Selecting the Right Material for Railing Systems

Last Edited 03/20/19

While many materials may be considered when constructing a custom railing system, most architects find that steel railings are tough to beat in terms of aesthetics, functional performance and value. Steel railing systems can look sleek and modern or formal and traditional; steel is long lasting and extremely durable; and steel railing systems offer tremendous value in terms of long-term cost of ownership.

Steel Railing Systems vs. Aluminum Railing Systems 

Steel is often the material of choice for railing systems as it exhibits superior strength and toughness compared to aluminum.  Aesthetically speaking, steel offers clear advantages: over time, aluminum’s protective oxidation layer become white in color and will sometimes pit.  Due to its softness, aluminum is prone to surface scratches and dents, making it difficult to clean and maintain.  From a design perspective, aluminum railings require more supports than steel, creating design and engineering limitations.

While steel is clearly the best choice of material for railing systems, the dramatic differences between various types of steel may be surprising.  Choosing the correct type of steel for your railing project is vital to designing a system that provides the aesthetic appeal, safety and performance you and your client want.  Here’s what you need to know when determining the best materials for your next custom railing system project.

Most Popular Types of Steel for Railing Systems

Three types of steel dominate in the design and manufacturing of railing systems:

  • Carbon Steel
  • 304-Grade Stainless Steel
  • 316-Grade Stainless Steel

Railing systems made from each of these three types offer different strengths and weaknesses. Understanding your options and which applications are suited for each is essential when specifying a new steel railing system.

carbon steel railing systems

Carbon Steel Handrails 

  • Pros: Strong, durable, inexpensive
  • Cons: Low corrosion resistance
  • Best Used For: Indoor railings
  • Maintenance: Minor paint touch-up

Carbon steel contains up to two percent carbon, which creates harder, stronger steel.  Carbon steel is the least expensive of the three main types of steel used in railing systems, and is best suited for indoor use with minimal exposure to environmental contaminants.

Unlike stainless steel, carbon steel’s low resistance to corrosion means a protective coating is necessary. The most popular method of protection is powder coating, which impedes corrosion and is available in myriad color choices.

While carbon steel is an inexpensive choice, it does require regular maintenance to keep it looking its best. Caring for a carbon steel railing system should include checking often for general wear and tear, especially in high-traffic areas – as well as fixing nicks and scratches from other metal objects (like rings and watches.)  While these blemishes can be easily remedied using touch-up paint, avoid leaving bare carbon steel exposed as carbon steel can rust and corrode quickly without proper maintenance.  Poorly maintained carbon steel railing systems require costly repair or re-coating, which should be avoided if possible.

For general cleaning, soap and water will do just fine.

New Railings for an Old Company

304-Grade Stainless Steel Handrails 

  • Pros: Resistant to ordinary rust and corrosion
  • Cons: Can corrode in chlorinated or salty environments
  • Best Used For: Indoor or protected railings; non-harsh outdoor environments
  • Maintenance: Regular cleaning with soap and water

Stainless steel is easier to maintain and doesn’t require a protective coating, but is typically more expensive that its carbon alternative.  To be considered stainless steel, 10.5 percent chromium (or more) must be present in the steel.  Adding chromium to the mix creates steel which is highly resistant to rust and corrosion.  Many other alloys may be present as well, each producing a particular grade of stainless steel created for specific purposes.  While more than 50 types of stainless steel are available today, professional-grade railing systems typically use 304 or 316 grades.

304-grade stainless is also known as “18-8 stainless,” referring to its composition of 18% chromium and 8% nickel.  This type of stainless steel is often used in indoor applications. While it will readily accept paint or powder coating if color is desired, no protective coating is necessary for steel of this grade.  Instead, finishes from satin (240 grit) to finer finishes, including mirror finish, are available.  In addition to looking good, these finishes serve a practical purpose as well: satin finishes, for example, are easy to maintain while mirror finishes offer ultimate corrosion resistance.

In addition to interior applications, 304-grade stainless also performs well in outdoor environments where conditions are not overly harsh or extreme, or where the railing system is protected from the environment.

Maintaining a 304-grade stainless steel railing system is easier than carbon steel systems. Simply wipe regularly with soap and water to maintain its appearance.  While 304-grade stainless costs more than carbon steel, it requires far less maintenance and upkeep.  304-grade is ideal for indoor applications where good looks and low maintenance are desired.

outdoor custom steel railing systems

316-Grade Stainless Steel Handrails 

  • Pros: Highest corrosion resistance
  • Cons: More expensive, can tarnish over time
  • Best used for: Outdoor or extreme environments; industrial uses
  • Maintenance: Virtually no maintenance

Regardless of grade, stainless steel resists corrosion when its chromium content interacts with the air around it. It oxidizes into a thin, extremely stable layer of protective atoms that stop further oxidation, or rust, from occurring.  If the material is scratched or nicked in any way, the chromium content quickly reoxidizes – in essence, repairing itself before corrosion can set in.

