Last Updated: January 29, 2020
So you’ve decided to build a new railing or upgrade an existing railing outside of your home. Congratulations – you’re taking a major step in improving your home’s curb appeal. As you begin the process of building your own rail, you’ll need to know the various components of a railing system: the posts, the shims, the spindles, and the balusters, for example. But what is a baluster? These key railing components play an important role in your railing’s durability and aesthetic. They also play an interesting role in the history of architectural design.
What Is a Baluster?
Take a look at the picture of the railing above. Balusters are the vertical, vase-like posts or legs on the railing. When placed on a balcony, porch, or terrace, balusters are typically composed of a variety of decorative materials including wood, iron, and stone. A collection of several balusters spaced evenly is a balustrade – essentially, a decorative railing supported by baluster posts.
Balusters aren’t the same thing as banisters, which are the supports on a stairway. However, you might hear the terms “baluster” and “spindle” used interchangeably – and in fact, balusters and spindles are the exact same thing.
Confused about the origin of the word “baluster?” Oddly enough, it comes from the Latin word balausta, which refers to a wild pomegranate flower. If you look at a traditional baluster, the pillars sometimes resemble the curve of the flower’s calyx tube. Interesting, right?
The Purpose of Balusters
Balusters are more than just attractive aesthetic additions to railings. They serve several purposes within a railing’s overall structure. First, balusters support the handrail. Balusters also close the gaps between posts, acting as safety features by eliminating excess space through which someone could fall. Finally – and most obviously – balusters provide additional style and structural flair for your railing. Balusters offer a wide variety of aesthetic possibilities, which is great news if you’re looking to overhaul the exterior of your home.
The History of Balusters
Balusters have served important structural and aesthetic functions for generations of architects. One of the earliest known uses of balusters occurred during China’s early and dynastic periods. At that time, architects used prominent terraces to support buildings, and the terraces frequently featured balustrades. By the tenth century, Chinese architects used both marble and wooden balustrades in private residential gardens. These stylish touches often featured designs like birds, pomegranates, and lotus flowers. Classical stone balustrades became popular elsewhere in the world starting in the Renaissance period.
Choosing a Baluster Style
Today’s balusters come in countless styles and shapes, although most of them follow a fairly uniform set of design standards. More elaborate balusters might resemble stacked vases, while others might take on an attractive double helix shape.
Balusters are also available in a wide variety of materials, although wood and metal balusters tend to be the most popular. Other options include stone, concrete, plaster, iron, and plastic, as well as popular materials like aluminum and vinyl. Wood balusters tend to take on a more classic appearance and are typically divided into either Rustic, Craftsman, Traditional, or Contemporary styles. On the other hand, iron balusters are more versatile, making them an excellent choice for adventurous homeowners looking for modern or creative applications.
Not sure where to start? Look at the style of your home for inspiration. If your home has a Mission-inspired aesthetic, you’ll want different balusters than, say, a Victorian home.
Shopping for Balusters
When you’re shopping for your railing system, selecting the balusters is one of the most important aesthetic decisions you’ll make. If you’re not sure which kind of baluster to use, consider aluminum or vinyl. These durable, long-lasting, and low-maintenance materials will maintain their appearance and function for years. If you can’t make up your mind, you can also mix and match different railing and baluster styles and materials. For example, you can go with a mix of Mission-inspired and traditional balusters or wood and iron balusters.
Keep in mind that, while you might want to place balusters far apart to save money or create a certain look, this diminishes the safety of your railing. More importantly, it doesn’t comply with the building codes that dictate how your railing may be structured. In the United States, balusters may only be spaced 4 inches apart or less. If you aren’t sure what that means exactly, here is a classic rule of thumb: a ball with a diameter of 4 inches should barely be able to fit between the balusters. If that distance (4 inches) seems arbitrary, note that it is meant to reflect the average diameter of a baby’s head. Any parents out there can likely attest that small children enjoy experimenting with their surroundings and so may be tempted to stick their heads between balusters. The 4-inch spacing rule for balusters was designed to prevent curious children from slipping through railings or getting their heads lodged between balusters.
Because balusters must be no more than 4 inches apart to meet code, you should plan to install at least 3 balusters for every foot of railing. To ensure that your railing is safe and up to code, work with a contractor or a fence installation expert to determine the best baluster option for your home.
Dating all the way back to ancient China, balusters serve an important purpose when it comes to your railing’s safety and aesthetic value. With a wide variety of available materials and easy do-it-yourself installation, switching up your home’s balusters is an easy way to increase your curb appeal. You can even mix and match colors and styles for a more creative look.
If you’re ready to build your own railing or overhaul your home’s current railing system, it’s crucial to understand the different parts of a railing. Now that you know what a baluster is, are you ready to get started? If you’re interested in purchasing a new railing, do yourself a favor and check out MMC Fencing & Railing. In our online shop, we sell aluminum and vinyl railings in a variety of styles and colors. No matter what you’re looking for and no matter how large or small your budget, you’re sure to find something beautiful. Give us a call at 1-866-931-5002 to get started.