DIY Tension Cable Railing

tension cable railing 1This weekend’s project was adding a DIY tension-cable system to our existing deck railing. While we love the modernist look of the galvanized conduit rail design, the 1965 design isn’t exactly up to current building codes (in that they are spaced too far apart) and give us a mild heart attack every time our aging dog gets a little too close to the edge. Also with a new baby due in our household any day, the safety monitor in me is on a mission to fix any small child hazards. This would be one.

tension cable railing 2I’ve always loved the clean aesthetic of tension-cable systems in modern architectural design, so I set out to recreate that look on a friendly budget. One trip (ok, a couple) to the local home improvement store yielded a spool of 3/32″ plastic-coated steel cable (a bit fat, but I like the look of big industrial fittings), stainless steel turnbuckles, 3/32 compression ferrules and a compression ferrule/swaging tool. To repeat the same location of holes through the railing posts, a jig was made (just a scrap piece of wood cut to size) with the holes premeasured to use as a guide.

tension cable railing 3I debated on how to terminate the cables on the corner posts and decided on closed eyelet screws anchored on each end of the cable run (instead of boring through the corner posts as well). To keep a uniform look, make sure the stripped cable ends are all measured exactly the same (I stripped 3″ of vinyl off the ends throughout). All the turnbuckles were spaced evenly as well for a clean design. Vice grips were used to hold up the cable while the crush ferrules were set in place.

tension cable railing 4Be sure to open up the turnbuckles all the way before setting the cable, to allow enough space for the slack to be pulled in. Start at one end of the rail and work your way down to the other.

tension cable railing 5Cutting the cable was a challenge. I probably ruined a pair of sheet metal sheers doing so but next time I’d invest in a heavy duty set of pliers that would do the job. After making almost 50 cuts, the cable ends started getting messy and hard to thread into the ferrules.

tension cable railing 6In the end we ended up with a beautiful contemporary railing design, and a safe one at that. Our dog is now free to roam the deck at will and reclaim his domain, and we can still enjoy an unimpeded North Carolina view.

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56 Responses to “DIY Tension Cable Railing”

  1. Great looking setup! After getting quoted $70/foot ($4k overall) for the “cheap stuff” to have some balcony cable railing installed, I started to think about rolling my own for a fraction of the cost. My wife sounded a bit iffy on it, but seeing this showed her I was not off in left field some place.

    You mentioned the corners, did you consider terminating the right side of the buckle into a bolt going thru the post directly?

    • thanks! wow, that’s not exactly ‘cheap’ is it? looking back, that would have been a nice alternative to terminate the ends also if I had maybe spent more time sourcing parts at the home improvement warehouse. I personally just liked the turnbuckles out a bit (love the industrial look of them)– oh, and if it’s outdoors, look for stainless steel parts if an option to reduce corrosion. most of the parts I got were stainless, but I think I accidentally got a few non-stainless items as a couple of the hardware pieces are starting to oxidize a bit. But for the minimal cost involved, it wouldn’t break the back to replace a part or two a few years out if needed.

  2. Geraldine Says:

    Great site.I’ve been looking for ways of doing a deck, and the pre-built kits are expensive. This is exactly what I wanted to do. Thanks.

  3. Geraldine Says:

    Whoops, forgot a couple of questions. You used 3/32″ cable. What size were the turnbuckles? They look small. Did you have a problem with sagging? Also, the eyebolts through the posts — did you just screw in eyebolts or did you drill all the way through and use a washer? I’m planning on doing a balcony and want to keep the area clear between the posts because we get a lot of snow up here. I want the shoveled snow to go off the deck.

