There is a lot of technical terminology that is used in the making and describing of staircases and their handrails, or balustrades as the complete handrail and supports are known. We cover the parts of a stair case in greater detail in another project; here we are focusing on the handrails, banister and balustrades for stairs – which ever term that you prefer to use.
We have a range of projects on jobs that you can do on the stairs, from painting to carpeting. We cover lots of trade tips to get over the difficulties of working on the stairs.
What is a Balustrade?
The balustrade is the term generally used to describe all the parts of the stair case designed to keep people on the stairs. It includes the handrails or banisters, the stair spindles (or balusters), newels and their caps. Sometimes people can refer to this as the banister or the railings/rail system, although these terms are more generally limited to the rail, spindles and base rail.
Just like stairs, the balustrade can be made of many different materials. The most common choice in a domestic setting is wood, but often stone, metal and glass are used. Quite a striking effect can be achieved by mixing different materials to create a unique balustrade.
Key Parts of a Balustrade or Banister
Here are the most common parts of the balustrade:
Banister or Handrail
This the railing at the top of the balustrade that runs between and is supported by the newel posts. The term banister is often used to include the stair spindles as well. It is for used as a handhold, and the minimum height allows is 900mm (see the regulations below).
The handrail is supported by the newels. It can either pass over then as a continuous rail or more commonly it can fix to each newel post, where the newel sits between the rails breaking them up. This is known as post–to-post.
In some instances the handrail might have an inner metal core to provide strength, and to assist if the rail is curved, particularly against the grain.
In North America this is referred to as the Baluster, but the term is beginning to creep over to the UK, probably as people read about it on the internet.
These are the decorative uprights that run between the handrail and the base rail or the tread of the step. They are designed to stop people and other objects falling off the stairs below the handrail.
They do not hold the handrail up; the structural support for the handrail is provided by the newel posts, but they will provide some limited support.
Base Rail (‘shoe rail’ in North America)
This is the rail that runs at the bottom of the spindles, supporting them. It sits on the string (or stringer), which is the diagonal section at the side on the stairs which supports the steps. We have more information about stair case terminology if we are losing you!
There are groves cut into the base rail so that it can be fixed to the string and then the spindles into it. If the staircase has an open or cut string design there is no base rail and the spindles are fixed directly to the tread of the step.
This means that alternate spindles will be different lengths, so this needs to be incorporated in the spindle design. We will cover the spindle design options in further details below.
When making stairs outside, base rails with a grove are seldom used as the grove for the spindle will allow water to enter and collect. This will cause damage and rot. In this situation the spindles are fixed to the base rail using screws or dowel joints.
The newel is the strong, structural support for the hand rail. They can generally be divided into three parts:
- The base or Newel Base connects to the string, the floor and the staircase itself. This part of the newel extends into the floor where it is secured structurally, and in some cases beyond, where it might protrude from the ceiling as a ‘newel drop’
- The newel post is the part of the post above the base. The whole newel, base, post and cap is sometimes referred to as the newel post
- The newel cap is the decorative top of the newel and generally serves no structural purpose other than to make it look attractive. The newel cap can be called the ‘finial’, although this term is generally used to refer to the ornamental ends on curtain poles, or even the apex of a roof
A half newel is where the handrail ends at a wall and only half the newel might be used to give the impression that the newel is embedded into the wall.
These are the strips that fit into the groove in the base rail between the spindles. They are decorative to hide the groove in the base rail.
These are hand rails that are attached to the wall, what then to the stairs through the newel. They do not have spindles and are fixed to the wall with wall rail brackets.
