Not every porch has railings. On old porches the use of railings was a matter of common sense. If the porch was more than a couple of steps high, railings were used to keep everyone from falling off. These days, common sense may still play a role, but when it does it's probably accidental. In new construction, your local ordinances and the building inspector determine the presence or absence of railings, whether it makes sense or not.
Railings (sometimes called balustrades) consist of a top and bottom rail with balusters (spindles) installed between the two. The rails tend to be plain, but the
balusters are often more ornate. Turned models are common, and elaborate gingerbread versions appear on Gothic Revival houses and regional vernacular buildings. The more elaborate the balustrade, the more distinctive the porch.
And the more difficult maintenance and repair can be.
There are many different ways to attach railings to the columns or newels that support them. The most common is to use some type of hardware screwed to the side of the column and the underside of the rails. The center of longer rails—anything over 6 or 7 feet—is attached to the porch floor with a small block that is screwed to the bottom rail and the floorboards. This block is traditionally painted the same color as the
floor so that it blends with the floor.
Most balustrades are straight. However, on porches that require railings alongside the steps, these are built to match the angle of the stair stringers. Usually these balustrades are attached to columns at the top. At the bottom, posts are either anchored in the ground or securely bolted to the side of the stringers to provide rigid support for the railings.
Railing systems are available in a variety of styles and materials. Polyurethane balustrade systems are becoming more and more popular because of the
ease of maintenance