A detailed inspection of handrails

By Christine Hudson, Interior Designer

Looking at the considerations and factors involved in creating this component so essential for our security.

Safety, thermal quality and finishes

Think of a time you have been at a beautiful location taking in the view and you idly put your hand on the rail of a balustrade; only to have the adversely hot temperature of the rail make you recoil. Conversely, can you think of an occasion where you have had to grasp a handrail for support and were thankful to it for saving your fall? As end users, perhaps we only consider the design of handrails when we experience an unexpected reaction to using them. When specifying materials and finishes for outdoor railings, the tangible aspect may be overlooked in favour of aesthetics or budget. Here we discuss elements to consider when specifying or designing handrails for balustrades including safety, thermal quality and finishes.

Old fashioned pipe railing of the style that was very popular during the 1950s and 1960s and is still going strong today

Old fashioned pipe railing of the style that was very popular during the 1950s and 1960s and is still going strong today.

Handrails for security

Balustrades are elements positioned in places that pose danger including the external side of a flight of stairs, the edge of balcony, the side of a bridge, the water side or deck of a yacht. As their purpose is to offer support as well as safety their finish plays an integral part of the design. Materials for handrails and balustrades include stone, resin, glass, aluminium, steel and timber or a combination of these. Where their purpose is to provide safety without a harness, balustrades can be expected to be rigid so that they offer support and stability. The handrail atop the balustrade might be a universal dimension that can be easily grasped or wide enough for a hand to fall flat against.

Polished timber yacht hand rail with chrome finish end-caps and struts

Polished timber yacht hand rail with chrome finish end-caps and struts.

The ergonomics and thermal qualities of handrails

Hand rails are expected to offer safety rather than be the cause of pain. They offer support for a stumble, trip or heavy fall. While either of these mishaps might result in bruising or injury from striking the balustrade or railing itself, the integrity of the components is expected to break a fall and keep the unfortunate victim on the safe side of the feature or structure on which it is installed. The maintenance of the surface of handrails is a factor to consider during implementation. Timber handrails need to be maintained to prevent splintering from occurring. Metal handrails need to be protected from rusting and flaking that can cause harm as well as undermine the safety for which it is designed.

As we have seen, metals conduct heat and can reach extreme temperatures that cause discomfort and dissuade use. Similarly, when colder weather occurs metals can also cause pain from touch. If the rail isn’t comfortable to hold then its purpose is somewhat defeated. The geographical location of the project as well as the purpose and type of end user, from children to the elderly or disabled, will have an influence on design.

The specified finish is vital to protect the material handrail and it should also contribute to safety rather than hinder it. A slippery or unnecessarily abrasive finish should be avoided where a potentially strong hand grip would be anticipated.

Aluminium is commonly used for handrails due to its comparative light weight, its durability and its natural oxidation qualities that prevent corrosion. Stainless steel is also used and needs to be protected again corrosion. Ideally the finish for these types of metal handrails should reduce thermal conduction to offer a comfortable touch in a hot or cold climate. Finishes available include PVD (Physical Vapor Deposition) and powder coatings, nylon and anodising.

PVD coating

PVD coatings protect aluminium and stainless steel against such corrosion as the carefully controlled and uniform adhesion process delivers structure, chemical and temperature resistance. The method of application makes this finish ideal where salt-water corrosion and wet conditions; prevail making it particularly useful for the marine industry.

Powder-coating

Properties that are inherent in powder coatings also reduce thermal conductivity making this ideal for use extremes of hot and cold conditions. Sophisticated developments in powder coatings have led to finishes that resemble timber, making this combination attractive for use where genuine timber might not be so resilient.

Galvanized and polyester powder-coated Mild Steel wall top railings at Battersea Park, London by Pinstake

Galvanized and polyester powder-coated Mild Steel wall top railings at Battersea Park, London by Pinstake.

Nylon coatings

Nylon coatings have a plastic appearance and non-slip texture. This type of finish is often used for handrails in public places including hospitals, libraries and parks and also in and around transport systems. The tactile finish promotes security when using the handrail and it is comfortable to touch; again kerbing thermal conductivity. This type of coating is also impact, abrasion resistant and weatherproof and comes in a variety of colours.

Handrail, lead-free acrylic vinyl resin extruded directly onto the aluminium profile from France Equipment

Handrail, lead-free acrylic vinyl resin extruded directly onto the aluminium profile from France Equipment.

Anodised Aluminium

Finally, when given the anodisation process, alchemy occurs that converts aluminium into a surface that renders it attractive, anti-corrosive and strong. This process complements the naturally- inherent oxidizing qualities in the metal.

The next time you go to lean on a metal balustrade and hold the handrail, why don’t you consider the thermal as well as aesthetic and tactile qualities of the finish and determine what process was, or was not, used to achieve this?

Clear Anodized Brushed Aluminum

Clear Anodized Brushed Aluminum.