Railing Definitions: Guard, Handrail, Guardrail?

Railing is a term that gets tossed around a lot but do you understand that there are different types of railings? Let’s take a look at railing definitions.

Wagner’s been involved with railings since the beginning. Julius Wagner was making railings as far back as 1850.

However, railing definitions have changed over the years. Most commonly, handrail and guardrails are considered to be what is meant in discussing railing.

When it comes to railing definitions, the place to start would be the building codes.

Equivalent Graspability
Equivalent Graspability

The International Code Council (ICC), defines a handrail as being in place to provide guidance. It is required on stairs with two or more rises and ADA ramps with a rise of 6″.

Handrail height is to be between 34″ and 38″ above the nosing, the ramp or walking surfaces. Handrail size is to be between 1¼” and 2″ diameter or provide equivalent graspability — a perimeter dimension of 4″ minimum and 6¼” maximum, and a cross-section dimension of 2¼” maximum.

There is a variation in the residential code which permits a handrail size over 6-1/4″ in perimeter if it provides a graspable finger recess on both sides of the profile — see Type II handrail

Handrail graspability in the codes also includes clearance minimums around the handrail. Click here to learn more about these clearances.

When it comes to railing definitions, guardrails are a totally different animal.

Firstly, the ICC does not mention guardrail, it provides a definition for a guard.

guardrailingAs far as the building codes are concerned, a guardrail is what you find on a highway to keep vehicles from going off the side of a road.

On the other hand, a guard is in place to prevent accidental falls. The International Building Code (IBC) requires the height of the guard to be a minimum of 42″ while the International Residential Code (IRC) requires a minimum height of 36″.

The ICC also requires that no opening in a guard be large enough that a 4″ sphere will pass.

Both handrails and guards must meet either a uniform load requirement of 50 lbs/ft or a concentrated load of 200 lbs. A guard infill must be able to withstand a load of 50 lb/sqft.

As always, check with your local code authorities to confirm their requirements for handrails and guards. If you are working in areas not open to the general public, OSHA requirements will likely apply. 


  • Hey, thanks for clarifying the difference between handrail and guardrail. I have a friend who is having a baby soon and has been interested in finding ways to baby proof their home. They a second story balcony that needs a guardrail. I will share this article with them.

  • It sure was nice when you differentiated the handrail and the guardrails and that that latter is what is usually found in the highways, while the former is the one found in homes to protect people. Well, at least now I know that I need to correct my sister since she keeps talking about the guardrails. But either way, that does not change the fact that we need the iron railing to protect the kids from falling down the stairs or off the balcony.

  • Thank you for clarifying what is the real difference between the two. Many people don’t know what really the difference between guardrail and handrail. Thank you for sharing this one.

  • I want to get a steel railing for my deck. I think that it would be the finishing touch to my home! You mentioned that handrail graspability in the codes should include minimums around the handrail. I wasn’t aware that this is a thing! I’ll be sure to ask a company about this when I find one.

  • My sister wants to have an added security feature in her home and add railings. It was mentioned here that there are building codes concerning railings and it should follow the ICC standards. Moreover, it’s recommended to consult professional contractors when planning to add railings.

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