Staircase and Balustrade/bannister glossary.
Work in progress, We started building this page in June 2019 and will spend most of July updating it.
A visual glossary of the staircase and handrail parts, to easily recognise the component handrail or balustrade parts.
Each part will have a thesaurus of terminology by which the component part may be named.
A brief description of the part: when a more thorough description or explanation is required we will have a link to a separate page, when possible we will add 3D visuals that you can interact with to get the view you want.
As and when possible actual pictures (from jobs I was involved in over the years).
Carpentry and joinery terminology.
As this site addresses the manufacture and installation side of stair building and handrailing, we will also be adding the terminology used by carpenters and joiners during the manufacture and installation stages.
We will be looking at items such as: Blind mortice for newel post, margin pieces for marking out stringers, draw dowels, folding wedges and much more.
A staircase glossary for Architects and Designer.
As probably one of the most involved structures in the building, there is a lot to learn about staircases and their design, much of this knowledge is kept off-site, by craftsmen tucked away in a workshop.
Here we will try to give you the information about each of the parts and how they work during the construction of the staircase and handrail components.
Trying to explain a part to your client?
Send your clients here to get the explanations of the parts they need, in order to understand the job they are getting.
From the glossary there are links to more in depth explanations and design criteria. eg. feature tread designs.
These are different styles of bulustraded areas that are open to view the area below.
A balustrade is made up of balusters with a capping or handrail to join them together, these are normally on the exterior of buildings but are sometimes used around the staircase and normally made from either stone or metal.
A baluster is a single decorative upright, as one of many that may be the same in design or a few designs, arranged together to create a barrier between the stairs or landing and the handrail. The collective name for these is a bulstrade.
A banister is a barrier to prevent fall at the side of a staircase or around the edge of a landing, The banister is constructed from uprights and a rail set over some or all of those uprights. The uprights comprise of Newels and spindles.
The banister rail sits over the the spindles. When newel posts are fitted the banister rail may either go over the top of the newel or connect in to the side of the newel blocks.
A base rail is a decorative timber that is designed to sit on top of a closed string, between newel posts.
Due to the fact that most stringers are made from a narrower timber section than the base of spindles, adding a stringer capping or base rail will allow for the spindles to set within the width of the base rail.
Many modern cappings are rebated top and bottom, the top rebate having an infill that fits between the spindles.
Historic stairs or natural finish stairs would have this capping made from solid stuff; so that the wood grain is constant.
The tread brackets or filigree patterns. are an ornate addition fitted to the side of a cut string stairs between the treads.
These patterns may be flat, flat with a rosette or fully carved .
The filigree will be mitred into the riser to become part of the stringer.
The staircase carriage is a sub structure that helps support the staircase, it sits between the stringers under the treads and risers.
The ends of the carriages tie into the trimmers at each end of the flight.
The usual arrangment is one carriage against each stringer and one in the centre of the tread, to help eliminate any bounce that the flight may have.
On period properties the carriages would be approximatly 5/8″ inset from the bottom of the well string plaster bead, thus providing a fixing point for the laths and plaster.
The centre line controls the flow of the handrail, spindle positions, stringer faces. This is one of the most important parts of staircase design.
The centre line is aquired from the centre of the handrail and transfered down through the support wether it be a spindle, glass or baluster to the staircase. this will allow you to calculate the edge of the staircase.
CNC or Computer Numerical Control.
This is a modern method of producing handrail or staircase components, this may be far more accurate than hand produced components but there will be subtle differences to the finished product.
This will generally show more on the handrail, the joints connecting the parts may be in different positions or parts may be compounded at different positions to tangent handrailing.
A commode is a curve introduced into the design.
Commode Treads are often used at the start of flights, these allow for a more convinient way of leading into the main flight of stairs. This can also enhance the visual impact of the flight.
A curved section built by laminating strips of wood together.
These corners are used in many historic geometric staircases. They are constructed in a similar fashion to barrels; where strips of trapezoid wood are laminated in the vertical plane, the top being cut to accept the treads and risers, the bottom being cut and beaded for the flow of the soffit.
A dado rail that is designed to mirror the well side handrail.
This will normally be of the same shape as the handrail but split vertically in half and mounted to the wall at the same height as the handrail.
Dovetail joints are used to join one piece of joinery perpendicular to the other, this is stronger than a blind mortice and does not require the use of glue.
In staircases, this is traditionally used for setting the spindles into the treads and around the landings, this is especially usefull in landings as it will help prevent lateral movement in the handrail.
A drum is a radiused section of stringer, used to change direction and pitch through a tight turn.
Normally set in the landing area betweem two flights or in the centre of the turn for a set of winder treads.
This will be used rather than newel post at the change of direction when a geometric handrail is required.
Horizontal – Pitch.
Horizontal – Vertical.
Pitch – Pitch.
Pitch – Vertical.
The face mold is a template made for marking the handrail turn, using the tangent handrailing method.
Here you can see the bevels used when sliding the face molds into place.
The fascia is a decorative upright section of timber that runs around the face of the landings.
This may be either a natural finish timber or for painting.
The fascias may also have filligre patterns added, these will normally mimmic the tread brackets mounted on the side of cut string stairs.
Finished floor Level.
The finished floor level or “FFL” as abbreviated for drawings.
This is the final level that you will be walking on once the property is finished.
This will not include any soft finishes such as carpet.
Read more about the FFL in our stair basics guide.
Finials are added to the bottom of turned spindles that have been side mounted through the return nosings, to set alongside the stringers, on cut string stairs.
