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How to Choose the Right Material for Metal Handrails


Choosing the right metal for handrails can be confusing. Railing components and systems are available in a wide variety of metals, including aluminum, steel, stainless steel, brass, and wrought iron. With all these options, what are the most important factors to consider in selecting metal handrails?

First, decide what you need the fence to accomplish. Are you providing safety for an industrial or commercial installation or security around a property? You will need a sturdy metal fence that can stand up to the environment.

On the other hand, you may be looking for an attractive, aesthetically pleasing handrail to complement the design of a home or office building. You can choose between traditional steel railings or go with aluminum, which offers some benefits over steel. For a more upscale look, you also may want to consider brass, stainless, or wrought iron fencing.

Aluminum vs. Steel

Aluminum railings are typically anodized or powder coated, providing extra corrosion resistance and requiring little maintenance. Non-sparking and chemical resistant aluminum alloy railings are ideal choices for industrial applications, such as petrochemical plants and offshore oil rigs. Aluminum-magnesium alloy 535 is the most corrosion resistant alloy available, and is as strong as iron at only one-third the weight. Aluminum railings are also less expensive than steel.

Steel handrails can be painted, but will need to be stripped and repainted every few years, due to rust, which is not only unsightly, but also can lead to structural damage, such as bent or broken posts. Steel is much heavier than aluminum, and costs more to transport and install. Aluminum railings are easier to handle and can be cut to size with a miter saw.

Aluminum fencing components, such as Hollaender Speed Rail fittings, are an easy, convenient way to install metal pipe railings of any size or cross-section. The fittings can be used with galvanized carbon steel, stainless steel, black iron, or aluminum pipe, with no electrolytic corrosion. They can be slipped on and tightened down with a hex key – no welding required – and they can be disassembled and re-used.

Brass and Stainless Steel

Brass and stainless steel are great choices for decorative and functional handrails in high-end residential, entertainment, and commercial building projects. Brass provides a traditional, classic look, but can also fit in with an ultra-modern architecture. Its wear-resistance and anti-microbial properties make it a favorite choice in marine architecture. A polished brass railing will tarnish, requiring regular maintenance, but solid brass will age to a rich patina.

Stainless steel is strong, durable, and corrosion-resistant, with very low maintenance requirements. It is easy to sterilize, making it ideal for hospital and medical facilities. Type 316 stainless is a good choice in coastal and industrial environments because it is resistant to chemicals and salt water.

Wrought Iron

No discussion of metal handrails would be complete without wrought iron. This type of fence has been used for hundreds of years, and can match the architectural style of any building, providing old-world elegance and charm. Wrought iron fences are strong enough to deter animals and most vehicles. A variety of patterns, shapes, supplies, and materials are available to create almost any design.

In addition to higher cost, drawbacks of wrought iron include the heavy weight of the metal, which makes it harder to handle and more difficult to install. Maintenance is an issue with wrought iron – like steel, iron rusts in humid environments, especially in salt-water air. To prevent rust from taking hold requires sanding off rust spots, priming and re-painting regularly.

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