Stairs & wood handrail types

Written by alane michaelson
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Stairs & wood handrail types
A box stair with a colonial oak railing. (stairs image by Dmitry Nikolaev from

When it comes time to build or renovate a home, it is necessary to consider what types of stairs and handrails are appropriate. More than just a means of moving from one floor to another, the choice of stairs and rail types will have a dramatic effect on the look of a home.

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Box Stairs

Box stairs are among the very simplest of stairs. A box stair is built between two stringers in a way that hides the edges of the treads and risers. This type of stair is generally inexpensive to build and can be easily pre-assembled before being delivered to a job site. Because box stairs are often constructed from less-expensive types of wood, they are normally carpeted.

Open Stairs

Open stairs are similar to box stairs, but the stringers are cut in a way that allow the edges of the treads to be visible. The treads are generally extended a bit beyond the stringers, and have a mitre return. An open stair creates a dressier look than a more simple box stair does. Open stairs are often constructed from high-quality lumber, as these types of stairs are most often left bare or only carpeted in the centre, exposing much of the wood.

Direction-Changing Stairs

Some circumstances, such as a lack of space, may make it necessary to use a stair that changes direction. There are a few types of stairs that can be used int these situation.

A return stair has a landing at its half way point, and then reverses direction the rest of the way down. An L-stair is similar to a return stair, but the stair continues at a 90-degree angle from the landing. Winders are very similar to an L-stair, but the landing is replaced by several wedge-shaped treads, allowing for a more gradual descent.


Handrails can be divided into two categories: colonial oak and contemporary. Colonial oak railings are more traditional in appearance, featuring ornamental rails and banisters, of which a large variety exists. When used with a box stair, banisters attach the railing to the top the stringer. For an open stair, the banisters would attach directly to the treads.

Contemporary railings are much simpler in design and lack the ornamentation of a colonial oak railing. The banisters of this type of railing tend to be attached to the outside of the stringers.

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