A glass rail system is among the more modern trends in deck and patio design. A frameless design with no upper or lower horizontal rail can maximize the view from home almost like having no railing at all.
The glass panels are suspended between posts or supported from below
by clamps without the need of horizontal rails. Used for years in commercial
architecture, glass rail systems are now available as all-inclusive kits for DIY installation, or clamps and panels can be purchased separately for a custom design.
Since glass doesn’t bend and flex with the same forgiveness as a wooden handrail, a strong foundation is a must for glass panels. A big advantage of using a kit system is that metal posts and hardware will be included to keep the panels stationary, plus all the measuring and alignment will be prefigured and easier to assemble.
If you choose to design your own system, it’s still a good idea to use metal posts which won’t swell, shrink, twist or bend, or to use securely installed wooden or composite posts, as shown on the balcony guardrail in our photos.
On custom projects, the posts should be installed before you order the glass, so you’ll be able to take the exact measurements for the panels.
When designing your project, it’s a good idea to draw a sketch, indicating where the railing runs will be. Measure the railing runs carefully and note the measurements on the sketch. Record each run individually to account for any difference in spacing from post to post.
Be sure to make note of any post collars or associated trim that might interfere with the panels.
In general, the glass panels should be positioned so the gap between the panel edge and post is equal on both ends. The gap at the ends is typically around 3 inches but can vary, depending on application. As a safety precaution, the maximum gap between the posts and panels should be 4 inches.
Your glass supplier might offer panels in standard heights (such as 36 or 42 inches),
but for custom panels, you’ll need to provide their exact linear measurements, and this will depend in part on the size of the clips you’ve chosen. The glass panels should be at least
3/8 inch or thicker.
A variety of kits and glass clamps are available in-store and online. Pro remodeler Randy Stephenson suggests that custom installers compare costs when shopping for glass clamps.
“Some of the glass clamps we found were very expensive,” explains Stephenson, who installed this custom balcony rail at the Laney residence in Birmingham, Alabama. “We actually found the best deals online and purchased our clamps on eBay.” (Note: Search the terms “glass clamp bracket for handrail.”)
The stainless steel glass clamps used on this installation hold glass panels between
two rubber pads that help absorb movement and prevent scratching the glass. A hex key
(or Allen wrench) is used to loosen or tighten screws which adjust the clamping pressure.
The clamps do not corrode or rust, meaning they can be used in any climate. Make sure
to order the right sized glass clamp to install a glass panel of the respective thickness.
Calculate how many clamps you’ll require for each panel and add them all together to determine your order. Ordering a few extra clamps is a good idea. On the project shown, clamps were installed along the bottom and sides, with clamps located near each corner
and spaced 18 to 20 inches apart.
“Be careful with the corners,” suggests Stephenson to anyone installing a similar
system. “The corners are the Achilles heel of glass panels.”
On the project shown, the Stephenson team first installed the clamps with plywood panels, which enabled them to test and perfect placement of the clamps and provide a safety barrier to the balcony while the glass panels were on order from the supplier.
1. To begin the project, measure and mark placement of the glass clamps. Snap a chalk line to help guide a straight installation.
2. Secure attachment of the clamps is absolutely critical to the system. For the bottom clamps, which were set in tile, Caleb Stephenson pre-drilled holes for plastic masonry anchors.
3. Once the plastic sleeves were hammered into place, the plastic rim that projected up from the tile prevented the glass clamps from sitting perfectly flush on the tile.
4. By cutting off the plastic anchor flush with the tile, the clamp was able to fasten tightly to the surface.
5. Start off by disassembling your glass clamp.
6. One half of the clamp contains the base, which should be secured tightly in place with the appropriate fastener.
7. The vertical side clamps should also be measured and marked on the posts.
8. Stainless steel screws that anchor 2 inches into solid wood will make a secure connection for the side clamps. Avoid over-tightening the screws.
9. The first half of the clamps creates a bracketing surface to support the panels. Install the bracket as close to plumb as possible.
Once al l the first-half brackets are in place, apply the rubber pads to the clamps, then fit the temporary plywood panels against the brackets.
10. Apply the second half of the rubber-backed clamps and tighten in place.
11. Repeat the procedure to secure all the panels.
12. Once the glass arrives to replace the panels, installation will require at least two people to lift and maneuver the heavy panels.
13. Place two short 2×4 or 4×4 wood pieces on the deck surface and use them to help secure the glass during installation.
14. Loosely apply all the clamp brackets before tightening the compression. Tip: Window cleaner may help ease glass panels into the mounting clamps when adjusting the fit.
16. Shown here is a closeup of a glass clamp assembled with two hex-head screws. Use the “micro-adjustment screw” to fine-tune the clamp compression.
17. Double-check the railing measurements and match them to your panels to complete installation of the glass rail system. Once the project is finished, you’ll enjoy a truly uninterrupted view from your balcony, deck or patio.
Editor's Note: Randy and Caleb Stephenson are professional remodeling contractors in central Alabama, who can be reached by email at handyrandyco [a] yahoo.com.