Designing A New Staircase (Everything you should ask yourself!)

May 18, 2021

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Designing our main staircase was something that crept up suddenly, but I am so honored and happy I am able to do! The original plan was just to swap out the treads and handrail for oak to match our new floors that will be going in, but when our contractor said, “anything else? now is the time to do it.” Well, that was Pandora’s box.

The first thing you gotta do when you start any design project, but especially something as technical as STAIRS is to learn the lingo. Staircase anatomy is in depth and I had so many inspiration photos saved (a whole board here!) but I needed to learn how to put what I wanted into words and direction. This chart helps! I’ll also be referencing a lot of these terms in the post.

Because these stairs are the FIRST thing you see when you walk in our front door, I wanted them to feel designed and intentional and a little less busy. I wanted to walk you through ALL of the decisions I went through when designing a staircase.


1. Cut (Sawtooth) Stringer vs. Closed Stringer

This chart below is really helpful to see the differences!

Our current stairs had a “cut” or “sawtooth” stringer. Meaning you could see every stair down the side. As I started looking at inspiration, I noticed that there was a little more visual rest when I was looking at stairs with a closed stringer. I knew that implementing a closed stringer in our staircase would go a long way in making it feel a little less busy.


So we’ll be doing a closed stringer on our stairs!

2. Newel Post 

Our current staircase has a newel post surrounded by smaller balusters. (see vocab guide above! ha!) And then a secondary newel post at the top of the stairs. The secondary newel post is there for support and is sometimes smaller than the main one at the bottom of the stairs.

I think that a lot of the visual clutter from our current situation comes from the wrapped newel post and a second newel post at the top of the stairs. Instead, I wanted one chunky newel post at the bottom of the stairs (using the photo below as our inspiration) with the secondary newel post needed for structure at the top to look just like the other balusters in shape and color, but just a little thicker for support. I think a lot of character comes from a newel post, so we wanted ours to feel more historical and substantial.


3. Balusters + Railing

A substantial newel post allows the balusters to be a little more simple. Similar to our current home, I knew that swapping out the balusters for a simple tapered looked would be classic and beautiful. But I went through every option before landing on a white taper. There will be a supportive taper on the landing that’s about 2 inches wider than the others but I think it will all blend really beautifully. The railing capping the balusters will be stained the same color as the floors and treads and risers…which brings us to the last thing I decided.


4. Risers + Treads

Currently we have white risers and wood treads which means when you’re looking at it, there are horizontal lines going all the way up the stairs as you see a peek at every tread. Don’t get me wrong, I love a white riser! The stairs in our current home have white risers, but when I sat down to design this staircase and I thought about the future wall molding we want to add, I realized–I don’t need nor want the riser to contrast and draw attention. Instead, a nice solid warm block of wood leading up the stairs appealed to me.

So we are going to be doing white oak risers and tread! I think it will be stunning sandwiched between a closed stringer and clean white spindles.


This is the Inspo board and notes I ended up sending our contractor and stair engineer:

The only thing we WON’T be able to do is have the newel post on the second stair, instead of the first. That is against code, so we’ll have to have it on the first stair, which is fine! Other than that–we’re so so so excited for these somewhat simple but IMPACTFUL changes. I can’t wait to see how it turns out!

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What do you think?

  1. Emily McNamara says:

    Absolutely IMPECCABLE post! I cannot thank you enough! I have a very similar staircase that one day I want to redesign and this post was SO incredibly helpful!!! You are extremely talented!! Thank you ENDLESSLY for this post which has really helped me!! I cannot WAIT to see the end result!

  2. M-A Russell says:

    Love what you have decided to do! Re the Newell post terminating on the first stair – I am actually glad this is code for your state 😊 Thinking in terms of accessibility for those of us who need to hold on to the rail (especially when descending) there is more chance of not being able to safely get to the main floor if there was a gap between the end of the rail (as there is when the Newell is on the second step). My mobility challenged friends and I would be able to navigate much more securely when the Newell is on the first floor. 🙏🏾

  3. Georgia says:

    Gorgeous! Love all these choices. Getting so excited to see the new house. In Australia, majority of homes are single story but I feel like I still needed to know the staircase anatomy 😂

  4. Callie says:

    I cannot WAIT to see how it all comes together! It’s going to be gorgeous, I’m sure!

    One quick question. I’m curious as to what the purpose of having the newel post on the second stair would have been? I get the code part and all, but I’m curious about what made that your preference. Just aesthetics? Or was there more to it? (Like, we’d love to put a small tree on the first step for Christmas! I don’t know, that’s why I’m asking!) 😂

    I’ve never noticed a staircase with the bottom newel post on anything but the first step. Now, I’ll keep an eye out!

