Balusters serve two purposes: they enhance the design and beauty of railings and exteriors and they keep people and children safe from falling off decks and high outdoor areas.
All balusters have structural and building code requirements. For example, rooftop restaurants and bars will have different requirements than your backyard porch.
Check your local building codes.
Most importantly, the purpose of baluster spacing is to keep everyone safe. For example, you sure don’t want your neighbor’s kids to stick their heads through the spacing and getting stuck. It might make for a funny moment on America’s Funniest Videos, but you’re not going to be too happy when the firemen have to destroy your balusters to get the kid’s head free.
Keeping the spacing requirements in mind is the important first step in your choice of design and materials.
Balusters are commonly made from wood or metal. In addition, balusters can also be made from plastics.
We’ll limit our discussion here to the three most common materials used today: aluminum, wood, and plastic.
Real Wood Balusters
For the ultimate in design options, nothing beats real wood. For example, it can be shaped, cut or turned on a lathe for a modern or victorian design.
Real wood accepts paint very well. Therefore, it is much easier to match the colors of the painted wood balusters with the rest of the house trim.
The most often used woods are cedar and Primed White Wood.
Both cedar and PWW are strong but lightweight.
Let’s examine the pros and cons of each one.
Primed White Wood
Primed White Wood, or PWW, has many advantages.
It is much less maintenance than cedar, as a result, needing repainting about every 8-9 years.
PWW balusters are available in the same sizes as cedar, fitting any design perfectly. They match the trim of the house while providing necessary structural values.
In the past, PWW has gotten a bad reputation for being too vulnerable to decay. The key to remember with PWW is that it must be preservative treated.
How it is treated with preservatives is just as important. Some manufacturers merely add preservative into the primer paint. This is not ideal.
Today’s XT Balusters by Belco solve that issue and then some.
XT Balusters are first kiln dried to an ideal moisture content. Then each board is treated with Wolman® AG by Lonza on the raw wood to ensure they are protected against rot, mold, mildew, and decay.
In fact, XT balusters come with an industry-leading warranty with a 20 year limited guarantee to back it up.
Belco’s wood preservative process is unmatched in the industry.
Couple that with the cost savings of working with real wood and you have a clear winner with XT balusters.
Cedar is a great baluster material. This natural wood is fairly lightweight yet strong.
Commonly available in multiple sizes of 1 x 2, 1 x 4 and 2 x 2 inches.
It is capable of enhancing many different architectural designs.
Cedar is uniquely decay and mold resistant, therefore making it a perfect choice for beach houses and homes in damp climates.
It typically is stained and uses a cedar handrail to match.
However, cedar is high maintenance, needed repeated staining or painting, about every three years!
Another downside is the high cost. For most projects, cedar is too costly to consider.
Cedar is also increasingly hard to find in the marketplace.
Non-Wood Material For Balusters
There are many options for balusters that are man-made products. Balusters are sometimes even replaced by glass panels.
Non-wood balusters are fairly low maintenance.
Some spindles are wired for electricity and have lighting installed for design interest.
Plastic balusters come in 1″ x 4″ size, spaced close together or 2″ x 2″ size evenly spaced between posts.
They are typically capped off with matching plastic handrails.
Plastic is very low maintenance, often just needing a good wash with a pressure washer to restore it to new looking.
The rail system is designed for an easy install, making it ideal for a DIY project.
However, there are some drawbacks. Plastic is not very structurally strong. It will bend under pressure and make an annoying squeaking sound when pushed on.
It is extremely hard to paint, so make sure you really like your color choice before you purchase.
Aluminum balusters are quite popular because they too are low maintenance.
It is often the best choice for posts if glass panels are used in place of balusters.
Aluminum balusters are sturdy, flex-free, don’t squeak when push against, fairly easy to install, and look pristine for the life of the material.
Where aluminum falls short is often in the design options.
Most aluminum balusters are designed to be installed with an aluminum handrail system. Coming in at just over 2 inches thick, skinny handrails will do the job for building codes, but are quite limiting for esthetics.
With the modern trend of some homes being designed with large columns or posts, aluminum balusters can look out of place.