Staircase Know-How and Design Ideas

Planning a staircase update? Know your options and learn the lingo before you talk to a contractor or a designer.

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December 20, 2019

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Staircase Anatomy 101

Staircases — you probably use them every day, but do you know what all the parts and pieces are called? Find out before you call a pro or tackle a staircase update yourself. Building codes for staircases can vary greatly even in a small geographic area, so your design may be limited by your location. If you plan to DIY your staircase updates, find out the codes before you start. Check with a general contractor or a call a master codes professional in your municipality; they’ll likely send you documentation with all the code specifications.

Stringers: The Bare Bones

This very basic staircase illustrates how the stringers are the main framing component of a staircase. A typical staircase will have two to three stringers to hold the treads and risers. They are commonly made out of 2x12 boards and most often are not visible when the staircase is complete unless, of course, it's part of the design. The notches are a standard size so pre-cut stringers are readily available at lumberyards. Big-box hardware stores will carry stringers for outdoor decking.

I-Beam Stringer

Stringers can be hidden or be a big part of a staircase's design. This set of metal-beam stringers works beautifully with the architecture of this industrial-rustic home. Twin posts protrude up from the stringers to support the hefty wood treads.

From: Barley|Pfeiffer Architecture

A Very Brady Stringer

Here is another example of the staircase stringers being a prominent architectural feature of the home. The redux of this famous TV staircase is supported by two large stringers that match the wood finishes in the surrounding area. The stringers are not notched to hold the treads, instead, the tread supports are secured to the inside of the stringers.

A Very Brady Renovation

The "No Stringer" Floating Staircase

In this modern beach house, the staircase stringers were given an innovative new design. Instead of framing from underneath, the treads are held up by supports coming out of the wall. The supports are concealed within each tread to give the staircase a true floating effect.

Treads: Standard Sizes for Comfort and Safety

Most people call the part of the staircase that you walk on the steps, but in staircase terms, they're called treads or run. In typical home construction, treads are 1" thick x 11-1/4" deep. The vertical part of stairs in between each tread is called the riser; it is typically 7" tall. The tread usually overhangs the riser by 1-1/4". This standard ratio is what most all of us are used to; it allows us to walk up and down a staircase without conscious thought about how high to step.

Treads: What Sizes Can Vary?

If the treads are not fully covered in carpet, they're commonly made from hardwoods like red oak or maple because of their durability and beauty. The tread depth of 11-1/4" (10" + 1-1/4" overhang) doesn’t often vary; it is a comfortable size for even the biggest of feet. However, the thickness of the treads can vary as seen here on this modern-farmhouse-style staircase. Keep in mind, if the tread is thicker than the standard 1" size, it will affect the height between the treads (the rise). For example, if the tread is 3" thick, then the rise should be 5" instead of the typical 7" that goes with a 1" tread. This way the standard staircase ratio can be achieved for a comfortable stride.

Risers: An Opportunity for Design

Risers are typically made from 1x8 boards (3/4" x 7-1/4"), and they can be stained, painted or covered to match the style of the home. In this elegant entryway, the tile-covered risers are an integral part of this home's Southwest style. If tiling staircase risers seems a bit too ambitious for you, try wallpaper (the removable kind is so easy to use) or use a stencil to create a pattern. Sometimes just a fresh coat of paint can do wonders to scuffed-up risers.

Get More Staircase Painting Ideas: Staircase Design Ideas

No Risers Necessary

Risers can be a big part of a staircase's design or they can be non-existent. Modern architecture often implements staircases without risers to achieve an open-air, minimalistic look.

Newel Posts

Newel posts are the main support of the handrail system, installed at the intersecting points of the handrails. It is critical for the entire system that these are very sturdy so it's best to have them installed by a pro. Typically there are lag bolts or post bolts used to set them in place and then the holes are filled with wood plugs. In many older homes, a newel post at the base of a staircase can be a prominent architectural feature like this beautifully carved Eastlake-style post.

Newel Posts With Post-to-Post Railing

Newel posts and handrails can be set up in two different ways: post-to-post or over-the-post. Pictured above is a post-to-post configuration with the railing butting into each post a few inches below the top of the post.

Newel Posts With Railing on Top

In the over-the-post application, the handrail runs over the top of the posts. They’re usually put together with a special handrail fitting. This configuration can provide a cleaner, more modern look.


