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Monthly Archives: April 2013

Balustrade Design

Wood and Wrought Iron Balustrade

Balustrade design involves several steps that are narrowed down from concept to individual  components.  You may have an existing stair design from your house plans or that you intend to remodel.  From this basic shape the first consideration is they style of the space.  Balustrades are a very prominent feature in most architectural interior design.  Together with the stairs themselves they are in essence a large and a very visual piece of furniture.  Even more than paint, cabinets, accessories and furniture, because they are generally considered a permanent feature of your home, special consideration is warranted regarding your banisters.  Of course stairs and balustrades can be renovated, or even repainted, but with a well-designed system this future need can virtually be eliminated.  There are countless stairs and balustrades that are decades, even centuries old, and they remain as relevant to the home as the day they were installed.  On the other hand, there are probably many more that never worked to begin with.  So, what is the difference?

The complexity of this question makes it a difficult one to answer.  Stairs and railings are typically designed with one of three purposes in mind; they can be a focal point, a subtile compliment to the space, or virtually invisible.  Each purpose answers the question in a different way.  If the stair is to be a focal point then the answer is often more visually apparent.  The balustrade itself may be the driving force behind the tone and style of the space rather than vice versa.  In such cases a more creative and unique design may be warranted to reveal the stair as the work of art it is intended to be.  If your stair and balustrade is intended to compliment the space, which is the overwhelming majority of cases, the design selections are typically more interwoven with other features.  Rather than stand on their own the purpose of these stairs is to contribute to the overall symmetry of the space, its accessories and embellishments.  Finally, the invisible stair.  In this case, the stairs and railings are intended to be a virtually nonexistent architectural feature.  This may be in the case of minimalistic designs, or where another feature is the intended focal point.

Wood, Stone and Wrought Iron Balustrades Throughout History

Paint Grade Stair Skirtboards on a Kneewall

Houzz.com hosts the largest collection of decorating and interior design ideas on the internet, including staircases and balustrades, kitchens, bathrooms and more.  WoodStairs.com is a proud contributor to this great resource of architecture, interior design and decorating, landscape design and home improvement.  There is an article today on Houzz.com entitled “Lean on Me: Balustrades and Rails Through the Ages to Today”, by Gabrielle Di Stefano.  Of course this article is especially interesting and relevant to those of us in the stair parts industry and as our customers we hope that you enjoy it as well.  We appreciate the rich history of balustrades and their components, such as wrought iron balusters and wood box newel posts, and we are passionate in our efforts to further advance this legacy today.  You can ready the Houzz.com article below.  As always we are always here to help with any stair or balustrade related questions from design through completion at 888-390-7245.

How to Install Iron Balusters: Part 3

IronPro - Level Kit

If you want to know how to install iron balusters, there is now a third option and one we highly recommend for many of our customers.  IronPro is a patented system that was developed by one of our suppliers, LJ Smith.  It is an innovative and patented iron baluster shoe system that can be used in virtually any iron baluster installation situation.  In new installations it can reduce installation times to 1/3 of normal and even better, in renovations, it allows you to replace wood balusters with wrought iron balusters without removing the post or handrails.  So, if you have a damaged, outdated or plain ugly balustrade but don’t want to spend your hard earned money to replace the entire system, IronPro allows you to keep everything but the balusters themselves.  All of your other stair parts remain intact.  You can repaint or stain them if you would  like, to freshen them up, but you do not have to replace them.  Not only that but you don’t even have to remove and reinstall your newel posts, handrails, stair treads, etc. to install the balusters.  So whether you  are doing it yourself or hiring out  the installation you will save money on labor as well.

Iron balusters installation using LJ Smith’s IronPro system is simple virtually anyone can do it.  With everything in place (even stained or painted) except the iron balusters you simply add the IronPro shoes to the handrail and Stair Tread or Landing Tread, cut the balusters to length, insert them into the shoes and fasten them with the included set screws.  Here is a youtube video that shows the process far better than I can describe it here.  The tools required are minimal and we have no reservations recommending this system to even those with virtually no woodworking experience.

How to Install Iron Balusters: Part 2

Iron Baluster Installation

If you wondering how to install wrought iron balusters here is another option.  Of course if you’ve read Part 1 of this series of blogs you already know that the method I will describe below, the Up-And-Down method, is not my favorite method.  In almost all scenarios we recommend either of the other two approaches explained in this series, Part 1 and Part 3 before this one.  However since it is a widely described way of method for both wood baluster and iron baluster installation I would be remiss not to include it.  For the do-it-yourselfer with no experience or skill in balustrade installation this may be a good method for you.  It is quick and easy and virtually anyone can do it.  

