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Iron Balusters: When Form Follows Function
Well-made banisters and railings are a requirement for safety if you have an exposed stairway, but they don’t have to be purely functional. Why not dress up the space with lacy, elegant iron balusters?
Iron doesn’t only belong outside. Since it can be shaped into an unlimited number of designs, iron can add fluidity and grace to the plainest stairways. And its strength and resilience satisfies the most stringent safety needs.
Although we’re just beginning to see iron used indoors, this trend was also popular in 16th and 17th century France and Italy. When combined with sweeping stairways and ornate ceilings, iron balusters and banisters have a rich and elegant appeal.
If made of iron, balusters (the vertical elements that prevent users from slipping through the stairs) are an ideal place for a little self-expression in decorating. They are available in innumerable shapes and many colors, and can even be custom made. If you can draw it, there’s an artisan who can make it. You can create a look to work with any decorating scheme.
Combined with a wooden handrail, iron balusters can still be affordable. Wood/iron combinations keep the price down, yet still provide the beauty and elegance of iron. Iron rods with twists, scrolling rods with lacy “baskets,” filigree designs, and shapes from the botanical world are just a few of the options when you’re considering iron.
Special attention can be given to the newel posts—the sturdy structural posts at the top and bottom of stairways. A more elaborate design at these junctures is both beautiful and structurally sound.
Wrought or cast? Should you choose wrought iron or cast iron? There are advantages and disadvantages to both.
The term “wrought iron” refers to iron that has been heated at a forge, then hammered, twisted, bent, forged, or otherwise worked, most frequently for ornamental purposes, by a blacksmith or expert metalworker. Wrought iron is commercially pure iron with a very small carbon content, but usually containing some slag. It is tough, malleable, ductile and can be easily welded. However, it is not as strong as steel, which has a higher carbon content.
The rarity of true wrought iron is due to its production being extremely costly and labor intensive. Wrought iron is rarely completely pure. It is a fibrous material with many strands of slag are mixed into the metal. These slag inclusions give it a distinct look when etched. Also due to the slag, it has a fibrous look when broken or bent past its failure point. Ornamental ironwork today is often referred to as wrought iron, even though it is more likely to be made from mild steel.
Cast iron, on the other hand, is much more regular in appearance. It is iron that has been heated to a liquid form and poured into a mold, or “cast,” at a foundry. Its main advantages include the fact that it can be poured at lower temperatures than those required by steel, in its liquid form it is more fluid than steel (which allows for complex and varied shapes), and it is less prone to casting defects than steel.
Produced for hundreds of years, cast iron is often viewed as a low-end, rather cheap material. But in the last fifty years or so, better and more comprehensive knowledge of its qualities have been gained. One of the most important improvements has been the standardization of its manufacture. The different types of cast iron are now viewed as choice materials for decorating and construction.
The next time you see a sweeping stairway, try to imagine it with balusters of iron. Iron balusters can truly open up the space and bring elegance and grace to what was once purely functional.