History and pitfalls of baluster spacing - Fine Homebuilding

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Better than Plumb

Better than Plumb


History and pitfalls of baluster spacing

comments (0) August 28th, 2008 in Blogs
Kevini Kevin Ireton, editor-at-large


The typical spacing between balusters on a staircase used to be about 6 in. I’m pretty sure this dimension was used because small children could stick their heads between the balusters, but their ears would catch when they tried to pull their heads back out. Hence, the staircase served as a kind of day-care center when you could safely park your kids while you did housework or ran errands. Much to the dismay of many parents, the building code now stipulates that balusters be installed such that a 4-in.-dia. sphere cannot pass between them.


I spent last weekend installing balusters on my winder staircase. It’s a closed-stringer stair, which means when you look at it from the side, you can’t see the treads and risers. They’re hidden by the stringer. The balusters are seated in a grooved (or plowed) shoe rail that caps the stringers, rather than being mortised into the treads. (In the old days, balusters were dovetailed into treads, and the mitered tread returns covered the joint.) I built closed-stringer stairs because this style was typical for the period and size of my house, a fact I determined after exhaustive research (meaning I flipped through two books and looked at the pictures).

The handrail on my stair also has a groove in it, so the balusters, which are square, get seated in the groove, top and bottom. The spaces between are filled with thin strips of wood called fillet pieces. Once you’ve calculated the proper spacing, installing the balusters is a pretty straightforward job, assuming that the rails are exactly parallel to the stringers and that the newels are perfectly plumb. Of course, I’m lousy at math, my rails are close to parallel, and my newels are a little better than plumb. So installing balusters was more of a challenge.

I got them mostly done. Bob had given me two bits of advice that proved useful. He said to resist the temptation, after calculating the space between balusters, to set up stop blocks on the miter saw and cut all the balusters and fillets at once. No matter how careful you are, he explained, things start creeping off the layout, and errors accumulate.

Bob also said to step back often and look at the stairs from a few feet away: “You’ll spot things you can’t see when your face is 12 in. away.” I followed this advice and stepped back after installing the first baluster, which is a good thing because it was in the wrong place. I had screwed up the math when I tried to calculate the length of the fillet pieces based on horizontal distance between balusters. I was glad to catch the mistake before I got any farther.

The rest of the job went OK until I nailed in the last baluster. Because the newel post was in the way, I held the nail gun at a different angle. Whoops.


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