  4. Thanks Geraldine, the turnbuckle bodies are 3″ in length, it provided plenty of adjustment on the longest side of our deck (29 feet), but I kept the slack out as much as possible with vice grips before they were connected, and the turnbuckles were let out all the way pre-connection as well. You can always go bigger, for extra adjustment capacity–it was just an aesthetic decision. On the eyebolts, they are just screwed directly into the posts (smaller pilot holes drilled first). Did not drill all the way through, but only because on the corner posts I wanted to have 2 directions at the same level, but would have had to stagger heights a bit if I used an all-the-way-through anchor setup. No problems with sagging as of yet, I do notice the tension varies slightly with temperature though, and a few days after the initial install, I had to tighten the turnbuckles slightly to accommodate some very minor stretch. Hope that helps!

  5. Awesome. I had been looking for something like this and decided to go DIY route after seeing the quotes for something that looked quite simple to do but very elegant nevertheless. Your site has given me renewed hope. Thanks.

  6. did you use stainless turnbuckles or zinc coated ? If zinc, how have they been holding up?

    • mostly stainless, but as you probably already saw in a previous comment, a few zinc ones musta been grabbed accidentally. the stainless ones look great,, the zinc ones are oxidizing some after a couple seasons, a few tiny rust specs on them– definitely invest in the stainless parts where you can for longer life.

  7. Hi Just found this site, beautiful railing I love the clean look. My husband is building a deck very simple one level 16 by 21 ft. Can you give me idea of the cost of the cable railing? Is it sold by the foot? My husband is the mastermind, I am the worker bee.
    Thanks, Heidi

    • Hi Heidi, the 3/32 coated cable is sold by the foot (or you can buy a whole spool) at Lowe’s or Home Depot. The cost was reasonable, link here. The Ferrules come in sets of 2 for about 1.37. I slightly modified the way those are used in the above article, without using the small stops and crushing the large sleeve only, but I’d use them as intended next time. LINK HERE. You will need to buy or rent a swaging tool, I seem to recall it was in the $40 range or so.

      I just did a new railing in a different location a couple weeks ago, using a slightly different setup, will try to post pics soon to this blog and add a link to this article. good luck!

  8. please find another solution for your railing. your sweet child could get his head between the cables such that his throat lays acroos the cable. because he is not strong enough or his arms cannot reach the deck he will be unable to lift himself off the wire causing an outcome that i cannot put it into words. i hope you understand that i’m not criticizing, just trying to help. btw, it is a beautiful design.
    BILLY

  9. One more thing. i do this for a living and i am a code and safety freak especially concerning children. CONGRATS ON YOUR BABY!!

    • oh my Billy. Thanks for the input–while I certainly do appreciate your point of view, there is just enough slack I left in the cables that our child could quite easily pull himself out, plus we have the solid pipe every other ‘rung’ to grab onto. The more pressing concern of ours is the ‘ladder’ effect of horizontal rails. For this reason the door is always locked and our child is not allowed on the deck unsupervised, and when we are out there with him he is constantly taught that getting too close or too high to the rails is dangerous.

      • carboncow Says:

        I was actually reading through all the responses to see how long before the “code nazi” shows up…trust me Billy doesn’t do this for a living…

      • I also do this for a living. Not sure if you can actually judge if this would pass or fail from a code standpoint by just looking at the pictures. Code requires that nothing larger than a 4″ sphere be able to pass through the rail (although it may be 6″ on residential depending on your local code authority). We space cables at 3.125″ o.c. because they have some give/ flex even when tensioned to 800 lbs. That being said, the ridged pipe probably increases the spacing requirements a bit.

        It’s pretty rare that you actually see a cable tensioned to the suggested tension in any installation. Since this is not new construction and I doubt a permit was pulled I don’t think anyone will check, and I suspect your child won’t perish.

      • Appreciate the comments Woggon– we bought the house in 2007, and when we moved in, it had ONLY the conduit rails that were spaced far too apart from each other. Also bearing in mind the house was built in 1965. Not sure if the decking is the original design or not, but I’m guessing it’s well over 25 yrs old from some old architectural photos that show it. Our home inspector did point out the wide spacing of the conduit as a safety concern that I should be aware of. I believe he mentioned 6″ was current code at the time but I don’t recall for certain. My immediate concern was making it much safer than it was–which we accomplished. I don’t remember the exact spacing we ended up with trying to aesthetically work within the existing spacing of the immovable conduit, but was this new construction of course permitting and code would play into this much more exacting.

