Newel Posts: Definition & Designs

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There's a lot more that goes into building a staircase than you may realize. In this lesson, we'll talk about the newel post, and see what function in serves in the overall structure of a stairway.

Parts of a Staircase

In the movies, when a princess or bride elegantly descends a staircase, most eyes are probably on her. Well, maybe not all. What about that elegant staircase? Stairs are ubiquitous features in many homes, but there's more to them than meets the eye. Each part of the staircase contributes something to both the function and aesthetic of the overall design. One especially important component is the newel post, the final post at the top or bottom of a staircase. If you've ever seen a movie where the protagonist is continually frustrated at a wobbly post whenever he or she runs up the stairs (It's a Wonderful Life, anyone?), you've seen a newel post.

Newel vs. Newel Post

The newel post is an important feature, but it's not the only term you'll hear. The other one is a newel. While these two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, technically they refer to different kinds of stair supports. Newel posts are the final posts of any staircase, but newels are only found in spiral staircases. The newel is the central post, the column-like structure that supports the entire spiral structure. So be careful identifying something as either a newel or newel post. They are different.

A newel, but not a newel post
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Function

Now that we understand both what a newel post is, what does it actually do? The newel post serves two very important functions. First and foremost, it is a structural element of the staircase. Since it is not always possible to fix one (or both) sides of a staircase to the wall, the newel post is the load-bearing element that supports that side. It also helps support the weight on the handrail.

The other important function of the newel post is aesthetic. Staircases are substantial visual components of the interior, and they can set the aesthetic tone for entire rooms. The newel post helps to contain the staircase, framing it as a singular and distinct visual composition. Since the eye is naturally drawn either up or down the stairs to the newel post, substantial efforts are often placed in decorating this object with reliefs, carvings, inlay, or other treatments appropriate to the material.

Newel posts are both functional and aesthetic
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Styles and Design

The newel post is an important decorative element, so there are literally as many newel post designs as there are styles of interior decorating and architecture. In general, we can categorize our newel posts in four ways.

First are box newel posts. These have a square base and sides. They're often decorated with grooves or fluting, and can be either solid (made from a single block of wood) or hollow (made from four rectangular panels, joined at the corners).

A square post that has been rounded on a turning machine is known as a turned newel post. Turned posts may combine square and rounded sections to create complex geometric compliments.

More complex newel posts can be carved and shaped without a turning machine. Those carved by hand are likely freeform carved newel posts, which can have any ranges of designs, while those carved using computer-based designs and machines are simply called carved newel posts.

The design of a newel post can be defined by the style of carvings, shapes, paints and polishes, inlays, and even materials used to create the post. However, there's one last design element that literally tops them all. This last design element of a newel post is what you place on top of it. Many posts are topped with a basic cap that fits over the post. However, more decorative and elaborate finials can be added as well. Polished circles, spirals, and even acorns are popular finials used to top many styles of newel posts. The finial is the final decorative touch on this important part of the staircase.

Decorative filial
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