The basic procedures are the same as the other two Methods so I am intentionally being a little vague so as not to repeat myself.  You can read detailed info in Part 1 here.  But to paraphrase, the Treads and/or Landing Treads are installed as are the Newel Posts. 

The differences begin when the Handrail is cut and permanently installed between the posts or the walls.  The layout is made on the treads or landing shoe and then plumbed up to the bottom of the handrail.  

Then the holes are drilled into the Treads or Landing Shoe, large enough that the baluster can slip freely into it and ½” deep.  In the case of ½” iron balusters this hole is 5/8” diameter.  

How to Install Iron Balusters: Part 1

Gothic Iron Balusters

Installing wrought iron balusters into a wood handrail and wood tread or landing shoe is a relatively simple process that almost anyone with a little woodworking skill can accomplish.  I will address each of these methods in articles over the next couple of days.  I do not know of any formal name for these methods so I’ll do the naming myself.  So, I’ll go with the installation descriptive titles of, Secured, Up-And-Down and Iron Pro.

Today, and in the other two cases, I will highlight the pros and cons.  All of these methods will work for a new install but today’s Secure method requires the temporary attaching then removal of the handrail.  So, if you cannot or do not wish to remove your handrail during the installation process then you will need to use one of the methods described in the subsequent blogs.  For example if you are replacing wood balusters with iron balusters and cannot remove the handrail because of the likelihood that it will be damaged.  In this case you would leave the handrail in place and use the IronPro method or as a last resort the Up-And-Down method.

So, as I mentioned today I will explain what is considered by virtually all professionals to be the best method of installing iron balusters.  I will say flat out that this method is somewhat more complicated and thus is not often recommended to the do-it-yourselfer.  I think that this is a mistake, although it does require a few more hand tools and skill, the long term results are indeed a professional installation.

I’ve called this the Secure method because the balusters are securely trapped between the handrail and the treads or the floor.  Here is how it works.

Newel Post Height

Newel_Posts

There are several methods of how to install a newel post but the first step is cutting them to the correct height.  This height depends on the standard handrail height for your balustrade which is based on the building codes for your area.  Typically floor level balustrades must be at least 36” high or 42” high, depending on local codes and stair guardrails must be between 34” and 38”.  While these are the typical requirements as established by the International Residential Code, they do vary by area so make sure you know the codes that apply to your situation before you proceed.

Calculating the newel post height is the first step in newel post installation.  The two most common scenarios are floor level posts and posts at the start of a stair.  A third scenario is posts at a winder tread but this is a little more complicated so I will address this in a future post.  So stay tuned :)

When using turned newel posts the objective in all scenarios is to have the rails terminate into the center of the top block.  If you are using box newels then there may or may not be a space that is visually defined by a molding as the “top block”.   If your post does not have this then there is no real rule, the rail simply terminates somewhere near the top of the post.  In the other scenarios, when there is some type of visual top block the calculation is fairly simple.  Using the following formula will center the rail in the top block.

Newel Post Height

Floor Level Post Heights are calculated to place the rail in the center of the Top Block using the following formula.

Selecting the Correct Newel Post Types for your Balustrade

Standard Block (Bottom) and Medium Block (Landing) Newel Posts

Wood Newel Posts are available in two main categories, each with virtually unlimited designs.  These categories are Turned Newel Posts and Box Newel Posts.  While there are countless designs there are also a couple of variations for each style, specific to their intended use.  These variations are most important with Turned Newel Posts and it is my intention today to help you understand the reason for the variation in newel post types and how each is used in a balustrade.

Box Post at Intermediate Landing

Box Post at Intermediate Landing

There are two types of railing systems, continuous and post to post.  Continuous railing systems are those in which the handrail is continuous over the top of each post in the system, achieved with specific types of posts and handrail fittings.  The second type of balustrade system, post-to-post, is one in which the handrail terminates into the top block of each post.  Systems using Box Newel Posts are always post-to-post while you have the option of either railing system when using turned newel posts; you simply need the right turned newel post for the job.

Continuous systems are fairly simple, they use dowel top posts which require a tandem style fitting that allows the rail to “balloon” over the top of the post uninterrupted.  While these are available in different lengths for different applications the style remains consistent.  The complexity in a continuous system is in the handrail fittings.  Fittings such as goosenecks, easings and tandem or capped fittings are used to transition between different handrail heights over the top of the post.  However, for a particular style of posts, the dowel top version simply does not have a top block, otherwise they are the same.

