What is Baluster?
A baluster is a moulded shaft, square or rounded on a lathe, usually cut from a square plank of wood or length of stone. They can also be made of other materials, such as plastic or even glass. Balusters are sometimes called spindles.
Balusters are usually used as a support for the coping of a parapet or the handrail of a staircase. Placed on a unifying base, they run in a row and the strength of each baluster is added to the others to create a strong support while allowing light or paths of sight to occur between them. Rows of balusters are called balustrades. Other common uses of balusters include candlestick shafts, furniture supports (i.e. chair legs), or the stems of chandeliers and similarly formed lighting fixtures.
Etymology – Word Origin
The OED records the word ‘baluster’ as coming from the French word balustre, from the Italian balaustro, from balaustra, meaning ‘pomegranate flower,’ from the Latin balaustium, from the Greek word βαλαύστιον (balaustion).
History of Balustrades
The earliest evidence of balustrades is the depiction of them in bas-reliefs depicting Assyrian Palaces. They were shown in windows and had what appears to be Ionic capitals. Neither the Greeks nor the Romans seem to have used balustrades in architecture, perhaps surprisingly, as they used balustrades in furniture and candelabra design, as a series of bulbs and discs stacked each one upon the other.
Profiles / Style Changes
The origin of the technique is likely to have come from traditions of ceramic and pottery production. The potter’s wheel and turner’s lathe are ancient tools and the forms most intuitive to the techniques of each have survived in even complex wood and steel baluster design. For this reason, determining the dating or geographical location of certain baluster forms is difficult. Some generalisations can be made, but it is important to realise that the same form may have been used independently in more than one area without having borrowed from another source.
One generalisation is that of a Mannerist style, tied to the form of ‘a vase set upon another vase.’ The Baroque vase and baluster designs feature shoulders that are high and quite bold. The Neoclassic forms, on the other hand, are soberer and seem to reflect the shape of Greek amphorae. Perhaps among the most distinct are the Solomonic column styles inspired by Bernini in the 17th century, and the twist-turned designs in oak and walnut furniture employed by the English and Dutch.
Cabinet-makers in 16th-17th century Italy, Spain and Northern Europe took the baluster, split it in half, and placed it flush against a flat surface. This had a relief-like effect and was very popular in furniture making. Modern examples of baluster design include designs influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement and by the Etchingham Park Road houses of the early twentieth century.
The baluster column was used outside of Europe a well, of course, including in Mughal architecture. The Red Fort of Agra and Delhi employs them from its construction in the early 17th century. In the 18th and 19th centuries, in Northern and Central India, the foliate baluster columns with naturalistic foliate capitals became very popular.
The term ‘baluster shaft’ is applied to the shaft that divides a window in Saxon architecture. The Abbey in St Albans contains some samples of these baluster shafts, said to have been taken from the old Saxon church and added to Norman bases and capitals and cylindrical Norman shafts.
The placement of balusters in a row requires some sense of aesthetic. If they are placed too far apart, the overall effect is unattractive (though still done in some instances to save money) and so they are generally separated by the same measurement as the width of the square bottom section.
Modern production techniques of balusters vary from shaping on lathes, freehand or fabrication table cutting, moulding and casting.