stairway
Kolin Smith
Despite appearances, the pillars between the treads and banister on a staircase are not there for support. Usually spaced about 4 inches apart, balusters protect people — mostly small people — from tumbling off the side of the staircase. A loose or broken baluster won't jeopardize the whole railing, but fixing it properly is a good idea for the sake of children and pets, not to mention aesthetics.

On a 1-to-10 scale of home-improvement challenges, baluster replacement rates about a 4. The first step is to remove a baluster that's intact and take it to a woodturner to copy. When it comes to demolition projects, pulling out the broken pieces of a baluster has to rank as one of the fastest and tidiest. A baluster is attached with little more than a mortise and tenon rig at the bottom and a couple of nails at the rail. (Don't be alarmed if you find as many as five nails — maybe your predecessors were slightly compulsive.) Getting a prototype out in one piece often requires you to remove the return on the end of the tread. To do this, rake a putty knife through the seam between the return and the tread to break any seal, then insert a small cat's-paw and wiggle the return loose. If the tenon is thicker than the mortise path, carefully chisel a larger hole. A less taxing but potentially more damaging method is to simply whack the upper portion of the spindle with a dead-blow hammer to loosen the nails and then ease out the baluster. David Raymond, a carpenter who is based in Fairfield, Connecticut, suggests using a piece of scrap wood to reach narrowly spaced balusters, resting the wood against the spindle and then striking it with a mallet.

When you send the prototypes off to the turner, have extras made. You may need them later. As This Old House contractor Tom Silva half-jokingly points out, many things besides careening furniture and roughhousing kids can break a baluster: "an ax, a baseball bat, a saw..." When you go over the specifications with the turner, be sure to note the species of wood you want (the harder the better). There are usually two or three balusters per riser, each a different length, so send samples of the appropriate sizes. Also, request that the ends of spindles be left long. Although it makes more work, trimming balusters yourself reduces the chances of ending up with a misfit.

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