Balustrade is the name given to a completed stair rail assembly, which may be as simple as a handrail mounted on top of newel posts and balusters or more complex with decorative enhancements. Balustrades can be constructed from almost any material, including wood, steel or vinyl.
A handrail is the upper horizontal member of the balustrade. It’s the part you most come into contact with since you often grip it on your way up and down the stairs. The handrail also adds structural support to the balustrade. It attaches to the wall or to newel posts. The portion of the handrail that is angled to follow the pitch of the stairs is called a rake rail, while curved rail portions that allow the rail to move from horizontal to rake are called easings.
Newels, sometimes referred to as newel posts, add strength to the balustrade. Running vertically, newels are the main rail support features that connect the railing system to the stairs and landings. The first newel post in a balustrade is called the starting newel. Those that end against a wall may be cut in half to give them the appearance of blending into the wall. These posts are called half newels. A landing newel is installed on upper floors at the point where the balustrade changes from a horizontal run to an angled run that follows the stairs.
Balusters are are also vertical members of the balustrade that run from the rail to the stair or floor. Typically not as heavy as newels, balusters still add some support and strength to the railing system. Sometimes turned on a lathe or otherwise shaped, balusters also add a decorative touch to the balustrade. A square-top baluster is turned except for a block left square near the top of the piece. Pin-top balusters are turned all the way to the point where they meet the handrail. Balusters are like spindles, and most building codes require that they be spaced close enough that a 4-inch ball cannot pass between them.
Newel posts, balusters and handrails make up the bulk of a balustrade as well as its supporting structure. In addition, installers sometimes add a few features to dress up the rail system. For example, rather than end a balustrade at the wall with a half newel, the rail might attach directly to the wall with an oval rosette as trim. The handrail might get some beefing up by adding a cap -- a pleasing shape more conducive to the curvature of a hand. A volute tops the balusters or newel at the first floor start of a baluster, lending a curved cap to the handrail.
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