Upgrading to Iron Balusters
Having seen many homes with iron balusters on the their stairways, we decided that our original wooden balusters needed an upgrade. We didn’t know how to do it, so we priced around. To have someone do this project for us was going to cost $10,000. We liked the look of iron balusters but $10,000 was much more than we wanted to pay for replacing 150 balusters. Thank God for the internet!
(A completed section of iron balusters)
We priced around and found that iron baluster were readily available and not that intimidating to install. As an added bonus, I got to buy some new tools
Before you get started
The first thing we did was pick a design! Many sites have a design tool which allows you to see the balusters you want assembled in different patterns. We played around with many different patterns until we found two or three that we liked and then ordered enough balusters to make two of each pattern. In other words, if you like a repeating pattern of two single twist balusters and a large scroll and another repeating pattern of two double twist balusters and a small scroll, then buy enough balusters to make the two patterns twice (4 single twists, 2 large scrolls, 4 double twists and 2 small scrolls – 12 pieces).
Note: Keep in mind when ordering balusters, they are heavy and tend to get knocked around during shipping.
When the balusters arrive, we used pieces of wire to twist tie them to some of our existing balusters to see how the patterns looked. We left them there for a few days to see which pattern looked the best. Please use caution here! Iron balusters can be heavy and dropping one on your floor or your foot will leave a dent!
Grab a piece of paper and a pencil (not a pen)!
Once we selected your pattern, it was time to calculate how many pieces of this and that was needed. But it wasn’t as easy as it seemed. We had to plan each section of railing to see how the new balusters would look when they are installed. We didn’t want to start one section with two double twists but end with a small scroll next to a wall or post. So we had to consider how all of the sections were going to be laid out and individually count the balusters needed.
But don’t forget the shoes! Shoes are the top and bottom pieces that cover the holes in the railing that the balusters fit into. We had a fun time with this because there are flat shoes for level surfaces and angled shoes for the stairs themselves. Here again, we had to count the shoes needed for each baluster individually.
Note: When calculating the number of balusters you will need, don’t include the ones that you ordered previously. You will need these for practice cuts.
Placing the order
The first rule to remember when ordering balusters has to be “Order Extra!!“. The second rule is “Have it shipped on a pallet!“. We found out about both rules the hard way and we hope to spare you the inconvenience of waiting 3 months for parts to be shipped from China by boat (Yes, America ships the steel to China for them to turn it into balusters and then be shipped back to America…crazy).
The two rules kinda go together. If you don’t ship the balusters on a pallet, they will beat against each other in shipping and the paint will chip. When they arrive, you will have balusters that look like they have been chewed by a pet. And if you didn’t order extra, you will when you order more to replace the chipped ones.
The third rule is “Buy everything in one big order!“. Dealers change vendors and/or styles change even between production runs from the same manufacturer. Buying everything at one time lessens the chance of you getting balusters that are slightly different in color or shape.
Next, find a good dealer and work with them, they can make recommendations to help you out and take care of you when goods arrive damaged (and trust me they will…did I say they were heavy?). Matt Natoli from Lighted Landings was great to work with and even helped us out on special orders.
When you place the order, you are going to need following:
- iron balusters (get about 10% more than you think you need)
- shoes for the top and bottom of each baluster (add about 10% more)
- glue/epoxy 50ml cartridges (we could glue about 12 balusters on one cartridge)
- glue gun (get one that is made for the epoxy cartridges)
Note: We found that there are two sizes of flat shoes for 1/2″ balusters, 1-1/4″ square and 1-1/2″ square. Our railings were 1-1/2″ wide on the bottom, so we chose to go with the 1-1/4″ shoes. If we were off a little, we didn’t want the shoe sticking out beyond the railing. The only angled shoes we found were 1-1/4″ wide.
Christmas comes early
When the order arrives, it will come on an 18 wheeler or large flat bed truck so have someone there to help you unload it! Next, do an inventory! Check to make sure everything arrived and that it is in good condition. If something is missing or damaged, you can continue to work while the replacements are being shipped to you.
(Here are a couple views of the railings during the process. By doing a section or so at a time, we were able to spend as little or as much time as we wanted over a weekend without the place being destroyed.)
Let the carnage begin
Now the fun begins! You need to get the old balusters out. We used a jigsaw with a course wood blade to cut the balusters in half but you could use a hand saw. Just remember, there will be a lot of saw dust…put down tarps and have a vacuum cleaner handy.
Once cut in half, the old balusters can be removed by twisting and pulling them free of the railings. Be sure to remove all the old nails and/or glue used to hold them in place, the new balusters will need the room.
