Q: I have a problem with our deck railings. When it’s cold in winter, the wood contracts, so the vertical balusters don’t fit snugly into the horizontal handrail. Some have popped out. And the handrails themselves are also pulling out of the notches in the newel posts. I don’t want to just put nails in there to hold them together, but what else I can do? – George A., Mohegan Lake
A: Deck railings are constructed in various ways, says Donald LeBlanc, owner of Just Decks in Pleasantville, and it’s hard to diagnose your deck’s problem without seeing it. “But it sounds like it didn’t have the proper type of fasteners, or adequate fasteners,” he says. Whatever the deck’s design and construction method, the fasteners holding it together should be screws, not nails, so use those if you want to make a repair. “Screws lessen the possibility of the balusters falling out and the rails coming loose because they move with the wood,” LeBlanc explains. Because wood retains moisture, galvanized deck screws are best. They cost a little more, but they’ll keep things tight for longer.
It’s also possible, LeBlanc notes, that your deck wasn’t built to code. If there’s too much space between the balusters, or too much weight for each fastener to handle, it could cause the problem you’re having. “Codes are pretty strict,” he adds, noting that you may need a railing that’s taller or stronger. Most municipalities in Westchester require any deck that’s more than 18 inches off the ground to have a railing 36 inches above the finished floor height, with vertical balusters close enough to prevent a four-inch sphere from passing through, so little kids and pets can’t take a tumble.
LeBlanc’s company offers free inspections to see if your deck is safe, and will offer recommendations if there’s rot, or poor construction. These days, he says, most homeowners having a deck built or repaired choose composite materials — news that may make purists turn up their noses. “From 10 feet, composite looks like a painted piece of wood,” he insists. And from two feet? “It looks pretty darn good. A well-built composite deck is a lot less maintenance than wood. Composite can be more expensive, but it’s soap-and-water cleanup. A wood deck requires maintenance every two or three years.” Purists whose noses are still turned up at the idea of faux can go with cedar, teak, redwood, mahogany, or a hardwood from the South American rain forest called ipe. If you choose mahogany or ipe, please be an eco-purist and make sure the wood was responsibly harvested.