The Staircase - A Historical Perspective

Staircases and Stair Parts throughout the Years

Stairs and staircases are one of the most revered and most maligned building feature of the home. There are few architectural design elements that are as important from the stance of aesthetic and functional necessity in two story construction. Stair cases have changed significantly over the past century both in how they are produced and the component parts that make them. One thing is for certain, as land becomes a more valuable commodity homes will continue to seek elevation for space.

Vintage Staircase

A hundred years ago, stairs and railings were built on site. As a home was constructed, handrails and balusters were carved at the home by a craftsman. The workmanship was unmatched by comparison as they simply made every aspect by hand. With the dawn of the industrial revolution, these processes were automated. Lathes and woodworking tools were born and efficiencies were gained that modernized the process. Still, the stair builder was an artist whose easel was complex geometry and vision for creative solutions.

With the advent of stair part companies that focused on just making turnings for stairs, the options began to expand and broad offerings now exist. It became evident that what was needed were systems of stair parts that would work together to aid in the decision making process. These systems have evolved, and new products like iron balusters and cable rail have been introduced. With time, design elements, open floor plans, and changes regarding safe stair construction has evolved. The one thing that stands true is that stairs will always be a strong architectural element to the home.

How are Stairs Built?

The stair has always been about getting from point A (floor 1) to point B (floor 2) with the most common elements taken from finished floor to finished floor dimension. What has changed in the past 20 years are the safety aspects of what constitutes a “safe” stair. Everyone has walked down a narrow staircase or one that is too tall. Walking down the stairs became treacherous and is a safety concern. Safe standards are set to determine rise height and run depth. What is rise and run?

So, back to the finished floor to finished floor (the height from the top of your flooring on the first floor to the top of the flooring on your second floor. What we need is a calculation determining the rise (vertical dimension) and run (horizontal dimension). For example, if the finished floor to finished floor dimension is 105” and the total run dimension (the total horizontal dimension you have, or the total distance of the stair) is 130” you can determine how many treads and risers you will need. The important variable here is to know what the largest stepping height is that is allowed by code.

For the sake of argument, we will say it is 7-3/4” (check your codes – this is for example only). If you take the total finished floor rise of 105” and divide that by 7-3/4” you get 13.54. Round up and you have 14 risers. It you then take the total rise of 105” and divide by 14 (number of risers) you determine your rise height is 7-1/2”. Now we can talk treads. You always have one less tread than riser, so in this case you will have 13 treads. If your total run is 130” and you have 13 treads your run is 10”. You have now determined your rise is 7-1/2” and your run is 10”. Easy, right?

It is all about geometry! Why is this important, you might ask? The most challenging part of the staircase becomes the railing. Cutting the correct angles on the rail, determining post height, and many more questions lie ahead. Then introduce a stair parts company and parts are then made with standardized sizes turning and posts for sale and suddenly the installer doesn’t have to MAKE all if his/her own parts. This saves time and money.

Now will we always have the right part for the right application, right? Probably not. Every house is different and it is nearly impossible to address all of the nuances that come with stairs. That again is where your trusted stair installer comes into play. We will streamline the process and make it easier along the way. If you are looking for more in depth information on any of these subjects, check out the Fitts Stair Installation Instruction Manual.

Rail Height

The other big concern with stair construction deals with handrails and handrail heights. Most areas will set a minimum height requirement which dictates the rail height on the rake (going up the stair) and the balcony (flat level areas). This will determine the height for your newels, as well as your baluster height requirements. It is also important to determine what the “sphere rule” is with baluster placement. Most areas will mandate that the spacing of a baluster should not allow the passage of a 4” spherical object anywhere on the staircase. This will provide information on how many balusters will be needed and let you know the spacing required. Handrail height is taken from the top of the finished surface to the top of the handrail.

Stair Building Suggestions & Selection of the Right Parts

The thing to first consider with any stair projects is the building codes in your area. You must make sure that your stair will pass code. As for the parts selection, we always advise you to choose what you like, keeping in mind that it is important not to rely too heavily on design trends and to try to stay true to the architecture of the home. We always suggest trying not to date the home by aiming for a timeless aesthetic. Most things will have decade design shifts that re-appear “in vogue.” The main thing that we suggest is to buy quality materials. There are many options for stair products and many companies that produce stair parts. Make sure it is the right “Fitts” for you.

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