Traditional staircase design

Written by ln shapely
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Traditional staircase design
Beautifully adorned staircase with a runner (Treppenhaus image by Milosz Bartoszczuk from

Traditional staircase design covers a broad range of architectural styles, from the grand and sweeping to the unadorned. Selection of a staircase design is based on the space available and the interior architecture of the home. Intricate wood detailing is available by using mass-produced components or it can be kept rudimentary with straight, functional lines. The choices are driven only by one's imagination.


Traditional staircases have six main structural configurations. The straight staircase is easiest and least expensive to build, though it takes up more space than many floor plans can withstand. A return staircase turns 180 degrees and has a landing at mid-turn. A spiral staircase forms a complete circular climb in a narrow area. The spiral and the return staircases have the smallest footprint of all staircase designs. "L" shaped stairs turn 90 degrees left or right and have a landing at the turning point. A winder is devised like the "L" shape, but the landing is eliminated and there are pie-shaped steps making the turn. A circular staircase curves in either direction. These are recalled as the grand, sweeping staircases in mansions and castles, enjoining vast floor-to-ceiling heights.


Staircase elements have specific names, which not only help distinguish their structure, but their period style was well. The balustrade is the handrail system and supporting posts. Posts are called balusters, except the first post at the foot of the stairs. This is the newel post, though secondary newel posts may be present at the turns. Newel posts usually have significant, decorative caps and finials on top. The landing is the platform between turns, and steps are called treads. Open stringer staircases have exposed railings, while closed stringer staircases are enclosed, usually by walls.

Period Details

Older and historic homes inspire many contemporary staircase designs. Staircases can be grouped into four periods in American architecture--Arts & Crafts, Colonial Revival, Victorian and Mid-Century. The Arts & Crafts movement, from 1900 to 1940, inspired non-embellished balustrade with rectangular, shallow mouldings and newel caps. Colonial Revival staircases, based on the Georgian and Federal period from 1725 to 1820, were ornamented with classical urn-shaped turnings on the tops and carved swags and cameos gracing the sides. Balusters were typically slender. Elaborate carving was made possible during the Victorian era because the use of power woodworking equipment was becoming common. During this period, from 1870 to 1910, carving and intricate beaded edging reigned. In some cases, decorative wood grilles filled in between the balusters. Turned balls topped newels and rosettes were applied to the exterior. Mid-Century styles include Gothic Revival and decor inspired by Italian architecture. From 1850 to 1870, wood elements were mass produced, allowing detailing in common homes. The popularity of geometric shapes influenced staircase design. Newels with square boxes on top and octagonally shaped posts were routine. "American Gothic," Grant Wood's iconic painting, shows a typical Gothic Revival home in the background.


Wood, wrought and forged iron are the traditional materials for staircases and balustrade. Architectural styles come, go and return, and staircase materials follow. At the turn of the century, iron staircases adorned the interiors and exteriors of residential and commercial buildings all over the world. Iron-structured skyscrapers flourished, and the Eiffel Tower, built for the Universal Exposition of 1889, was the auspicious symbol of contemporary architecture. There are 1,671 steps to the top. Wood remains the principle structural material for staircases.


Staircase finishes complement the style and colouration of the home. Stair treads can be stained, painted or carpeted, either fully carpeted or laid with a runner down the centre. Safety is first and foremost in selecting finishing materials.

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