Balusters are vertical, vase-like posts or legs on railings that may be made of carved stone, cast stone, plaster, plastics, precast concrete, wood, or wrought iron. A balustrade consists of several balusters spaced evenly and connected to form a decorative railing supported by baluster posts, post caps, and decorative finials. Modern glass balustrades do not have vertical supports, using a plate of glass as the support of the railing (or rail-free).
To simplify, a baluster is a single leg, spindle, or post. A set of balusters is several posts. And a balustrade is all of those posts joined together as a unit with a railing. It can be used indoors or outdoors, for staircases, porches, terraces, balconies, and decorative structures.
Balusters and balustrades first appeared between the 13th and 7th centuries BC and can be found in ancient bas-reliefs or sculptural murals depicting Assyrian palaces. The terraces of buildings in ancient China featured balustrades, and by the 10th century, you could find both marble and wooden balustrades in private gardens. From the Renaissance onward, classical stone balustrades were popular and still used in modern-day architecture.
Balustrade vs. Banister
A baluster-style railing or banister is one of the most popular railings used for staircases. The banister commonly refers to the handrail part. A banister is held up by a system of balusters, collectively known as the balustrade.
The shape of a baluster usually blends with the architectural style of a house or outdoor building and can range from plain and smooth to something that is highly ornamental. Balusters are essential for several reasons. They support the handrail, prevent falling by closing the gaps between posts, and provide additional style and structural flair for your railing. Balusters offer a wide variety of aesthetic possibilities.
Balusters can be round, square, flat, rectangular, and a variety of custom-designed shapes, such as vase-like, Grecian columns, or rolled wood. They can even appear as simple spindles and simple posts. The material used to make them usually have unique styles associated with them. Wood balusters tend to take on a more classic appearance and are typically divided into styles, such as rustic, Craftsman, traditional, or contemporary. Iron balusters are versatile, coming in twisted iron, scrolls, and decorative motifs.
In ancient China, the tops, or heads, of balusters from this period were detailed, depicting motifs of dragons or flying phoenixes flying amid clouds. Others featured pomegranates and lotus flowers, which you could also find in the gardens. During the Renaissance, balusters had short stems with an abacus (square slab), a base, and either one or two bulbs with rings, along with concave (cavetto) and convex (ovolo) moldings in between.
What Does a Balustrade Do?
A balustrade system is more detailed and ornate than a simple porch railing. It's something you'd expect to see at a plantation house or Italian villa. They add historic charm, classic elegance, and an element of grandeur. While beautiful, it's also functional. A balustrade helps prevent people, small children, and pets from falling off the porch.
Building codes dictate how a balustrade must be structured. In the United States, balusters may only be spaced 4 inches apart or less. The distance of 4 inches may seem arbitrary, but it's not; it reflects the average diameter of a baby's head. The 4-inch spacing rule for balusters was designed to prevent curious children from slipping through railings or getting their heads lodged between balusters.
A balustrade can also improve your home's property value and add to the security of your home. A design with closely spaced balusters can prevent coyotes, raccoons, and other pests from getting into a space; it also acts as a deterrent to thieves. On particularly windy days, a balustrade system can also help to keep the items on your front porch or deck from flying off, including umbrellas, cushions, toys, flowerpots, grills, or fire pits.