*WORK IN PROGRESS
Stairs and balustrades have been made with just about every hardwood (and softwood) available. The most common hardwoods for stair building are Poplar, Alder, Red Oak, Hard Maple, Beech, and American Cherry. We have made staircases and balustrades out of Walnut, White Oak, various species of Mahogany, Rosewood, Brazilian Cherry (Jatoba), Caribbean Heart Pine, Santos Mahogany, Padauk, Hickory, Beech, Ash, Ironwood (Ipe) and many other species. The hardwood flooring business is now importing an incredible variety of South American hardwoods and many of our clients have wanted to match their staircase and handrails with their flooring choice. Some woods are not very practical since some hardwoods are imported for flooring only and aren’t available in long lengths (These woods can be spliced and laminated if necessary). Because Poplar, Alder, Red Oak, Hard Maple and American Cherry are the most popular hardwoods for staircases, they are usually the most economical because the balustrade parts are manufactured in quantities that yield more reasonable prices.
A specific wood will have different grain patterns depending on how its log is cut. Plain sawn, which gives the most lumber yield per log, is basically just cutting a log into planks as it lays. Quarter sawn cut is just as it is labeled. The log is first halved and then 1/4ed like a pie cut and then sliced from outer layer towards the core. Because of the increase in labor and the reduction of lumber yield it is a more expensive cut. It has straight grain and ray flecks (One sees this cut frequently in antiques made of Oak). Rift is a quarter sawn cut that has the straightest grain and no ray flecks. A rotary cut is produced by putting a log on a giant lathe and cutting a thin slice lengthwise as the log turns. This cut is used as veneer for plywood. When you see a production type oak door, the wild grain patterns are veneers that are produced as a rotary cut.
The following hardwood descriptions have been derived from 35 years of my woodworking experience.
Poplar: We use poplar for any part of a staircase that is to be painted. It is relatively hard, machines and sands with ease and because it doesn’t have an open grain and is relatively inexpensive, is a great wood for painting.A few of our cost conscious clients have ordered poplar stairs to be stained. They are usually going dark in color and if the hue is dark enough to discount the greens and purples, the results are very nice.
Alder: Alder is a beautiful evenly colored brownish hardwood that is one of the softest hardwoods that we use for stairway and handrail fabrication (apparently Alder is white when first cut but oxygination browns it quickly). Because it costs less and because it stains easily and evenly, it’s a relatively good substitute for Cherry. It is browner in color than Cherry but the grain and porosity are similar. Alders most limiting factor is that it only yields short (mostly 8′-10′ with occational 12′) lengths where a lot of stairs call for 12+’ to 16′ lengths.
Red Oak: Red Oak is a very hard open grained wood and has very distinctive grain patterns. It is tough enough to withstand the punishment that comes to stair treads (steps). It machines and sands well and takes a stain evenly and easily. It is prone to have internal checking which has to be culled out during the milling process. We have had clients put a Cherry stain on Red Oak which has taken on a definite Cherry patina but it won’t fool anyone who knows a bit about woods. Some woods like Poplar, Alder and Maple can be disguised with stain but because of it’s tale tell grain, Red Oak will always look like Red Oak.
Maple: Maple is a denser hardwood than Oak and is an excellent choice for stairbuilding. It has a soft grain pattern and although hard, machines and sands well. It has a light patina and when finished correctly can resemble other more expensive woods. It’s downfall is in using stain to darken it. Maple will have a very blotchy appearance unless care is taken in the finishing process. A lot of finishers will apply a ‘stain controller’ before the stain goes on to assure that the finish will go on evenly.
Beech: (American and European) Beech is a very hard and strong close grained hardwood, light brown in color with darker specks (dashes) throughout. It is available in turned stair spindles, posts and handrails but as with Alder long pieces for railing will have to be spliced. I used European Beech on my home staircase. It machines and takes a finish nicely.
American Cherry: Cherry seems just as strong as maple but isn’t as hard. It is a beautiful wood and has been one of the top choices of cabinet makers since colonial times. Cherry has a redish brown patina that gets richer and darker with age. Cherry is the most expensive hardwood that is produced on a production scale for balustrade parts and is made even more costly because it’s sapwood is very light (white) and if a client wants their cherry to be homogenous without sap, the culling process can easily produce more than a 1/3 waste. Cherry is great to work with. After its initial drying process it is very stable. It planes and sands well and and takes a finish easily and evenly. I’ve found cherry to be best with a simple clear finish because it darkens gradually and naturally when exposed to sunlight to a wonderful dark cherry patina.
Some of the other most common hardwoods that we use for stairs are White Oak, Mahogany, and some of the nutwoods like Hickory.
White Oak: It is easy to describe White Oak as it contrasts to Red Oak. White Oak is denser than Red Oak and has a much lighter patina. Red and White Oaks grain patterns are similar but because of White Oaks higher density, it looks smoother (less porous) than Red Oak. It is stronger than and is more durable for treads. From a woodworkers standpoint it machines and sands well and it is incredably aromatic when it is machined. I love the smell of our shop when we run a White Oak stair job through. Because of it’s water-tightness, it has been used through the ages for boats as well as wine and water barrels (the aromatic properties are given to the wine when stored in White Oak barrels thus those wine tasters get ‘oakey’ overtones. White Oaks water resistent qualities should never be tested on an interior staircase.
Mahogany: There are 3 authentic commercial species of Mahogany. The most common is African Mahogany and Tropical American Mahogany (Mexico, Central America, Peru, Brazil) with Cuban Mahogany being available before 1946. Philippine Mahogany (Luan) has some resemblance to Mahogany but is not Mahogany and generally much less dense and includes many species used for economical plywoods. Generally Mahogany is light pinkj to reddish brown and tannish brown. It is relatively hard (although one of the lowest density woods that we use for stairs), machines and works well, can be polished to a high luster, and is very durable. Mahogany trees are huge and the lumber can be purchased in great lengths and widths. Some mahogany planks are amazing. When we have a couple of 3″ x 16″ x 18′ pieces here at the shop it really seems like we must have the whole tree.
Jatoba (Brazilian Cherry)