A guide to alternative banisters

The banister is a simple feature of every home that is resolutely ignored when it comes to making interior design choices. It’s become the epitome of function over fashion: smooth, sturdy and subtle wood for our hands to run along as we endlessly go up and down stairs every day. Nothing more.

But stop mid-stairs and consider the banister: its unusual shape and central position make it a fertile canvas for the design orientated. From material to colour, to shape, to added functionality, the banister can be a space of creativity if only we start looking at it as one.

wooden stairs

Image source: Designed by Richard Goodstein nc2 architecture llc & photographed by Tom Sibley via Houzz

The banister is unique because it is incomplete: unlike a wall, the barrier is designed to be partially open and offer visibility. This can be achieved through slender wooden fingers, intricate metal work or the corporate sheen of glass. By holding onto and accentuating this transparency, the stairs become much more than just a middle ground between floors: a beautiful banister will turn stairs into their own liminal space.

Design your own banister

Designing a banister from scratch gives full freedom of expression. However, ideas will need to be tempered by consulting an architect. Banisters serve a purpose, protecting people from falling off landings and stairways, so they must be safe and practical. There are laws governing height, width of newels (the spokes connecting the handrail to the stairs) and construction, so consult local councils or an architect.

wooden staircase

Image source: Krásné Schody

However, laws will rarely stop a unique idea becoming reality. So start by choosing a material. Wood is by far the most common. While wood is certainly guilty of being the dull and de facto choice in most homes, a truly unique and beautiful piece of wood can make for a star banister. Accentuate a bespoke wooden piece by using another colour to prop it up, or even use another material. You could even upside down and hang the wood from the ceiling using metal and wires.

Better yet, do away with the concept of a handrail and newels altogether. A banister can be a small wall, either coming up from the stairs or down from the ceiling. Plywood is an excellent choice here, as it is cheap, light and sturdy. Remember though that light is important, so consider cutting in holes, patterns or a gap into the wood.

bikes under the stairs

Image source: Postgreen via Houzz

Solid wood banisters can match the wood used on the stairs to create a seamless, uniform stairway. Alternatively, material can be attached onto a base wooden wall. Varnished cork or chip wood particularly stand out.

Perhaps the best choice however, is to create a banister that also acts as shelving. Increasingly popular in modern homes, a bespoke shelving unit built into the stairway is a safe, practical and simply stunning focal point to the home.

white bookcase

Image source: Hanspeter Steiger via Architonic

Other materials can also be used for alternative banisters. Metal newels are possible in any design, be it personal motifs or artwork, and are more durable than wood in the long run. Glass is another option, though it does feel somewhat corporate and dated, not to mention it requires an immense amount of upkeep.

Read also: Floating staircase ideas

Use what you’ve got

Not everyone has the opportunity to commission a bespoke banister, of course. But there are ways of using what’s already there. Colour is the most obvious method: painting newels in differing colours, or simply a different colour from the handrail, immediately creates a striking piece. This is something so simple, but so unconsidered.

It’s best to keep paintwork on the subtle side, as colour shouldn’t be overbearing or garish. Consider, say, painting every third newel yellow, or even just one in a line-up of all white.

If adding colour is too much, try sanding down newels and handrails and whitewashing the wood to give a stripped back, Scandinavian look. This will stand out just as much as paintwork, while providing a gorgeous, woody feel when using the banister.

To create the perfect banister you may need a range of professionals to help. A carpenter perhaps or a builder for a more extensive refurbishment? Rated People can help you find the right people to complete the work for you. Simply fill out our form and receive up to three quotes for your project.

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3 comments

  1. I have the same thoughts on much of this material. I am glad I’m not the only person who thinks this way. You have really written an excellent quality article here. Thank you very much.

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