Should painted balusters be installed at the same time as the stair or later?

If you are buying a stair with a balusters in a contrasting material, such as painted balusters on an oak stair, a question will likely come up about finishing the stair. Should my painter finish the balusters (loose) and finish the stair,  then have the balusters installed after it's all finished? There are  some pro and cons to consider: General Stair Strength
  • The rail’s structural integrity is increased by setting the rail onto balusters (raw wood to raw wood), rather than gluing pre-finished balusters into the rail.  This prevents unnecessary rail movement and provides proper adhesive cure time for affixing the rail to balusters.  Rails are set once and not pulled off.
Site Conditions
  • Theft or damage is minimized when balusters are installed; not left out in the way of other trades waiting for installation.
  • When the stair has railing on it the job is safer.  Decreases job site risk and liability.
  • Near the end of construction (at paint stage) you will need to remember to call schedule your baluster installation.   This is one more step to remember before you close.
Finish Quality
  • When balusters are installed, the rail must come off.  When it is reinstalled with the balusters those joints will need to be re-sanded.  Plan ahead with your painter for this rework the finish on the rails joints.
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Victorian Stairs and Rails ; Features That Make Them Grand

Victorian foyers tended to be rather narrow and long.  Despite the frequent space challenges, they managed to fit the most grand stairs and rails in that space.
Victorian Curved Stair

Victorian Curved Stair

  The mark of a Victorian staircase;  the huge Victorian starting newels.  Victorian newels would have been either turned on a lathe, or (more often) built as an octagon.  The amount of detail on these newels just never seemed to end.  It can be surprising that an octagon newel can take anywhere from 4 hours  to 40 hours to build by hand.  The base of a Victorian newel can range in size from 6” to 10”. Many Victorian staircases feature one large starting newel without the use of any other newels as the rail winds upward.     Victorian rails usually  went over the top of the newel.  The starting newel would likely have a custom made cap which blended the rail into the design of the newel.  Perhaps the most beautiful feature of the Victorian rail, was the large hand-carved rail sections that twisted and rose.  This feature was needed, due to their lack of newels elsewhere on the stair.   Today few stair shops can provide these hand carved rail sections which require a  blend of art and science.
Hand Carved Curved Rail

Hand Carved Curved Rail

  Structurally, Victorian rails were not well designed and loosened up easily, largely due to their lack of newels.  Today we use a greater quantity of newels to provide stability to the railing system.  Victorian staircases were also built using “hide glue” which was not nearly as strong or long lasting as today’s high tech wood glues. Victorian rails were short – typically around 30” high.  Today rake rail height required by code is 34” to 38”.  Victorian methods dovetailed the balusters into the treads.  This is a good method, but not enough to keep rails stable without newels.  Today a good quality stair builder will dowel balusters into the treads, which is just as secure as the dove tail, but more cost effective due to labor time needed for the process. See more Victorian newels at
Large newel typical of Victorian Era

Large newel typical of Victorian Era

Large newel typical of Victorian Era

Large newel typical of Victorian Era

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Curb Appeal Moves Indoors

We often talk curb appeal the first thing a prospective home buyer sees.  Real Estate professionals say a buyer makes up their mind if they will buy a home in the first 3 minutes of walking through your front door.  So how important are the stairs just inside your front door?
    • The entry sets expectations for what your visitor will experience in the rest of your home.
    • It is the first and last impression you make to your guests.
  290_387Designer kitchens and baths have become the ‘foundation’ of value in a home.  Once that foundation is built.  The entry and stair is the next logical step.   At times we may decorate all our rooms, and treat our entry as a ‘walk through’,  not giving full decorating attention.  Treat it as a room.  Decorate it with furnishings as you would any other room.  The natural focal point of the entry is the stair.  It sets the tone for the room.   Increasing the WOW of your entry will not only create a more inviting welcome for your guests, it will enhance the marketability of your home.  
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What space is required to fit a curved stair?