  5. Marissa says:

    I have a very similar staircase and we had to fix it asap when we moved in because it was so shaky–as in I had the woodworker there looking at it the actual day we moved in. I ended up doing a big, chunky newel post just like this and I LOVE it. I used to take pictures of big newel posts in historical homes as inspiration and it really made a difference. If you haven’t found a supplier, try Kinzel wood products. They have a bunch of options that can be made up to 7″ thick, which is about what you have pinned. It was custom turned for me and at my door in 2 weeks.

  6. Kourtney Pennington says:

    Love it and your ideas so far! Can’t wait to see it come together!
    Those stairs are going to be beautiful
    Also, if you’re not able to find a newel post you like, Wayne? A carpenter/craftsman I saw do everything from furniture to range hoods to alllll of the beautiful intricate trim casing for MaryLauren
    I don’t know how far he is and I assume you’d be able to find someone else too, he just was doing such a great job!

  7. Lyla says:

    You’re saving yourself the biggest headache when it comes to cleaning around the bottom newel post. I had that exact design in a previous home and it was SUCH a nightmare. One solid post? Smart AND sexy!

  8. Holly says:

    Love how you look at every detail and can see how to make it even better! Great explanation too.

  9. Elizabeth Cathles says:

    I love these inspired photos – beautiful! So fun to see also because we renovated a historic house (1872) and had the original newel post replicated for the current house – and it’s the same as the chunky newel you liked! We also have wooden risers and treads – these ones walnut – with white spindles. GOOD CHOICES! It will be gorgeous. Well done!

  10. Lee Harrison says:

    I think you made all the right decisions. I love how your share your thought process and the inspo photos!

  11. New England Girl says:

    So I know you have to make this decision in a hurry…but I am wondering how much you have studied Federal architecture and Federal Revivals? The current newel post is spot on historically. It’s just fine to decide you’re doing a new spin. To update it. But it’s not right to say that a more substantial newel post is more historical. Chunky newels are more Victorian and later. Federal is allll about the delicate spindles. It’s everywhere—chair backs, table legs, and railings. I think you might be happier with the overall feel of the house if you either accept that what you are doing is a modernization of the staircase, not a historical recreation, or else you slow down a little and try to stick with the era of the house, in the features that would have been in a Federal house. Obviously they wouldn’t have a kitchen anything like a modern kitchen. So make that part totally modern and new! But stick to the history of the house in style in terms of the moldings, railings, etc and update with your furniture, art, and plumbing. I say this as a New England owner of a 1780s farmhouse!

    • Julia says:

      this house was built in the 90s, so although it’s a georgian colonial–it’s NOT actually historical and we’re excited to put our own spin on it.

      • Ashley says:

        The current finishes said newer construction, but thanks for confirming. I feel significantly less attached to anything that feels “historic” knowing that it’s not truly so. (Why I would feel attached to a house that isn’t mine, I don’t know. 😂) I still have reservations about losing the front dining room, but I trust that you’ll do it in a way that is still classic, traditional, and a lovely welcome off the foyer.

  12. heather says:

    are you also going to straighten the front of the stairs? I was thinking the current curved front makes even the option of a runner impossible. I understand the beautiful wood you are going for, but I find all wood stairs so loud and it seems like having the option of a runner would be nice. but maybe because the whole stair curves each individual stair tread also needs to be curved…??

  13. Liz says:

    When I saw the floors and the suggestion to get certain things done now, I was wondering if you considered putting in recessed electrical outlets in the floor? I’ve seen them in larger rooms, with a brass cover in case you are not using them.

    I have a large living/dining room area and it is hard to have a lamp in certain areas because of trying to hid the cord. I’m interested in hearing your opinions of this option or how you decorate around light cords.

  14. Kelly says:

    what a great post – very educational! Will you be removing some of the spindles at the top of the stairs that extends onto the wall? I think it currently feel awkward.

  15. Ashley says:

    interesting post! I’ve been dreaming of redoing our 70s carpeted sawtooth stringer (thanks for the term!) stairs since we moved in and we’re getting closer to doing it – I’m a little worried about the logistics (we have only one staircase…will we be able to go to bed or will we need to be at a hotel for a week or more?) but that’s still off in the distance.

  16. Shauna Betz says:

    Was there supposed to be a number 4?

  17. Carrie P says:

    What a fun post! I’ve been obsessed with curved staircases since I was a little girl, and when I saw your new house had one I couldn’t wait to see what you were going to do with it! I’m such a visual person, so this was super helpful to create the picture in my head. I was also excited to see you mentioned in another comment you were doing herringbone in the entry too. It’s gonna be so good!