Most documentation recommends that you cut 5/8″ diameter holes for 1/2″ iron balusters with a minimum depth of 1-1/4″ for the railing and a maximum depth of 5/8″ in the flooring. Our railings had 5/8″ diameter, 1-1/8″ deep holes in them and the flooring had 7/8″ diameter holes but were anywhere from 3/4″ to 1-1/4″ deep (way too deep).
(A bottom hole from the previous wooden balusters. Note the lack of stain and the paint from the previous baluster. You can sand and restain this area but before doing that, check to see if the shoe will cover it for you.)
Time to Slice and Dice
Here is were those spare balusters came in handy. We measured the distance from the bottom of the railing to the top of flooring and added 1-3/8″ like all the documentation we found told us to do. Unfortunately, we couldn’t even begin to get the baluster started. Next, we shortened the cut but when we got the baluster in the railing and lowered it into the flooring, it fell out of the railing. The solution we were given by others was to make the holes in the railings bigger. This really didn’t make us happy, we wanted to use the existing holes in the railing to avoid splitting or ripping the wood (we did not want to risk replacing a railing!). Time for more cutting.
(A small scroll clamped and ready to measure and cut. Note the rubber padded clamps and several layers of painter’s tape wrapped around the sawhorses to help reduce damage to the baluster’s finish during cutting.)
(A portable band saw cutting a baluster. Note the painter’s tape used to mark the cut. Always place the tape on the inside of the cut.)
After several attempts and a few destroyed balusters. we came upon the right combination. We trimmed 1/4″ off the top (rounded end) and only added 1″ to the overall length of the baluster. This allowed them to be inserted just fine but we still had an issue with them going too deep into the hole in the flooring.
(The top of an iron baluster has a rounded end. Here one is trimmed to aid in insertion.)
As we mentioned above, the holes in our flooring varied quite a bit. What we needed to do was make the holes all the same depth. This issue was solved by using the old wood balusters and cutting little plugs from the narrow, rounded part of them (or you could go buy new wooden dowels and cut them up). We measured the depth of the holes and then used a saw to cut pieces off of the wooden balusters. Next, we dropping them into the holes in the flooring to bring the hole depth between 3/8″ and 1/2″ (Note: if you drop a plug into the hole and it turns sideways or you need to get it out, press the sticky side of a piece of painter’s tape into the hole and pull the plug out).
Let’s make a sticky mess
After cutting the balusters, inserting them one by one into the section we were working on and verifying that all looked right, we removed them again to add the shoes. One at a time, we removed the balusters to put the top and bottom shoes on them. The top shoe doesn’t really require any attention but you need to suspend the bottom shoe above the hole so that the glue will not stick to it. Here we used more painter’s tape.
Note: Each shoe has a set screw to hold it in place. Be sure to decide which side of the baluster you want the set screw to be on before putting the shoe on the baluster.
Note: Before putting the shoes on the balusters, use a hex wrench to turn the set screws in and out again. We found that several of the shoes came with set screws that were either very hard to turn or couldn’t be turned at all. Better to find out now than after they are in place!!!
(Shoes at the bottom of the balusters being held in place with painter’s tape while the epoxy dries.)
To glue the balusters, we first applied epoxy in the hole in the railing and inserted the baluster. Next we applied epoxy to the hole in the flooring and lowered the baluster into the hole. The epoxy sets in about 3-4 hours. By sure all your balusters are properly aligned before the epoxy sets or you will have a BIG problem.
Note: Not all balusters are square! In other words, when the top of the baluster is perfectly square with the railing, the bottom of the baluster may be off slightly. You need to either decide which one to keep square or settle for some place in between the two.
(Epoxy drying at the bottom of a baluster.)
(Epoxy drying at the top of a baluster.)
After checking to see if the epoxy had dried properly, we removed the painter’s tape, held the shoes in place and tightened their set screws to secure them. Once you have done a section or two, the rest will go quickly!
This was a fun and VERY rewarding project. We hope yours will be as well.
- Tape measure
- Painter’s tape (it removes easier and cleaner than masking tape)
- Saw to remove the balusters
- Saw to cut the iron balusters (portable band saw if your budget will allow…you will be much happier with the results)
- Drill and drill bits (if you have to drill holes for the balusters)
- Soft jaw clamps to hold balusters when cutting
- Hex wrench to hit shoes
- Glue (use epoxy for a stronger hold)
- Glue gun (buy one made for the epoxy cartridges you are using)
- Vise Grip pliers to remove any nails from the railing and flooring when removing the old balusters
- See article for notes and highlights
- Lighted Landings – iron balusters and accessories