“As you slide down the banister of life, may the splinters never point in the wrong direction,” says an old Irish blessing. As whimsical (or painful) as that sounds, it begs the question: What exactly is a banister? Believe it or not, it’s one of those common amenities that pull triple duty in your home.
In addition to being the best slide ever, a banister has both functional and decorative purposes. Functionally it serves as a handrail, with supporting posts on the staircase. Decoratively, it can add dramatic flair that complements your home’s aesthetic.
A conventional wood banister can cost $700 to $2,000 to install on a typical 25-foot staircase, but the costs can vary widely, depending on the materials used and labor required.
Stairway to heaven (with a banister to match)
Staircases come in various configurations, and the banister is typically designed to complement those designs. Consider the regal princess staircase, symmetrical sets of curved stairs that seem to demand a fine banister made of wrought iron or filigreed metal work. Standard staircases that go straight up and down typically feature a banister in matching wood or decorative metal. And spiral staircases—perfect for smaller homes and tight quarters where a traditional staircase would not fit—have a spiral banister to match.
“The options are abundant for materials and looks,” say Brian Kashas of Kashas Design Build in Camas, WA. He finds that modern homes are more likely to feature metal or iron banisters; one favored look is horizontal airplane wire with a metal rail and supports.
Photo by Feeney Inc.
Metal can be forged into any shape, so banisters that boast eye-catching details like vines, branches, or geometric shapes are popular in many homes.
Is your banister up to code?
While a banister can update the look of your home, its main purpose is to keep stair climbers safe. Building codes vary by location, but banisters typically need to be 30 to 38 inches tall, depending on whether there is a wall on one side. They also must be at a consistent grade in order to keep climbers from losing their grip. Your local building code will dictate the following:
- How much weight they need to support, typically around 200 pounds
- How close to the wall they can be
- How far out they can protrude onto the stairs so as not to impede the walking path
In addition, you’ll want to make sure that the balusters, the vertical posts that the handrail attaches to, are properly spaced. Code typically dictates that they be 4 to 5 inches apart, which is the optimum distance so that children can’t fall through or get their heads stuck between the railings.
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