Q. Several of my clients have recently expressed interest in cable railings for their deck, so I've begun doing research on the various systems that are available. But different companies seem to be using different terms to describe their hardware, making it difficult to compare products. What are the pros and cons of swaged versus swageless fittings?

A. Steve Sherritt, president of SD Independent Construction, a deck and railing specialist in San Diego, responds: Our company began installing stainless steel cable railings in 2003. At that time, the few systems specifically designed for residential or light-commercial use had limited distribution and were relatively expensive, so we assembled our railings using spools of stainless steel cable and various off-the-shelf marine rigging parts, such as eyebolts, turnbuckles, and crimp eyes. At first, we hand-swaged our fittings using a variety of the low-cost crimping tools and smaller swaging tools meant for field-installing cable fittings. Later, we bought a press swager that utilizes a 30-ton jack, making it relatively portable so that we could bring it out in the field with us.

There are a variety of low cost crimping tools and smaller swaging tools meant for field installing cable fittings. Crimpers (which look a lot like a pair of bolt cutters) basically smash the fitting on to the cable with manual force, so multiple crimps are often necessary to achieve the proper connection. Hardware manufacturers call out specifications for the desired diameter of a crimp so that the installer knows they are getting the right amount of clamping force.
San Diego Cable Railings Hand crimpers (which look a lot like a pair of bolt cutters) basically smash the fitting on to the cable with manual force, so multiple crimps are often necessary to achieve the proper connection. Hardware manufacturers call out specifications for the desired diameter of a crimp so that the installer knows they are getting the right amount of clamping force.
Field-swaged fittings are widely available and relatively inexpensive, but the crimp marks are noticeable and the fittings are susceptible to corrosion where the metal has been marred by the crimping tool.
San Diego Cable Railings Field-swaged fittings are widely available and relatively inexpensive, but the crimp marks are noticeable and the fittings are susceptible to corrosion where the metal has been marred by the crimping tool.
A true machine swage is created in a shop by a manufacturer or fabricator using either a rolling swagger or a press swagger (shown here). The process of swaging cold-forms the fitting around the cable using extreme force, resulting in a connection that should equal or exceed the breaking strength of the cable.
San Diego Cable Railings A true machine swage is created in a shop by a manufacturer or fabricator using either a rolling swagger or a press swagger (shown here). The process of swaging cold-forms the fitting around the cable using extreme force, resulting in a connection that should equal or exceed the breaking strength of the cable.
Machine swaged fittings cost less than swageless fittings, and are more corrosion-resistant than hand-swaged fiitings because they aren't nicked or damaged by the crimping tool.
San Diego Cable Railings Machine swaged fittings cost less than swageless fittings, and are more corrosion-resistant than hand-swaged fiitings because they aren't nicked or damaged by the crimping tool.

As the industry matured and the internet improved, the technology and the demand for cable railing systems changed dramatically. Today the cable-railing market is much larger, and the variety and availability of hardware have exploded, even while the cost of some stainless cable has dropped significantly compared with 10 years ago. One of the biggest changes has been the introduction and evolution of swageless fittings, which don’t require any type of crimping or swaging. Instead, swageless fittings utilize a small, one-way locking mechanism that allows the cable to enter in one direction while grabbing the cable if pulled in the other direction.

Between the DIY movement and the advent of swageless fittings, we don’t see too much hand-crimping done these days. In fact, it has been years since we have actually crimped a cable fitting. I realize there are still quite a few installers who field-crimp fittings, but for our company, the only possible benefits would be cost savings or availability. Convenience almost always comes at a price, and swageless fittings are no exception; they carry a premium. However, for our company, the speed of installation, lack of need for special tools, and the slick appearance of these fittings largely outweigh the cost factor.

Not only are swageless fittings easy to install for both pros and first-timers, they can also be disassembled with the help of a special tool that releases the cable from the locking mechanism inside the fitting.
San Diego Cable Railings Swageless fittings have a small one-way locking mechanism that allows the cable to enter in one direction while grabbing the cable if pulled in the other direction.
Swageless fittings utilize a small one-way locking mechanism that allows the cable to enter in one direction while grabbing the cable if pulled in the other direction. This technology is at times compared to a compression fitting. Reputable manufacturers of swageless fittings also test these mechanisms to achieve the breaking strength of the cable. Swageless fittings can be released with the use of another tool that depresses the mechanism and allows the cable to be released.
San Diego Cable Railings Not only are swageless fittings easy to install for both pros and first-timers, they can also be disassembled with the help of a special tool that releases the cable from the locking mechanism inside the fitting.

Both swaged (either by hand or by machine) and swageless fittings can provide a solid connection between the cable and fitting that will equal or exceed the breaking strength of the cable. This assumes the use of either 1/8-inch- or 3/16-inch-diameter cables, the most common sizes for residential and light-commercial railings, and that the fittings have been assembled correctly. To ensure that installers know that they are getting the right amount of clamping force with a swaged fitting, hardware manufacturers call out specifications for the desired diameter of a “crimp.” A swageless fitting relies on a mechanical connection rather than a cold weld, so our company doesn't use any of the cheaper, imported knock-off fittings that can be found online (which we occasionally are called out to replace when they've failed).

Swageless fittings cost more than machine- or hand-swaged fittings, but don't require any special installation tools and are available at many lumberyards and home improvement centers.
San Diego Cable Railings Swageless fittings cost more than machine- or hand-swaged fittings, but don't require any special installation tools and are available at many lumberyards and home improvement centers.

That said, there are distinct advantages and disadvantages for each method of attachment. Many suppliers have combined the technologies to maximize cost effectiveness and still allow for field installation. They do this by providing a machine-swaged end on one side of the cable and furnishing a hand crimp or swageless fitting for the field-installed end. A retail cable assembly will often contain a specified length of cable, swaged fitting, finish hardware, and a swageless fitting. Whatever system you choose, stick with a proven supplier, and carefully follow installation instructions.