Replacing a Balustrade
Tired of that generic newel post? Have a balustrade that doesn't fit your home's style? It's easy to transform the look of your stair — and your whole house — while leaving the basic staircase intact. Stock parts are available at lumberyards and home stores, but for the truly luxe, handcrafted look of the examples shown here, you'll need to hire a custom stair builder. Here are a few things to know before you commission a balustrade:

Hiring. To find the best professional, get a referral—from a reputable general contractor, a trusted architect, or a friend.

Designing. Before you meet with the builder, earmark designs you like in magazines and books. Also, remember to check local codes. Some will allow you to replicate an original rail, while others will require you to build to code—handrail 34 to 38 inches high and balusters spaced to block a 4-inch sphere (i.e., a baby's head).

Pricing. Have the builder come by and measure, then give you a written estimate, including the cost of materials and an hourly labor rate—usually comparable to that of an auto mechanic. Consider whether the stair will be stained or painted. Paintable parts, made from poplar or beech, are about $4 cheaper per baluster than the mahogany, oak, or maple used for stained railings.

Timing. A custom job takes two to seven weeks from design to finish. Figure two weeks to mill simple parts, five to six weeks for hand-carved work. Expect installation to take anywhere from two days to a week. The simplest projects use existing holes for new balusters, but if you are changing hole locations, the builder will have to spend some time plugging the old ones or replacing the treads.

Finishing. Balustrades are typically installed without paint or stain, so expect to hire a painter or finish them yourself.
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