The terms often are interchangeable, but critical differences are key in ensuring the proper products are used….so, what are these differences?
Many people will freely alternate between the terms “fence” and “railing”. While not technically correct, it is often not terribly important. However, when it comes to ordering one item or the other, it is critical to ensure the proper item is ordered. Using fence terminology when desiring railing or vice-versa can lead to receiving a finished product that does not match the needs of the project!
The simple, ten-cent definition of a railing is a barrier providing fall protection or separating two locations. While the intended use of the product does ultimately play a big role in naming conventions, most manufacturers will go a bit deeper when defining the product.
A railing will always have a defined top rail and bottom rail at a minimum and possibly a third (or further) horizontal line. Furthermore, railing can often be found with a wide variety of infill options, from pickets to cables to pipe all the way to custom infills such as glass. Infills within a railing system will always terminate at a bottom line and one of the top lines, never extending beyond the topmost horizontal line. Finally, railing can be modified to become a safety barrier and assistance providing handrail on stairs and ramps.
Railing with cable infills
A typical railing application would be something along the lines of a single-family or multi-family balcony or porch, educational facility, commercial building, municipality, ramp/stairs, water treatment plant and more!
Merriam Webster will tell you that a fence is an upright structure enclosing an area of ground to control access. As with railing, the intent of the product is important, but a manufacturer will look a little deeper.
Fence will almost always contain a minimum of two horizontal lines and sometimes more. However, infills will frequently run past both the top and bottom horizontal lines. Oftentimes, pickets extending beyond the uppermost horizontal line will feature a spear or other feature. Regarding infills, fence will always feature pickets or panel picket infills and not be compatible with items such as cable. Finally, fence can run on level and uneven ground, but cannot be utilized on stairs/ramps and is not applicable to be turned into handrail.
Picket infills extend beyond the topmost and bottommost horizontal lines
Typical applications for fence usually include swimming pools, athletic venues, backyards, public areas, and other areas where security is a concern.
In general, the application for the finished product is a key to determining whether railing or fence is what you require. However, key design elements can still dramatically alter a project. Specifically, the way infills interact with horizontal lines will make a significant difference in both aesthetics and functionality. These terms often can be used interchangeably, but when small details are important, care should be taken to use them correctly!