This does not mean stainless steel is impervious to rust and corrosion.  When used in highly chlorinated areas such as near swimming pools or in a coastal location where it is exposed to saltwater in the air, the chromium cannot always create that protective layer as quickly.

316-grade stainless tackles harsh environments with a slightly higher nickel content and two percent molybdenum to further strengthen its corrosion resistance.  In turn, these added alloys make 316-grade the ideal choice for outdoor applications or where harsh environmental factors require a more durable material.  As with 304-grade stainless, no protective coating is required and a variety of finishes are available to create the right look for any application.

316-grade steel is the most popular choice for outdoor and industrial applications due to its proven performance in harsh conditions.  While no material is completely impervious to corrosion, 316-grade stainless can withstand years of abuse if properly maintained.

outdoor steel railing systems

Factors to Consider when selecting Handrail Materials 

Whether you choose carbon or stainless steel for your railing system, consider your application and the total cost of ownership when deciding which material to use.  HDI’s sales and technical teams often start conversations with these questions:

  • What environment will the railing system be placed in?
  • What level of traffic will the railing be exposed to?
  • What level of maintenance is expected?
  • What is the project budget?

Answering these questions are important when specifying a custom railing system.

Location & Environment

Will the railing system be indoors or outdoors – or both?  The installation environment is a critical factor when determining the best material for your new railing system.

Remember, indoor railings are most affected by the volume and type of traffic present in its location.  Don’t assume that inexpensive carbon steel is the best choice for indoor applications. While a carbon steel system may perform well in a low-traffic environment, high traffic indoor applications – such as airports, malls, healthcare facilities, or educational institutions – often require tougher materials which are easier to maintain.  In areas where many hands may be sliding along the railing on a regular basis, consider stepping up to 304-grade stainless steel.

304-grade stainless steel may be the best choice for a railing system designed for both indoors and outdoors – especially if your application is away from large bodies of salt water and won’t be exposed to extreme conditions.  While 304-grade stainless is typically used for interior applications, it is also suitable for protected outdoor applications as well.  If your client wants curb appeal without hassles, 304-grade stainless offers a wide variety of finishes which require little to no regular maintenance.

For outdoor applications or those where extreme temperatures, precipitation or saltwater is present, 316-grade stainless is usually the best choice.  For example, a railing system for a beachfront hotel would require nothing less than 316-grade stainless to withstand the rigors of the environment.


If your client is looking for a low maintenance material, stainless steel can’t be beat. Warm water and a soft cloth will remove most dirt or fingerprints.  Stubborn stains can be addressed with an organic solvent, as long as it is chlorine-free.  Acetone or mineral spirits are safe to use on stainless steel railings.  For high-traffic applications, a low-grit finish (like satin) will mask most day-to-day blemishes.

Carbon steel requires more attention to keep it looking and performing at its best. Maintenance crews will want to quickly repair nicks and scratches using touch-up paint to avoid corrosion.  A long-term maintenance plan which includes regular repainting or replacement of the protective coating is nearly required yet worthwhile: properly maintaining the outer protective coating will insure many years of service from a carbon steel railing system.


Price is often a factor to consider when choosing the right railing material for your project.  When planning a project budget, it’s wise to consider the upfront installation costs as well as the overall cost of ownership.

Choosing a less-expensive material or finish may save money upfront, but can prove costly long after the installation is complete.  Look beyond the installation costs and consider future maintenance, cleaning, painting, and upkeep costs when choosing which material is best for your application.  You may find that upgrading to a better material results in a lower overall cost of ownership.

custom handrail railing systems

Not Sure Where to Start?

There are many factors to consider when selecting the best railing system material for your next project. Select the right approach and you are a hero; choosing the wrong material can be an expensive mistake that leads to an unhappy client. If you’re unsure of which approach is right for your application, it’s important to work with a knowledgeable and experienced partner who can explain your options and will design a system that meets your client’s needs for years to come.

This is where HDI can help. With more than 5,000 custom railing systems in use around the world, HDI is uniquely positioned to provide the right solution for your next project – regardless of size, budget or application.  Our sales and technical staff stands ready to help you determine which material and finish is most suitable for your custom railing system.

Contact HDI for a no-obligation consultation before you begin your next custom railing project.