There are two types of balustrade distinguished by where they are used. They are:
- Rake Balustrade – This is the balustrade that is used on the stairs. It gets its name from the ‘rake’ which is another term for the pitch of the stairs, or effectively the steepness of the flight of stairs
- Return Balustrade – this is the balustrade that guards a landing
Building Regulations for Handrails
The Building Regulations Part K stipulate what is allowed and what is not in the construction of stairs. In summary, the regulations that affect handrails and balustrades are as follows:
- Where there is a drop that exceeds 600mm, either on a landing or on stairs, then a guard needs to be used
- The minimum height of the handrail is 900mm on both the stairs and landing for a domestic dwelling. For a public staircase the handrail must be 900mm still, but the handrail on the landing must be at least 1100mm
- The spindles must be fitted so that a 100mm sphere cannot pass between them. Any further apart and then they will be dangerous and (young) people might fall between them
- When adding or altering stairs building regulations approval is needed. Find out how you apply for building approval here
Ornamental Features of Banisters and Balustrades
There are a range of commonly used ornamental features that are incorporated on banisters and balustrades. Here is a collection of some of the most frequently used:
- Volute – This is a decorative curl at the end of a hand rail. This is typically seen on the bottom of the stairs over the on a curtail step, which provides the ‘space’ for the curl. When combined with the Curtail, a volute is not just for decoration. It can provide extra strength and solidity to the handrail by allowing more spindles (or balusters). This makes the end to the handrail sturdier than having a single newel post
- Turnout – This is similar to the full volute curl, but is only a half curl, so it referred to as a turn out
- Gooseneck – this created when a sloped hand rail joins a higher handrail with a vertical turn. This is a useful feature if the return balustrade (on a landing or balcony) is higher than the rake balustrade (on the stairs) that needs to join it, and a continuous rail is desired
- Easings and Overhand Easings – These are vertical turns in the hand rail. These are most commonly used on handrails that are fixed to the wall rather than in a balustrade or banister, but are also used in a balustrade, such as to form part of the gooseneck. An easing is a concave turn and typically used are the bottom of the stairs where the rail flattens out, or in a gooseneck. It is also called an Up-Ramp or an Up-Easing. An overhand easing is convex and will be at the top of the stairs where the flight reaches the landing
- Rosette – When a hand rail ends in a wall and a half newel is not used a rosette is generally used
Spindles and Balusters
The spindles (or balusters in North America) are the thin supports between the base rail or tread of the step and the hand rail. As we have mentioned before, they are not structural and do not hold up the handrail, but will offer a little support and they are to stop people falling through the gap below the handrail.
Spindles are typically wood and they are turned on a lathe to achieve perfectly round cuts on. These can get fairly ornate depending on the style you are trying to achieve and your budget.
Typically spindles come in two lengths when bought ‘ready made’, 900mm and 1100mm, but can be made to any length that if required. They tend to be between 32mm and 41mm wide, but again can be made especially outside these sizes.
There is an enormous range that is available when it comes to choosing the right spindles for your stairs. Typically the biggest choice that you will have is the material that you are going to use. Here are the most common choices:
These are by far and away the most common as they are easy to make and very effective. Even when choosing wooden spindles, there is enormous variety that is available. For example:
- Type of wood – The most common choices are Oak (either English of American), Ash and Pine, particularly if they will be painted. There are a great many other woods that are used so it is worth shopping around to find the wood you like.
- Design – At the simplest, wooden spindles can be square, but even these can be enhanced with chamfers. Turned spindles can vary considerably from the delicate Edwardian styles to the heavier traditional styles and the Victorian styles. At the most complex there are twisted spindles, which are also known as barley twist spindles. Fluting can also be added to the turned spindles. Flutes are grooves that are routed into the spindle for decorative purposes.
- Finish – The spindles can be painted or the wood left exposed. Polished or varnished can look very effective. For more information read our project on about painting your stairs
These can be added to a staircase in a contemporary home. They can be used to create a dramatic industrial or gothic feel, depending on the style or a more modern touch if more simplistic.
It is possible to get chrome or brushed metal spindles if you want an even more dramatic effect.
Mixing metal with wood in the spindle can also be very effective.
You can dispense with the spindles altogether and have panelling. The most contemporary type of panelling is glass.
Construction Methods Used on a Return Balustrade
It is easy to see the construction of the balustrade from this diagram:
In this country most stairs are purchased pre-made by a manufacturer in a factory. They are then assembled on site, which makes the build of the stairs much quicker and easier. This also ensures that they are constructed properly.
We go in to more details about stair cases in our project about the staircases that is mentioned above.
Even if your stairs are constructed off site and only assembled in situ, it is important to have the knowledge of how they fit together and what all the different parts are.
This way you will be able to choose the designs that you want – as you can see, in the balustrade alone there are a huge amount of options that you have to choose from.
All project content written and produced by Mike Edwards