architect's glossary - balusters, pickets, spindles, posts & newels

Architect’s Glossary - balusters, pickets, spindles, newels

As often happens when working with clients, the usage of terms can be complicated. As an architect, I use these industry-specific terms everyday and I often forget that homeowners don’t necessarily know what I am talking about. There really is no reason why anyone who is not a carpenter or contractor would know, or maybe even care about, the difference between
”baluster” and “picket” or “spindle”. Unlike many other terms in the Architect’s Glossary, for these it doesn’t matter, they all mean the same thing - the vertical post-like part of a handrail or guardrail on a stair or floor opening. Sure, there are old-school carpenters that will be quick to point out that spindles are lathe-turned wood verticals, and pickets are square-shaped. But really, these terms are used so loosely, you can feel free to choose the one you want.

round “pool cue” balusters just installed on a traditional stair in South Boulder

round “pool cue” balusters just installed on a traditional stair in South Boulder

an antique newel post we are about to install on a traditional house

an antique newel post we are about to install on a traditional house

However, you should not mistake a baluster or spindle for a newel post. A newel post is the large supporting post at the beginnings or endings of rail sections, most often found on more traditional stairs. These posts often interrupt the smooth transitions of handrails and provide critical support to the especially the bottom end of a handrail or guardrail section. As you can imagine, without a fairly large and structurally stout post, the end of a rail would wobble and pull the adjacent handrail out of alignment - certainly not inspiring confidence in the safety of the stair.

The other traditional use of a newel post is inspired by childhood memories. Most newels are made up of a number of different pieces of wood, including an ornate cap section. Loosened, this cap usually reveals a small, hidden space perfect for holding cherished items or creepy doll heads and the random playing card.

Baluster, Newel drawing.jpg

Finally, just to close the circle on this, a balustrade is the rail used above a baluster. Or let’s just call this one a handrail.