covered on this site include activities in which there exists the potential for serious injury or death. DOES NOT guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any information contained on this site. Always use proper safety precaution and reference reliable outside sources before attempting any woodworking or home improvement task!


  1. Hi Robert
    Been reading your series as you have been posting and am enjoying your progress in the deck construction. It is nice to see this type of job being detailed as I know its a long process and can not be done overnight.

    Looking forward to reading the rest

    • Hey Jamie,

      Thanks for the comment. I added some projects to my portfolio if you have a chance please take a look and leave a comment if you can.

      Yes detailing the construction of the whole deck building process was time consuming but I did enjoy it. The hardest part was to remember to photograph things often.


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