A curved stair takes far more floor space than other types of stairs.  Ideally you want a large square space to allow for the most gracious and elegant curved stair.  You can narrow and tighten up the space, which will require your radius to get tighter .  As your radius gets tighter your stair will not look as grand and elegant.  Additionally a tight radius will likely require hand carved railings and therefore become more costly. You will first need to know how many treads or steps needed.  To figure the quantity of treads;
  • Take your overall rise (floor to floor – including finished flooring) – and divide it by the ideal riser height, say 7.6”.
  • You will need to round up or down (high riser, or lower rise) to select your total number of rise.
For example:  Overall rise is 133” / 7.6 = 17.5 I can make the risers lower; 133/18 = 7.39, so 17 treads Or taller 133/17 = 7.82, so 16 treads Less treads will take less floor space, which typically ends up being needed. Subtract 1 from your tread count and that is the number of risers.  Now that we know the # of risers and treads, we can look up a curved stair layout and see how that fits to our space.curved stair layouts To find curved layouts (based on the total number of rises you need) go to this page: In the upper right hand corner, you will see button for "download curved stair layouts". Click on that button and you can download curved layouts such as this shown here.
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Transforming Your Home by Installing a Hardwood Stair

We get many calls where people no longer want carpet on their stairs and what to upgrade to a custom hardwood stair.  What most people don’t realize is that stairs are a structural item.  Stairs don’t come out easily.  Replacing a stair is a a real remodeling project and not just a decorating project.   A first question is often “can you just leave in my stair and cover over it with hardwood.  In many cases we can (and sometimes we cannot).  Realize there are down sides to that covering an existing stair.  Here is a short blog to explain some pros and cons to consider. Once you are committed to a stair replacement, here is an idea of what to expect.   The old stair will be torn out and this usually means removing some drywall in the process. Consider hiring a contractor for the demo, new framing and drywall that is likely to be required.  At times there are surprises at tear out such as plumbing,  electric or duct work under the stair may need to be moved for a new stair design.   If you are living in the house, schedule the tear out just a day or two before the new stair is installed.  This will limit the time you do not have stair access to the 2nd fl. If you are not comfortable using a ladder for a day or two, consider sleeping elsewhere during the stair remodel.   Once the new stair is installed, drywall has to replaced, taped sanded and painted. The stair will need to be stained/painted.   Putting a new stair into your existing home will transform your homes interior like few other things can.


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Why are descending volutes used?

A volute is that “Curly” piece that is at the start of many stair rails.

Standard Volute A standard volute shape will have a rail fitting attached to it, called an “up easing” .  The up easing allows the rail that is coming down the rake of the stair to level out into the volute.

This photo shows a manufactured volute with a manufactured up ease fitting.  The up ease fitting is the connector between the volute and rake rail.

  On many curved staircases, keeping the rail to a consistent height as it curves up the rake requires a special  handmade volute called a “descending volute” or a “climbing volute”. Descending Volute Handcarved  

The volute in this photo, is connected to the rake rail with a much longer and slightly twisting hand carved descending up ease fitting.

  This type of a volute is a “hand carved fitting” that requires many hours of experienced layout skills to understand what is needed each unique situation.  The carving work on fittings can take anywhere from 4 hours to over 40 hours of experienced rail carving labor.   The result is a beautiful, one of a kind  piece that is unique to the stair that it was made for. More and more we see descending volutes used on stairs that are not curved.  They are desired for their strong artistic statement and elegant beauty. For more on carving rails, see       .
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Hand Carving Stair Railings


Handrails_Railings_Stair railings for curved stairs
Rough Block to be Carved into a Hand Rail Fitting


Often curved staircases, and a occasionally straight stairs, have complicated railing requirements calling for twisting and turning of the rails that cannot be made by bending the rail or with machines.  In these cases, we must create a “hand carved fitting” specifically for the need of this particular application.   Stair railing carving by handThe process starts with a meticulous design based on the math of the staircase calculated in three dimensions.  Then, the selection of heavy planks of the very best wood available is carefully cut and glued into a block large enough for the piece.  The blocks are rough shaped with a band saw and sander to get the closest rough shape, and then it is all chisels and hand tools from there. Hand carving fittings can take  anywhere from 10 to 100 hours, depending on the size and style. It is a task requires expert knowledge of the process and razor sharp tools.   Curved Stair Shopping Tips When shopping for a curved stair ask questions:
  • Have you made hand carved fittings on your curved stairs?
  • How many hand carved fittings have you made for curved stairs?
  • When are hand carved fittings needed in curved rails?
If they have never a hand carved fitting and can’t tell you when rails need to be hand carved, there is a fair chance you will end up with odd looking railing. Hand carved fittings are in about 50% of the curved stairs we design and build.  Some curved stairs have as many 3 in one curved railing section.
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Flooring Thickness Plays a Key Role in Your Stair

