What is a Baluster? What Is a Balustrade?

The Baluster Shape Becomes an Architectural Balustrade

St. Peter's Square, Vatican City, Vatican, seen through the Balustrade atop the Basilica
St. Peter's Square, Vatican City, Vatican, seen through the Balustrade atop the Basilica. Photo by Elisabetta Villa/Getty Images News/Getty Images

A baluster has come to be known as any vertical brace (often a decorative post) between an upper and lower horizontal railing. The purposes of the baluster (pronounced BAL-us-ter) include safety, support, and beauty. Staircases and porches often have rails of balusters called balustrades.  A balustrade is a row of repeating balusters, similar to a colonnade being a row of columns. What we call a balustrade today is historically a decorative extension of the Classical Greek colonnade on a smaller scale.

The "invention" of the balustrade is generally thought to be a feature of Renaissance architecture. One example is the balustrade of the 16th century Basilica St. Peters at the Vatican.

Today's balusters are constructed of wood, stone, concrete, plaster, cast iron or other metal, glass, and plastics. Balusters can be rectangular or turned (i.e., shaped on a lathe). Today any decorative patterned grille or cutout (patterned after the Roman lattice) between railings are referred to as balusters. Balusters as architectural details are found in homes, mansions, and public buildings, inside and outside.

The Baluster Shape:

Balustrade (pronounced BAL-us-trade) has come to mean any series of vertical bracings between rails, including spindles and simple posts. The word itself reveals a certain design intention. Baluster is really a shape, coming from the Greek and Latin words for a wild pomegranate flower.

Pomegranates are ancient fruits indigenous to the Mediterranean, Middle East, India, and Asia, which is why you find the baluster shape in these areas of the world. Having hundreds of seeds, pomegranates also have long been symbols of fertility, so when ancient civilizations decorated their architecture with objects from nature (e.g., the top of a Corinthian column is decorated with acanthus leaves), the shapely baluster was a good decorative choice.

What we call the baluster shape was depicted in pottery and jugs and wall carving in many parts of the world from the earliest civilizations—the potter's wheel was invented around 3,500 BC, so wheel-turned shapely water jugs and baluster vases were more easily produced—but the baluster was not used in architecture until thousands of years later, during the Renaissance. After the Middle Ages, from roughly 1300 until 1600, a new interest in Classical design was reborn, including the baluster design. Architects like Vignola, Michelangelo, and Palladio incorporated the baluster design into Renaissance architecture, and today balusters and balustrades are considered the architectural detail itself. In fact, our common word banister is a "corruption" or mispronunciation of baluster.

Preservation of Balustrades:

Exterior balustrades are obviously more susceptible to decay and deterioration than interior balustrades. Proper design, manufacturing, installation, and regular maintenance are keys to their preservation.

The US General Services Administration (GSA) defines balustrade by its components, consisting of "the handrail, footrail and balusters. The handrail and footrail are joined at the ends to a column or post.

 The balusters are vertical members that connect the rails." Wooden balustrades are subject to deterioration for a number of reasons, including exposed end grain from the manufacturing process and butt joints that are prone to moisture. Regular inspection and maintenance of a well-designed balustrade are the keys to continued care and preservation. "A wooden balustrade in proper condition is rigid and free from decay," the GSA reminds us. "It is designed with sloping surfaces to repel water and has properly caulked, tight joints."

Exterior cast stone (i.e., concrete) balusters will have moisture problems if not designed and installed properly and if not routinely inspected. Balusters come in many shapes and sizes, and the quality of construction and thickness of the baluster's "neck" may affect its integrity.

"The variables involved in manufacture are considerable, and it is wise to use a firm with experience in ornamental and custom work rather than a precast concrete firm which manufactures stock structural items," suggests preservationist Richard Pieper.

The Case for Preservation:

So, why preserve balustrades in public buildings or on your own home? Why not just cover them up, encase them in metal or plastic and protect them from environmental hazards? "Balustrades and railings are not only practical and safety features," write preservationist John Leeke and architectural historian Aleca Sullivan, "they typically are highly visible decorative elements. Unfortunately, balustrades and balusters are frequently altered, covered, removed or completely replaced even though in most cases they can be repaired in a cost-effective manner."

Routine cleaning, patching, and painting will preserve all kinds of balustrades. Replacement should be a last resort only. "To preserve historic fabric, the repair of old balustrades and railings is always the preferred approach," Leeke and Sullivan remind us. "A broken baluster usually is one in need of repair, not replacement."

Sources: Baluster, Illustrated Architecture Dictionary, Buffalo Architecture and History; Classical Comments: Balusters by Calder Loth, Senior Architectural Historian for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources; Securing An Exterior Wooden Balustrade, U.S. General Services Administration, November 5, 2014; Removing And Replacing Deteriorated Cast Stone Balusters, U.S. General Services Administration, December 23, 2014; Preserving Historic Wood Porches by Aleca Sullivan and John Leeke, National Park Service, October 2006; The Maintenance, Repair and Replacement of Historic Cast Stone by Richard Pieper, National Park Service, September 2001 [accessed December 18, 2016]

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Craven, Jackie. "What is a Baluster? What Is a Balustrade?" ThoughtCo, Jul. 8, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-balustrade-baluster-177499. Craven, Jackie. (2017, July 8). What is a Baluster? What Is a Balustrade? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-balustrade-baluster-177499 Craven, Jackie. "What is a Baluster? What Is a Balustrade?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-balustrade-baluster-177499 (accessed November 18, 2017).