Red Alder Stair Parts

Red Alder Lumber

Red Alder (Alnus rubra) is the most common hardwood in the Pacific North West and the largest of the American Alders, reaching heights of over 100 feet.  It has very little insect or disease problems or animal damage.  It is a fast growing species and trees can grow to more than 30 feet at by five years of age, fifty feet by ten years and be seventy-five feet tall in only twenty years.  Still, red alder is a relatively short-lived species, maturing at sixty to seventy years with a maximum age of about one hundred years.  All of these factors, however, make alder an exceptional species for human use in green and sustainable forestry.

Alder stair parts are just one of the many applications to which this species  is ideally suited.  Because of how fast it grows and the heights it achieves in such short a time, it is relatively inexpensive.  Although, alder lumber is not considered to be a durable option for outdoor applications, due to its workability and ease of finishing it is increasingly used in interior applications for furniture, cabinetry and hardwood stair parts.

Red Alder Craftsman Balustrade

Red Alder lumber ranges from white to light brown, with a relatively soft and smooth texture.  It is very uniform in color because there is no visible boundary between the heartwood and sapwood .  It has medium luster and easily worked, it glues well, and takes a good finish.    Because of its uniformity, light color, and ability to take stain well, alder is often stained to imitate other, more expensive species such as cherry.

Alder and Wrought Iron Combination Balustrade

Alder and Wrought Iron Balustrade

Softwood versus Hardwood Stair Parts

Hardwood_Versus_Softwood

The terms Hardwood and Softwood are inherently confusing because they do not define a precise line between “hard” and “soft” wood types.  While hardwoods are generally harder than softwoods, this is not always the case.  The distinction between the two types is actual a function of reproduction.  All trees producing seeds, but the type of seed varies.

Hardwood

Hardwood

  Trees that produce trees with some type of covering, such fruit or a hard shell like an acorn angiosperms also called Hardwoods.  On the other hand, trees whose seeds fall to the ground freely are gymnosperms and called Softwoods.  An example of a gymnosperm is a Pine Tree which grows its seeds in a cone before they fall to the ground to be dispersed.

Trees are also described as deciduous (Hardwood) and evergreen (Softwood).    Deciduous trees lose their leaves in the fall and evergreens keep their leaves year round.  While it is true that most Softwoods are softer than most Hardwoods this is not universal.  For example, balsa wood, which is one of the softest and lightest woods, is a deciduous angiosperm or a Hardwood.  So comparatively, as a generalization, you can be fairly safe assuming that as a category Hardwoods are denser than Softwoods but with individual wood species this is often not the case.

Softwood

Stair parts are available in both Hardwood and Softwood.  Solid Treads are typically manufactured from those wood species with higher Janka scores such as Red Oak Stair Treads.   Other components such as handrails, newel posts and balusters are available in both Hardwood and Softwood variations because they are not walking surfaces.  When considering the wood species for your stair or balustrade, while hardness is definitely a factory, most stair parts are manufactured from wood types that are suitable for their function.  Greater considerations may be more aesthetic or price driven, this is especially true because Janka hardness is based on raw wood and finishes can also increase the hardness of the finished product.

What is Landing Tread?

Landing Tread of Stair

Landing Tread is a type of stair part that is used either under a floor level banister or around an intermediate landing of a stairway.  In banister applications it is the bottom board on top of which the balusters and posts are installed that creates a border between the finish flooring and the balustrade itself.  In applications where a landing tread is used on an actual stair landing it creates a border around the landing.  It is also commonly called Shoe Molding or Shoe Rail, although these are two slightly different versions.

Landing Tread DetailIn situations where Solid Treads and Risers are being used, Stair Landing Tread creates a border around the landing that matches the tread nosing to keep the appearance consistent.  This is because often, landings are so large that instead of using Solid Tread type material on the landing itself, the landing tread is used to create a border around hardwood flooring or carpet in the interior of the landing.  Because Solid treads are often thicker than the flooring, landing tread is often rabbited so that it has a thicker overhang and thinner body that matches up to carpet or flooring.  This creates a joint between the landing tread and the flooring that is flush to eliminate a raised tripping hazard.

Solid Treads with Shoe PlateSolid Treads are also available in ¾” thick material, which is often the same thickness as the flooring and therefore the landing tread does not require the rabbit.  Instead, a ¾” thick Shoe Plate, is attached to the floor and molded at the underside of the overhang.  In this case, ¾” thick Solid Treads are used with an accompanying molding to create the same look between the treads, intermediate landing and upper floor.