  10. LouisianaLady Says:

    Hi,
    getting ready to build a railing system near the beach in NC, Oak Island. Love your stuff!!! Don’t want rust prob….the thicker pipes and the cables look stunning together. Where did you get the thicker pipes and what are they made of. I will need to gain a CO so do you know the NC code for horizontal rails is it 4 or 6 inches apart. The inspectors will be checking my railing and I love your design, product etc… I want to do as much modern metal as possible on this house. Any other photos or ideas are accepted and appreciated!

    • Hi Dana, I can’t comment on current rail spacing codes because I was just working with an older existing railing but I’d definitely look into it for new construction. Make sure all of your hardware is stainless steel (turnbuckles, etc)– a few of my turnbuckles were galvanized metal and they are starting to show signs of rust now a couple years after install. The pipes on the railing appear to simply be galvanized conduit (original rail sans cable was pre-existing when we bought the house) that you should be able to find in the electrical section of a home improvement store. If you would like a railing a little more custom, you’ll have to step up to commercial hardware for a bit more. one source is eastcoastcablesolutions.com. Hope that helps!

  11. I was considering the same type of design before I saw your web site. Base on your posting I think I may give it a try. Did you consider running the cable all the way through the last post and then using a washer and end crimp to keep it from pulling though, this would eliminate the eye bolts but require a slight off set on perpendicular runs.

    Also, you mention stripping the plastic ends of the cable to apply the crimps. Have you had any corrosion on the exposed cable ends? Did you consider or price out stainless steel cable?

    • I did, but as you mention it would have required an offset and I didn’t wanted both sides to be at exactly the same level. plus I just like the look of all the hardware, but that’s just me. There is *some* slight oxidation on the stripped cable ends, and a bit of miniscule rust, yes–I did not price out SS cable, but imagine it would have been outside our DIY budget at the time. Considering the low cost on this, I’m quite happy with it. Let us know if you are able to find a different SS cable if not cost prohibitive that might be a good option–good luck!

  12. Where did you find your turnbuckles? I’ve researched them and it seems like they are the most expensive part of the project potentially (i think i saw them at $20 each). Great look and good work!

  13. Hi. My husband is getting ready to install the wire rope for our deck. We plan to use 1/8″ S/S wire (found it cheap on ebay). Do we need to look for 1/8″ turnbuckles? Do we use turnbuckles on both ends? Also, what size eye bolts did you use? Thank you so much for any info you can give me. I love the way your railing looks!

    • Hi Becky, the turnbuckles can be as large or as small as you want them to be, visually, just remember you will have less room for adjustment the smaller it is, so good to put as much tension in the line as you can (bracing with vice grips or other) before you connect the turnbuckle. The longer the run of cable, the more adjustment you’ll want to make up for any sag over time. I used ones similar to the link shown above. Same goes with the eye bolts– size them so you have a good, solid anchor in the posts to hold the tension. I don’t know the specific size off the top of my head, but you get a rough idea from the pics– doesn’t have to be exact, because the cable just has to go through the loop before being connected in the ferrule (the ferrules you will need to size the the exact size of the cable you are using however). I’ve got one turnbuckle per length of cable. Hope tha helps!

      • Yes, this helps a great deal. One more question…if I can get the stainless steel at a good price, do you think it’s better than the PVC coated galvanized? We live pretty close to the ocean & I worry about rust. Not sure if the PVC coating will help or hinder??? Thanks again!

  14. If I did it again I’d say go with stainless on the cable if you can find a good deal that matches available crush ferrule sizes– after a couple years, the exposed ends of the galvanized cable (where I removed the vinyl coat to make connections) is showing some slight signs of oxidation– closer to salt air you are, stainless is a must. good luck!