Flooring should be decided upon before you finalize your stair design.   Your flooring is typically not installed until after your mill-made stair is in.  By planning ahead, you can allow for your flooring (thickness) when calculating the stair, and it will make installation cleaner and simplier. When Calculating the Stair The finished flooring thickness at the bottom and top of your stair should be factored into the overall rise.   By doing this, you assure that each individual rise will be a consistent height, and the flooring will flow right into the stair without gaps. By calculating your riser height from “finished floor” to “finished floor”, you can be assured that your riser height will be consistent for each step.   For example:
  • rough floor to rough floor height = 121”
  • - subtract the thickness of your finished flooring on the first floor -3/4”
  • + add the finished flooring on the top floor + 1/2”
  • = your rise finished floor to finished floor is 120.75.
  • figure your individual rise; divide the overall rise by the number of rise; 120.75/16 rise = 7.546 per rise height.
Had you not factored your finished flooring into the overall rise, the stair would be installed and then ¾” flooring would butt up to the first riser, making the first rise ¾” shorter than the rest. Not only would this be a trip hazard, it would not pass inspection in most areas. At Installation At Designed Stairs, we apply a “Hold Up Block” at the bottom of the stair, under the first rise.   This allows the riser to, in effect, float.   When flooring is installed, it can easily slide under the riser. With this method, there is no need for special cutting of flooring materials, and it finishes out to a neat and clean look without gaps! At the top of the stair, the nosing is held up so the flooring can butt up to it.   If hardwood, the hold up is the same as the wood flooring thickness (typically 3/4", as in photo) .  If it’s carpet, typically you want to hold it up about 3/8”. . This allows for the padding and bit of the carpet. You don’t’ want to hold it up so much that you create an “edge” on the wood nosing. That edge would get beat up over time.   The wood edge should be nearly buried in the carpet. When walking a stair a consistent rise is important.   It is amazing how much our body feels an inconsistent step (more than our eyes can see it).
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Timing is everything with a Curved Staircase Installation

Curved staircases like straight stairs, should be installed after your drywall is primed and before your finished flooring is laid. Curved staircases and rails take a considerable amount of time to build, so getting the stairs ordered early will help avoid any delays once your site is ready.  It is likely that you will need to place your curved stair order eight or more weeks before your site is drywalled. We all know the negative effects of scheduling too late; we wait and the job is delayed.   But in the case of a curved stair, scheduling it too early is just as bad.   Many of your curved components are glue laminated to curves that are specific to your framing.   Once fabricated it’s critical to get them installed quickly.   Installation ‘locks’ the curved parts into the position. On the other hand, once a curved staircase is fabricated, and the job site is not ready, there is no choice but to store the components.   Storing curved parts for any length of time can cause reactions from both pressure and atmospheric (weather) conditions that can actually change the shape of the parts.   As a minimum installation is more difficult, in the worse case, parts need to be remade. To ensure the best possible results, take extra care with your schedule and eliminate any storage possibilities during the process.
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Premium Wood Stairs for Outdoor Living

Ipe is a good choice of wood stairs

More and more we are investing in the highest quality products for outdoor living spaces.   We want our outdoor space to be another room to relax and entertain in.  No longer is the “deck” stair enough, we want top of the line, indoor quality stairs and railings for our outdoor spaces. When designing a top quality stair for outdoor living, choose your material carefully.  Consider species that can stand up to water, insects along with heat and humidity fluctuations. Softwoods often used for outdoor applications are Cedar and Redwood.  Cedar is the most poplar and most available.  A downside to Cedar is that it is so soft that some cedar can be dented by just a finger nail.   For that reason it is not the best choice for stairs.  Redwood on the other hand is harder (than cedar), and has a beautiful red color.  These soft woods tend to have more movement (as they age) and the design of the stair will need to be adjusted to allow for that greater wood movement. Typically when we think of premium stairs, we think in terms of hardwoods.  Even stairs designed for beauty should be ready to handle 25 (or more)  years of heavy traffic.   Teak and Ipe, work very well for these high quality applications.  Teak has a high oil content that makes it excellent for mildew resistance.   Teak has very little movement and shrinkage, and ages to a nice grayish color.  The down side of teak is it’s cost. Ipe on the other had is still an excellent hardwood for outdoor use.  It too is insect resistant and a good hardwood choice for stairs.   Ipe will cost about 25 to 50 percent more than cedar and redwood, but only about one third the cost of teak.      
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