A baluster—also called stair stick—is a moulded shaft, square or of lathe-turned form, cut from a rectangular or square plank, one of various forms of spindle in woodwork, made of stone or wood and sometimes of metal standing on a unifying footing, and supporting the coping of a parapet or the handrail of a staircase.
Multiplied in this way, they form a balustrade. Individually, a baluster shaft may describe the turned form taken by a brass or silver candlestick, an upright furniture support, or the stem of a brass chandelier, etc.
The baluster, being a turned structure, tends to follow design precedents that were set in woodworking and ceramic practices, where the turner's lathe and the potter's wheel are ancient tools. The profile a baluster takes is often diagnostic of a particular style of architecture or furniture, and may offer a rough guide to date of a design, though not of a particular example.
Some complicated Mannerist baluster forms can be read as a vase set upon another vase. The high shoulders and bold, rhythmic shapes of the Baroque vase and baluster forms are distinctly different from the sober baluster forms of Neoclassicism, which look to other precedents, like Greek amphoras. The distinctive twist-turned designs of balusters in oak and walnut English and Dutch seventeenth-century furniture, which took as their prototype the Solomonic column that was given prominence by Bernini, fell out of style after the 1710s.
Once it had been taken from the lathe, a turned wood baluster could be split and applied to an architectural surface, or to one in which architectonic themes were more freely treated, as on cabinets made in Italy, Spain and Northern Europe from the sixteenth through the seventeenth centuries. Modern baluster design is also in use for example in designs influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement in a 1905 row of houses in Etchingham Park Road Finchley London England.
Outside Europe, the baluster column appeared as a new motif in Mughal architecture, introduced in Shah Jahan's interventions in two of the three great fortress-palaces, the Red Fort of Agra and Delhi, in the early seventeenth century. Foliate baluster columns with naturalistic foliate capitals, unexampled in previous Indo-Islamic architecture according to Ebba Koch, rapidly became one of the most widely used forms of supporting shaft in Northern and Central India in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The modern term baluster shaft is applied to the shaft dividing a window in Saxon architecture. In the south transept of the Abbey in St Albans, England, are some of these shafts, supposed to have been taken from the old Saxon church. Norman bases and capitals have been added, together with plain cylindrical Norman shafts.
Balusters are normally separated by at least the same measurement as the size of the square bottom section. Placing balusters too far apart (to save money) diminishes their aesthetic appeal. Balustrades normally terminate in columns, building walls or more properly in heavy newel posts because otherwise they will not be structurally strong enough.
Balusters may be formed in several ways. Wood and stone can be shaped on the lathe, wood can be cut from square or rectangular section boards, while concrete, plaster, iron, and plastics are usually formed by molding and casting. Turned patterns or old examples are used for the molds.
A balustrade is a row of repeating balusters- small posts that support the upper rail of a railing. Staircases and porches often have balustrades. Having said that, when a small amount of balustrade is used to make a decorative feature out of the main entrance of even a quite ordinary home, balustrade can add that extra bit of class to what may have been a quite normal doorway. It adds a degree of character that perhaps was missing in the original design.