What are balusters? Creating and maintaining beautiful staircase

The vertical molded shaft that supports the handrail in a staircase is known as a baluster. Collectively, the balusters, handrail, newel posts, and base rail are known as the balustrade. Made from wood, stone, wrought iron and even plastic the balustrade is what completes a staircase and showcases its architectural design. 

How do balusters differ from spindles? 

These are both decorative and functional key components for a staircase, and without them the handrail would be unsafe to approach. Being almost the same thing, the only difference is that balusters have a base or footing that they rest on at the base of the steps or on the floor, whereas spindles don’t attach directly to the floor, but to a bottom rail that is attached to the posts. 

In general, builders and homeowners find the word spindle easier to use than baluster and that is why people often refer to both as spindles. 

What do we know about the history of balusters? 

It’s not known when balusters were first used, but their earliest use known to date is from Ancient Assyria where structural elements, similar to the balusters of today, have been found in excavations of noble homes. Other archaeological finds indicate that they have been used in architecture, furniture making, and candelabra since ancient times through to today. 

The name baluster is derived from the Italian word for pomegranate flower, “balustro”, which has a similar bulbous shape to the classical baluster when it is partially opened.

Application of the various baluster materials 

Choosing the type of materials for the balusters will depend on the location of the staircase. Wooden balusters are not that popular for external use because of constant exposure to the elements. However, it can be used if it is protected by frequently painting it with a protective coat of paint or varnish. Stone and iron (cast and wrought) are better materials for external staircases.

Indoor staircases have no restrictions as far as wood is concerned, even though it does need to be maintained from time to time and is susceptible to termite infestation if not cared for. Wrought iron balusters make for a striking indoor balustrade, especially when combined with wooden elements. 

Why use balusters? 

Balusters serve two important purposes in staircase applications; decorative and safety. Users need to be protected from falling and the handrail alone cannot offer this protection. The handrail is a heavy feature and the balusters offer the support that will keep it from collapsing over time. The addition of the balusters also creates a barrier in case of someone slipping and regulations state that the gap between balusters cannot be more than 4 inches wide. Often the balusters alone cannot support the full weight of the handrail and then thicker posts are installed at regular intervals to do this. 

Both wooden and wrought iron balusters available at StairNation come in a vast array of designs making them an excellent decorative element to compliment the staircase and the décor of the rest of the home. 

Creating a staircase

Some spaces look good with a simple staircase that may be easy to construct, even without help. On the other hand, others need the homeowner to consult with an architect or interior designer so that the space can be used to a maximum. Often these staircases need to be built by a professional builder. Whether the homeowner is buying and installing a staircase as a DIY project or having it made by a professional, knowing what each part of the structure is called is important. 

Other important key terms

  • String: The sloping timber board forming the side of the staircase. 
  • Newel post: This is the supporting post for the handrail and string at the end of the flight of stairs.
  • Treads and risers: The treads are the horizontal parts of the steps and the risers are the vertical. These are fixed to the strings which may be open or closed. Open strings have their upper side cut into the shape of the steps and closed strings have parallel edges with the treads and risers joined to them. 
  • Nosing: This is the front part of each tread that projects over the riser. 

Staircase building regulations

The construction of a new staircase, even in an existing building, requires approval and needs to comply with the building regulations for the particular state.

Dimension considerations 

  • The distance from one floor to the next will determine the amount of rises and flat steps.  
  • The rises must all be the same height.
  • The maximum pitch of a staircase is 42 degrees.
  • Head height dimensions are important.
  • There is a minimum width for stairs and very narrow ones are only allowed as secondary stairs on approval.
  • Both the top and bottom of the stairs must have a landing.
  • A balustrade is essential for anything more than two risers. 

Staircase lighting

The lighting of a staircase needs to be planned from the beginning of the project to avoid needing to reopen and plaster holes after its completion. A key consideration is where the lighting will be placed – above, at tread level or in the wall. 

Maintaining a beautiful staircase

Like every part of a home, the staircase and its components will show signs of wear and tear after a number of years. The correct and timely maintenance will keep it looking good and safe over longer periods of time.

Maintenance checklist for a staircase

  1. Check for any sign of insect infestation – an initial warning will be powdery deposits.
  2. Listen for creaking stairs – this is an indication of loose joints.
  3. Check balusters or spindles for damage. 
  4. Worn nosing on treads – these can cause accidents.
  5. Cracks in stone stairs – these can indicate structural damage.
  6. External staircases with rust staining – the metal fixings need to be checked. 

Any of these signs indicate that it’s time to perform maintenance and repairs. Some are easy for the homeowner to do, but others may need to be done by a professional.

Fixing or changing the balusters

Wooden balusters: Split or broken wooden spindles can sometimes be glued. They can also be reinforced by using a dowel drilled into the end of the two halves.

 If a single baluster has broken it can be removed to replace or repair it without destabilizing the railing. For older balusters, replacements can be found at salvage yards or a wood turner can make an identical one. 

However, replacing a damaged balustrade is not an easy task and can cause damage to the rest of the staircase and its better that a professional do the work. 

Wrought Iron Baluster: Any repairs to ironwork can be carried out by a specialist metal worker. Existing elements can be used to cast a new piece. External staircases that have metal work will need more regular maintenance and will have to be checked for corrosion. 

Can painted wood be stripped to reveal the original material? 

Period staircases were often painted if they were made from softwoods and pine and it is important to know that the result of stripping an old staircase may be disappointing. One way to avoid this is to use the best paint stripper method available for the job. 

Last word on balusters

Impressive staircases are all about design, ease of climbing and safety. One of the most important elements of the staircase is the balusters that are chosen to embellish it. With great care and supervision the construction and completion of the centerpiece of any home will complement its other features. In the long run the maintenance of the stairs will ensure that it continues to be as eye-catching as ever before.

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