Deck railing, step 6 (of 7), on how to build a 10' x 10' deck, will show you an easy-to-build deck railing design. Check out the other railing designs, ideas and patterns on mycarpentry.com.
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Railing should be required if your deck or porch is high enough off the ground so that stepping off of it might be a safety hazard. You should also check your local building code for deck heights requiring railing before you make your final decision.
Designing Deck Railing
Besides safety, there are other reasons why you might want to add deck railing - for example, it is great to lean on while standing and having a conversation with someone. It is also a great place to set your drink or hors d'oeuvres when you are entertaining guests.
The diagram below [B] shows the details of a typical deck or front porch railing design. This detail indicates that the distance between the two posts is 60 inches. This will certainly vary, depending on your deck.
I generally don't space the posts more than about 72 inches apart. The reason for this is that the rail section will sag over time due to lack of support in the middle.
If you are building railing for a deck side that has a distance of 96", add a post in the middle to divide the distance into two equal sections.
When measuring the horizontal 2x4s used to support the pickets, measure at the bottom of the posts (see diagram [C]) where they meet the top of the decking.
The reason for this, is if the posts are a little out of plumb, the bottom measurement will be more accurate than the top. When you install the rail section, it will naturally straighten the posts.
Cut both top and bottom horizontal 2x4s the same distance. Layout the two 2x4 horizontal framing members for the pickets by first determining the center, then subtracting 1/2 the thickness of one picket. Make marks every 6 inches from this mark.
The reason for laying out the pickets from the center is so that there will be equal distance between the end pickets and the 4x4 posts (see diagram [D]).
**Note: Diagram [D] shows a picket installed at the center of the rail section. This is not a requirement. This particular example shows a lot of space between the end pickets and the horizontal framing. If your picket run-out is as shown above, you can adjust the picket layout so that the center of the rail section is between two of the pickets (see diagram [B], it is laid out this way).
For deck design and structural information, check out the Prescriptive Residential Wood Deck Construction Guide, by the American Wood Council.