Perhaps even more than your typical purchase, with stair parts you get what you pay for. The problem with this is that because of the relative simplicity of the products, the variation that affects price can be so drastic that two seemingly similar products can scarcely be classified as the “same” at all. Consider two cars, a luxury sports car and an economy car. While both are equally suited for their particular purpose, it is impossible to confuse one as the other and comparing them as “apples to apples” is a meaningless endeavor. They are obviously two different products, often with two radically different price points. One does not consider the sports car too expensive or a “rip-off” because of its comparison with the economy car alone. It may exceed our personal budget but we understand that the differences in quality, design and performance are substantial and justify the larger price tag.
The issue with stair parts, especially those sold online, is that these differences are easily disguised until you receive them. Here is where due diligence comes in. I don’t want to give the impression that there are not acceptable differences in stair parts. There are luxury and economy versions of virtually everything. The issue arises when the parts are mislabeled or presented as the same when in fact they are not. I plan on writing several blogs on this issue because it has become so prevalent over the last few years with the downturn in the economy and the tightening of our purse strings. Today I just wanted to create an awareness that this issue does exist and if you aren’t educated on the potential “short-cuts” you may end up with a product that is not what you were expecting.
As an example let’s look at wood handrails. This is a fairly simple product that may not appear to have a great deal of variation in quality to the layperson. However, there are several methods which companies use to produce them at lower cost. Again, these variations are not issues in themselves but only when they are misrepresented. The ideal version of any handrail is one that is manufactured uniformly from the finished wood species in long lengths using as few laminates as possible. This may seem a strange concept but often handrails are manufactured either from many pieces finger jointed together to get long lengths, or with multiple pieces to get the necessary dimension from smaller pieces.
Manufacturers are able to reduce costs by using fall-off (small pieces that are then glued together and shaped to the handrail profile. Finally, often the core of the handrail is actually made using a very inexpensive wood like pine wrapped with the finish wood material. What happens with each of these scenarios is that you end up with a handrail made from many pieces which increases the visible glue joints or in the case of the veneered core, the handrail may not be as strong as a solid uniform handrail.
If you are looking for an inexpensive handrail, or one that is going to be painted then the additional lamination, finger joints or the pine core may not be an issue at all. The problem arises when comparing the same profile handrail from two sources and finding that one is dramatically less expensive.
While there are slight variations in materials and labor, a large discrepancy almost always means that you are not comparing apples to apples. Instead the products may not be clearly defined and one of the two is in fact inferior. It is important to understand what exactly you are comparing so that a finger jointed or pieced-together handrail (even from the same company) is not confused with a uniform handrail.
I don’t want to denigrate the cheaper product, any more than the economy car; it simply should not be compared against the luxury. It may even have a similar shape but we all understand that you get what you pay for, the same is true for stair parts. Unfortunately most of us cannot afford a Lamborghini, and we are similarly limited by budgetary concerns when building a stair or balustrade. The key is to find the best value, just the same as you wouldn’t spend $100k more for the same Lamborghini (even if you had money to spare) you also shouldn’t pay drastically more for a handrail or newel post. The problem is that when comparing stair parts online it is often difficult to determine whether you are comparing two Lamborghini, a Lamborghini and a Lexus or a Lamborghini and a Kia. You may be looking for an economy system that is functional and inexpensive and that is fine. For example at WoodStairs.com we offer a range of products at differing price points for different applications, similar to a car dealership, it is important to us that our customers understand the differences so that they can make an informed decision.
If you consider another more closely related example of flooring you can easily see that a solid hardwood floor is the luxury end of the spectrum while veneers or laminates are at the economy end. If you want and can afford the best you would select a solid hardwood floor whereas if the appearance is more important than the quality and longevity then the lower end of the price/quality spectrum may be idea. Usually, we find that our customers fall somewhere in the middle, finding a reasonable intersection of quality and price to be the best value. Handrails, wood and iron balusters, box newel posts, solid treads, etc. each have a range of variants that determine price but virtually inseparable from quality. As the oldest online retailer of quality stair parts WoodStairs.com offers a variety of selections for many of our components and our large customer base and volume allows us to provide the best value in apples to apples comparisons almost every time. This is the reason we offer our Low Price Guarantee, because if it is the same product then typically we’ve already beaten the competition. If our price is high then usually a competitor is being vague or even misleading in the product description and in fact the products are different. We are asked almost daily why such-and-such a product is so much more or less than another similar product or more frequently why our model is more or less than a competitors’. Virtually without exception, the difference is in the product itself. If there is a large difference in price you can be assured that there is a large difference in the product itself.
The one bit of advice that we give our customers shopping for stair parts online is to avoid companies that do not specifically define their products. If the descriptions are vague, more often than not, they are using this to misrepresent an economy model as a luxury model. The fact that whether or not a handrail for example, is engineered, veneered, or finger-jointed is not mentioned is usually an indication that the product is being passed off as something it is not. This applies to virtually any stair part. If the descriptions aren’t detailed and precise, very often they are the budget version. You will see this trend repeated in future blogs where I will dissect the differences in box newels, iron balusters, bending handrails, etc. There are reputable companies out there (WoodStairs.com is one of these 🙂 but you do have to take care to know what you are getting. We offer both budget and luxury models in many of our stair parts categories because our customers have different requirements, but someone looking for a luxury custom balustrade will never accidentally purchase a handrail intended for a basement wall mounted rail. The important thing to consider is whether or not the products are clearly described with detailed information, and then you can make the best decision for your situation and your budget.