  15. Sebastien Says:

    Job looks great, what size holes do you drill to pass your cable?

  16. Nice project; I have a similar need (without the existing conduit). Code requires that you can’t put a 4″ sphere through the railing and it has to resist 200 lbs of force. So setting cables on 3″ centers is good. I found SS 1/8″ cable at McMaster-Carr and Jamestown Distributors. I guess the cable is flexible enough that you don’t need a thimble at each termination? McMaster-Carr has 1×7 strand and 1×19 for about $.65/foot in 304 stainless. Using a bolt through a post into a turnbuckle to anchor the post end is a pretty cool idea which had not occurred to me. Will consider that. I was also wondering about running the cables through the post, crimping a loop and then inserting a pipe vertically through all the loops. I’ll post info when I do mine…

  17. Jeff Scott Says:

    I saw you use the coated wire. Will that stay clear or turn yellow w age? Deck is built want to do cable. I would like to use a copper color turnbuckles. Can’t find them. Any ideas?

    • the clear vinyl coating, after a couple years, is starting to turn more opaque (whitish), but it is not yellowing at least. If you would like to retain the steel cable look, I’d look into stainless cable if you can search online for some and see if it is within your budget–I went with the vinyl coated cable for low cost on this application. Not sure what to tell you about copper turnbuckles, I’ve only seen stainless or zinc-coated– of these, stainless obviously ages best.

  18. Thanks to your pics and instructions, we now have a new deck with beautiful tension cable railings that we did ourselves. We used 5/32 ss cable and ss turnbuckles with an eye on one side and a hook on the other. We hooked the turnbuckles into the eyebolts on the end posts. This allowed us to make just one cut and two crimps for each run, rather than two cuts and four crimps.

    • great railings. i’m in the process now of getting the materials. What size eye bolts did you use to terminate at the posts? thanks

      • An update… Storm Sandy blew down a 60′ hemlock right onto our new deck. It came down with incredible force – several joists were split along their length! The cable rail held though! In fact, the downward force on the cables was enough to break a corner post right off, but the cable held!

  19. Nik, I honestly don’t remember the exact size, maybe a 2 or 3″ eye bolt? just make sure the screw is deep enough to hold tension from the cable.

    • Nice work Nik, looks fantastic! Thanks for sharing the finished photos, love them!

    • That is great job… Did you turn the corner and pass completely through a post ?

      I have a similar set up and wanted to thread through a 6×6 and turn a 90 due to the short run. (It would take a through bore and pushing tool to bend the 90 but think it could be done)
      Not sure how strong a 1/2 a 6×6 corner would hold though? Hmmm..

      Thanks for your pics.. Great site.

      • Negative on mine, unless you are inquiring into Nik’s install. The ends on my post corners are terminated on eye hooks screwed into 4×4 posts. I’ve got 4×4 posts here. Good luck figuring it out!

      • I think that was Nics. Looks like he passed through on a 22.5 angle for the top stair post. Looks to be TDC so minimal lateral force on that member… Think I’m not going to try and turn the corner but terminate at each end thus eliminating liability of the weakened post.
        Thanks for the reply…

  20. Hello! Just came across this entry. I’ve been considering doing my own cable railing for a while now and I just picked up a few parts to practice with. Quick question…have you found that the plastic sleeving on the wire has yellowed over time? Or is it still as clear as when you first installed it? I’m debating over plastic coated and bare. Thanks, everything looks great, thanks for posting this!

    • good question– the plastic coating has not yellowed…but it’s whitened a bit. So now it’s closer to a translucent white as opposed to clear. If you want to keep a bare cable look, I’d suggest finding a stainless cable as others have posted. Good luck!

  21. This has inspired me to save the $$ and do this by hand. I found some 1/8 SS Cable but was wondering if you used SS crimps or aluminum? Also, what did you use as a crimper? The ones that look like bolt cutters or the one you tighten with a hex nut?