Handrails (aka – banister or balustrade) come in many shapes and sizes and can be made out of a variety of materials. No matter which style you go for, there are handrail standards and codes made for safety and comfort. Handrails should sit 34" to 38" above the front edge of the stair tread. Building codes normally dictate that they be 1-1/2" away from the wall so there’s enough clearance for a hand to grab onto it. The thickness of a handrail is 1-1/2" to 2-1/2".


Balusters, often called pickets, are the decorative pieces that fill the space between the newel posts. For safety reasons, most building codes dictate that the space between balusters has to be less than 4”; this is so that a small child cannot fit in between them. Depending on the balusters' thickness, you can sometimes use two per tread, but more often there will be three per tread like on this handsome traditional-style staircase.


A gooseneck is a handrail/banister fitting that is used to transition to a different height, usually at a landing. It is not just for aesthetic reasons; the vertical up-easing of the gooseneck allows the banister to flow continuously so the climber’s hand doesn’t have to leave the banister.


A skirtboard is an overlay for stringers that runs up the rake of the stairs against the wall. It's an aesthetic addition that covers the gaps where the risers and treads meet the wall. A skirtboard is typically a 1x12 board and can be on the interior or exterior of the staircase. When it’s on the interior (like the lower portion of this staircase), the treads will butt up against the skirtboard. If the skirtboard is on the exterior (like the upper portion of this staircase), the treads will overhang the skirtboard.

Straight Skirtboard

Exterior skirtboards are often notched to mimic the shape of the stairs. But for a cleaner look, the skirtboard can be run straight without the notches for each tread.

Skirtboard Brackets

In older homes, skirtboards are often adorned with ornate brackets underneath each tread. If you're looking to update a foyer or hallway, you can buy these brackets premade in a variety of design styles, and attaching them onto a skirtboard is a fairly simple DIY.


A volute in staircase terminology is a spiraled handrail starting point. The handrail begins at the starter step and twirls around with multiple balusters underneath. This grand twin staircase boasts two matching volutes.

Curtail Step

A starter step that is curved outward is often called a curtail step. It is typically used to hold a volute railing system but can be a standalone like on this grand-old 1916 staircase. A rounded starter step can be handmade by a pro; crafting the curved wood riser does take extra time and expert carpentry skills so it’s not really a DIY project. If you are replacing all of your treads, you may be able to order a pre-made curtail step as part of a staircase kit.

How Much Space Does a Staircase Take Up?

Naturally, this will be dictated by the height between floors. The taller it is, the more space it needs. Stairs are typically built with an approximate rise of 7" and run of 10" with the tread being 11-1/4” (1-1/4” overhang). Here’s an example to help you figure it out. If your ceiling height is 8', add an additional foot for the floor framing, so you have 9' (108”) from finish floor to finish floor. Divide 108” by 7” and you get about 15 treads or steps. Next, multiply 15 by 10” to get 150”, divide that by 12” and you know the staircase will extend out from the wall approximately 12’6”.

From Carpet to Wood

If you’ve got a staircase that has always been fully covered in carpeting (not just a runner), and you want to transform it to finished wood, it may not be as simple as just tearing up the carpet. A typical fully carpeted staircase is made with rough framing materials and then covered in carpet. You will most likely have to change out the treads and risers because those rough materials are not meant to be painted or stained.

From: Houlihan Lawrence and Luxury Portfolio International®

Landing With Only Right Angles

If your staircase makes a full 180-degree turn, you have a couple of options. The most common, easiest-to-build design incorporates one or two square or rectangular landings to change the direction until you reach the top.

Landing With Varied Angles

When it came to changing direction, this staircase took an organic approach and maneuvered the corners with various angled treads with just a small landing in between.

Unique Design Feature: Built-In Bookshelves

Illuminated display shelves extend from the treads making smart use of the extra space on this already wide-enough staircase.

Unique Design Feature: Step Table

The bottom three treads on this staircase turn the corner and morph into a console table in the foyer.

Unique Design Feature: Riser Storage

Drawers were built into the risers of this staircase to offer storage for everyday items like linens, blankets and cold-weather accessories.

Unique Design Feature: Glowing Risers

Rope lights strung at the base of each riser emphasizes the staircase's beautiful wood treads, plus the lighting gives off a convenient glow for those midnight trips to the kitchen.

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