The finials are purely decorative and have no structural influence.
A flight of stairs covers the distance between two floors and may be one of many in a staircase.
Raised Frog’s back.
The frog’s back is a profile detail added to the top of a handrail.
With the sides being concave and the centre being convex.
This may be lifted above the top of the normal handrail profile by a quirk line.
Known as a raised Frog’s back.
Geometric in staircases, is the forming of a curved and rising section of treads and risers.
A geometric handrail is one that turns and rises above the geometric flight or around a corner coming from one flights to another or from one flight to a landing
Glue blocks are used under the tread and at the back of the riser to add additional strength to the joint between the two.
These will normally be a peice of 2″ x 2″ cut through diagonally and have the 90º corner removed by about 1/8″ or 3mm to allow the block to sit tight into the junction between tread and riser without being held of by the corner.
These are generally about 3″ or 75mm long and pinned into place.
The going is the horizontal distance travelled.
A single going is the distance from the face of one riser to the face of the next.
The total going is the distance travelled by the complete flight.
N.B. The first going sits in front of the first riser.
The first step consists of the first riser and the second going.
Goosenecks are a transition used to vertically raise the height of the handrail when a sudden change in height is required.
The handrail is the part of the banisters that you hold on to.
The handrail tie is a horizontal metal tie that connects the handrail to the adjacent stringer.
This is to prevent lateral movement of the handrail, thereby avoiding loosening of the spindles that may result in an unstable handrail.
Lath and plaster.
Lath and plaster is a period way of plastering walls and ceilings, this method was also used for the staircase soffit.
The laths were typically timber strips about 3/4″ X 1/8″ pinned to the carriages and then plastered. The plaster would probably have horsehair added to the mix in order to help bond the lime based mortar/plaster mix.
Traditional laths are still available for heritage restoration but in general the laths are now replaced by EML Expanded Metal Lath. Then bonding and finish plaster.
An ornate start to the handrail, set on either a newel post or birds cage of spindles over a feature tread. these are traditionally of geometric design but may be 2 dimensional in design. The 2 dimensional designed parts are normally from kit form handrail components.
The opening cap is used to terminate the handrail over a newel post.
These are more often than not circular but may be square or octagonal.
On traditional handrails the handrail will be mitred into the cap. on modern CNC manufactured parts they are normally made with a section of straight as part of the cap; allowing for easier jointing of the component parts.
The pitch is the angle between the floor and the hypoternuse of the rise and going.
When working on geometric stairs the pitch from one side to the other will be different.
The tighter curve of the two being a greater pitch than the looser curve.
The pitch board is a piece of material that is cut to the rise and going of the flight, for marking the straight sections of flight. The hypotenuse of the pitch board will be set against the margin piece when marking out the stringers.
This junction between the pitchboard and the margin piece is known as the pitch line.
When using a pitch board, it is good practice to measure the length of the hypotenuse and add this measurment on each time, then mark the stringer with a tape measure from 0 to the length required for the number of going and rise that is being marked, this will help prevent compounded marking errors.
The staircase pitch line is the line that runs through the intersection at top of riser and front of going. This is also the line that the margin piece and pitch board hypoternuse are set to when marking the stringers for routing the tread and riser housings.
A quirk line is a flat area of moulding that is used to separate two other details.
There are two sizes of quirk line.
1/8″ or 3mm for separating finer detail on such items as scotia mouldings and handrails.
1/4″ 0r 6mm for larger items, that may need more emphasis to separate the details. These may include larger profile handrails or between turn details on spindles.
The sizes are determined from imperial measurements, when most joinery was measured in 1/8″ increments.
A handrail easing is a section of handrail that is used to change the pitch angle or the handrail angle in the verticle plane.
This may be from:
Horizontal – Pitch.
Horizontal – Vertical.
Pitch – Pitch.
Pitch – Vertical.
The Ram’s horn is a very versatile handrail termination, it may be used at the start of the main flight set over a newel post or to terminate wall rails, it is sometimes used upside down on a rolled over handrail when cast balusters are set to the side of the stairs.
The scotia moulding is a traditional coving detail, set to the underside of the tread nosing, on the face of the riser and stringer.
Stringer shoulder line.
The shoulder line is the line at the end of a stringer, where it meets a newel post.
The shoulder line is the start of the tenon that will be moticed into the newel.
Yuo will also have a shoulder line when two strings connect to each other, in this situation you will normally have a rebate and tongue rather than a mortice and tenon.
A spindle or baluster is the upright that supports the handrail above the staircase and landing nosing.
These may be timber. metal or any other material that is structurally strong enough to hold the handrail in position and withstand any latteral movement that may be applied by a person falling.
The stringer is the border that the treads, risers and soffits areinside of or over.
A cut string sits under the treadsand behind the risers, while a closed string will have the treads and risers housed in.
Most flights will consist of one wall string and one well string, exceptions being: pre-tensioned stone or canterlevered.
Stringer to skirting transitions.
View options on how to bring the stringer into the landing area.
Tangent handrailing is a traditional method of creating geometric handrail.
By using the tangents of the curve that the handrail is to turn through and the changes in angle or pitch that the handrail will rise through.
These handrail parts are normally made by a specialist handrailer.
Types of tread.
The tread is the surface that you step on when ascending or descending a flight of stairs.
The volute is an ornate handrail termination, these come in two styles: Verticle and horizontal.
The horizontal volute is normally used at the start of the handrail and set over a feature tread. The Vertical volute may be used in many places throughout the property