  22. John Farmer Says:

    Also inspired to do this by hand. I am preparing to purchase some practice parts. I am using this for a slightly inclining (2 inches in height every 30 inches of length for 30 feet of total length with one 90 degree angle and two 45 degree angles. I would like some guidance on how to handle corners – i saw separate rail posts at corners in the photos from Nik.

    • Hi John, my solution was I terminated each run at each side of the corners with eye bolts, as there was no way I could see to retrofit a 90 deg. turn inside my existing 4×4 posts. If you have the opportunity to design your corners with 2 posts that allows your cable to turn from one to the other then that is another option similar to Nik’s design. Good luck!

      • All, while attempting to duplicate this i found an equally inexpensive way to do the work without turnbuckles.

        I set out to use killahfunks method but while ordering stainless cable i spoke with a rep with Wilson Building Products (search ebay, but call him directly). I was able to order threaded tensioners for less than the cost of a stainless turnbuckle. (SS buckles were ~$8, I payed $6 per tensioner, and no more eye bolts)

        The industrial look was growing on me but I was able to do an entire 29 foot run, (9 cables) with sleeves and all for under $350.

        Either way he still has the cheapest 316 Stainless Cable around and fast shipping.

    • John, my solution for corners is a double post joined at 90 degrees. The cable goes through one, immediately turns 45 degrees, then into the second post.

      I may use 2×4’s cut at a 45 length wise to accomplish the same goal but maintain the look of 4×4 posts.

  23. I made each side of the deck one run…with 4×6’s on all ends and 4×4’s in the middle. I did not notch any of the railing uprights at the rim joist. It was a total of 11 runs at roughly 2.5hrs each. I only ran through a few posts (only the 4×6’s)….and that was on the stairs. I didnt go over an 18′ run of cable or so….needed it to be taught. For me it was a total of ~1200 feet of cable and other pieces. total cost around $1000. quoted from a local company…..$9k.

    I came through the right stair railing and made the angle but the left stair railing I only had a short run due to a built in bench.

    http://i53.photobucket.com/albums/g76/webs820/A86227D5-9FAC-48FA-AE31-4D9B3F9A6809-4830-0000032B915AD0B3_zpsf667a041.jpg

    just finished staining it.

    http://i53.photobucket.com/albums/g76/webs820/B98BB1FF-5CFD-4382-8222-5F99286273CD-4830-0000032B41DD86FF_zps7df602e3.jpg

    I used Farmtech for the turnbuckles: http://www.farmtek.com/farm/supplies/prod1;ft1_chain_rope_cable-ft_turnbuckles_13;pgfa1800_FA1800.html

    The Snare shop for the cable, ferrules and cutting tool and crimping tool..very good customer service: http://www.snareshop.com/prodinfo.asp?number=C1X1918SS

    • Nik, that’s a gorgeous deck you ended up with. Beautiful work. Love the finished result– and saving 8k going the DIY route is nothing to sneeze at. Thanks for the additional pics and links!

  24. Nice post! (and rail! Get it? eh bad pun…) I’ve been pondering this myself for the past couple of days. I love cable railings, but it seems that the ‘official’ choices are all very expensive. And given that bulk stainless cable is fairly cheap in comparison, it felt like there was simply a bit of a monopoly for the ‘fancy’ cable hardware.

    Given that stainless eye bolds and turnbuckles are maybe $8 at most per cable (vs. $40 or so for the ‘official’ products), it seemed like a much more practical solution but thought maybe it would just look too ‘out there’. But I think it looks great in your photos. So now I’m convinced!

  25. […] more web surfing, I came across this blog post where they had the same idea I had–at least in terms of using off-the-shelf […]

  26. Thanks for the great idea! We have a balcony that needs new sides and I have started to create your railings. I found all of my hardware at endurancehardware.com for a fantastic price and have begun putting it all together.

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