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Renovate Your Staircase

Stair Component Identification, Refinishing Techniques, and Structural Renovation

© 2012 by Ryan Hirst; All rights reserved; content may not be copied, rewritten, or republished without written permission.

A residential staircase; photo courtesy Ryan Hirst

This article was updated on 11/13/18.
Renovating a staircase can prove to be a very daunting task if you are not sure where to start with it, however it shouldn’t be.

The process at the start may seem lengthy to say the least, but in fact it doesn’t have to be, and it should be split into 4 keys elements. In this article I will show you these for key elements and how to renovate your staircase with ease.

There are 4 main features or components when it comes to the staircase, including the steps themselves, and these are: newels, spindles, base rails, and hand rails.

Many people don’t have a clue what any of these are, but don’t worry; this is an easy to read guide on what you need to know and also something helping you make the decisions on staircase renovation that will reflect your personal style.

The Newels

Whether you are at the top of your staircase or the bottom, there will be newel posts, which are also topped with newel caps. Although the newels are a big, bold, stand out feature of your staircase, they also have one very vital job, which is in fact to add structural stability to your staircase. Most homeowners are concerned with aesthetics but from an engineer’s point of view, safety trumps all.

All over the market you will see very neatly crafter designs for the newel, and at the moment the chunky posts are very popular all over the market. Some however, are seen literally as a place to hang coats, which in my opinion takes away what can be a wonderfully woven design.

The Spindles

Between every hand rail and base rail you will see the vertical spindles, which line the side of any staircase. The spindle is really a huge part of the staircase and goes unnoticed for the work it does. But it doesn’t have to; there are many designs, both-off-the-shelf and custom which catch the eye. In fact, if you have your own wood lathe, you can create your own custom design easily.

If you do make your own, save your sand dust. you will need it to make perfectly color-matched homemade wood putty.

Not only do the spindles provide support and stability to the hand rail, they also prevent anyone from being able to slip and fall through the gap between the hand real and base rail.

This is one thing that should always be properly installed when it comes to your staircase, either in new construction or during a renovation, and is especially a critical consideration for anyone with small children.

Base and Hand Rails

The base rail is possibly the most self-explanatory part of your staircase, the item runs along the base of your staircase and has grooves in them for the spindles to sit in nicely.

This then, in essence, provides the support you will need for your hand rail. Another essential part of your staircase is the hand rail, almost a celebrity in the staircase world!

The hand rail is arguably the most important safety element of your staircase. It’s also a place in which your staircase can adopt its individuality due to its visibility, through different design styles. Just don’t slide down it, please!

The Staircase Renovation Process

What is your goal with this project? Repair? Refinishing? A complete new look? In any case, go to this article to learn all about staircase disassembly and reassembly. This article also explains how to eliminate squeaks and other repairs.

If you are refinishing the wooden components and the current finish is varnish tung oil, or polyurethane, you will need to sand and refinish. Yes, this will be time-consuming, but well worth the effort. If you are using varnish, you can just rough up the surface; with poly, sand all the way down to the wood.

On the other hand, it you are dealing with paint, you will need to chip, sand, apply primer, and then re-paint. One word of caution — if your home was built prior to 1978, it is likely that the paint has lead in it.

If this is the case, you need to get it tested before any sanding or chipping. Legally speaking, lead paint removal must be done by a EPA Lead Safe Certified contractor.

Structural Renovation

Router Table Package #1, Plus Steel Stand - Blank Plate, Large Do you need to replace any of the components mentioned above? Treads and rails are generally not an issue, but you may not be able to find match and you will need to do, or have done, some custom milling.

For example, it’s easy to replicate spindles on a lathe. Reproducing a newel cap is a fairly easy DIY job if you have access to common shop tools like a table saw and a router table.

Your staircase is a massive part of your home and is probably the most used feature day in day out, and so many home owners overlook what could in fact be a very stylish and in some cases even a feature of your home.

By adopting things such as an abstract handrail your staircase can soon turn into a very focal point of your home. When you renovate your staircase you boost the equity in your home. Do you have any staircase renovation experiences or tips? Please share them with our readers in the comment section below.


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