  18. Jenna says:

    So interesting! We just designed our stairs and here (Canada) they call the closed stringer “western” and the sawtooth stringer “eastern”!

  19. Carolyn says:

    I loooove posts like these! Educational and inspiring, I will definitely refer back to this.

  20. Mary E says:

    I’ve never paid much attention to the parts of a staircase. Now you have me going down a Pinterest rabbit hole of just the different types of stair tread nosings. Who knew? 😂

  21. Rebekah Withey says:

    I can totally envision what you’re saying and it’s going to look STUNNING! I cannot wait to see it 😊

  22. That sounds amazing! You really did your homework with the staircase parts. Thank you for sharing it all with us. Can’t wait to see the finished staircase.

  23. Ashley says:

    Beyond the design aspect, wood risers will also be much more practical and functional for day to day life. I can’t tell you how many times a day I regret our white risers.

    • Amanda says:

      I agree! I like the look of our white risers but it takes weekly cleaning for them to actually stay white, even with minimal shoes in the house.

    • Anne says:

      Thanks for that tip! I was thinking of doing g white risers because I love that look, but now I’ll reconsider!

  24. Daria says:

    This was so technical and helpful I love it!!!!! The vocabulary, the details and the inspo pics. Love it all!!!

  25. Lisa says:

    Love the mix of traditional with the simple white taper and more clean/modern white oak riser/tread and striker. Going to be gorgeous!!

  26. Julie M. says:

    Ohhh…beautiful, Julia! Thank you for the helpful lingo, and examples! The illustration of a closed stringer being more restful for the eyes makes a lot of sense. It’s what I have in my parlor. I’ve wished in the past that they were open, but with the size of the space, an open stringer would be much more busy.

  27. Ashlee says:

    I love it! Will you be replacing the hand rail?

  28. Julie Marquez says:

    My carpenter husband has been working on a stair remodel project, and we got the lingo down and even used your idaho staircase as inspiration. I like this post and seeing how your work through the design and get on the level of the contractor, because the best way to communicate is to know the vocab and have clear pictures. Also, this takes me back to my Method’s and Materials class in college (for construction management).

  29. Jamie says:

    This is so informative! I love all the details and the chart. It sounds beautiful and it was interesting to hear how your arrived at reach design decision. Thanks for sharing!

  30. Barbara says:

    Such an educational post! Thank you Julia. Your staircase is going to be amazing 👌

  31. Jasmine says:

    That CHUNKY (HUNKY?) newel post is incredible. Thank you for sharing all the details and info in this post! I’m excited to see the transformation.

  32. Elizabeth says:

    You’re talent is so inspiring! I love watching every single thing you do at every house! I’ve been following along since 2015 and loved what you did with the ranch style home. Then your current home and can’t wait to see what you do with this one. I was so happy to see everything in this new home so plain and can’t wait to watch you transform it all! Congrats!

    • Julia says:

      Thank you so so much!! <3

      • Marie says:

        I have been following since 2015 and love watching what you do to transform a house to a home but I have to say your current home was more of a complete renovation rather than home DIY. BIT projects out of sight for most home owners and am glad to see your home in NC and what you do with it. Whatever, I know it will be great! Good luck on your move!

  33. Karen reilly says:

    One of THE best educational posts ever, so well organized, explained, thorough, easy to follow photo support

  34. Styna says:

    Thanks for sharing your design!! So excited to see it come to fruition! Are you planning on swapping out the balusters and railing on the Juliet balcony to match?

  35. Marie says:

    I was hoping that you would keep the turned “bird’s nest “Newel post— my personal fav, but you always make magic happen and I’m sure this home will be lovely whatever you choose!

  36. Love the inspiration and the staircase class this morning!! It’s going to be beautiful!

  37. Haley P says:

    Love it! Will this design impact how your flooring goes in, direction or design?

  38. Joy says:

    This is an amazing post, thank you for breaking down the nuts and bolts of the stairs world! I was wondering if you had thought about the curve on the top on 2nd floor? If straightened that wall area you could put a bench or something instead of dust collecting at the wasted area, corner of the curved room? I’m not sure if you understand what I’m trying to explain but thought it would be more functional for the 2nd floor space.

  39. Lindsay says:

    Are you designing and redoing all of the staircases in your home right now? Or just the main staircase? It’s going to be beautiful and I’m itching to see the finished product!

  40. Lindsey says:

    Can’t wait to see what color stain your choose for the white oak treads/risers/ floors!! It’s going to look stunning!

  41. Erica says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this! It’s so cool learning the terminology and what the details mean. It helps me notice all those different elements when I see them in real life! Can’t wait to see how your staircase turns out. It’s going to be beautiful!

  42. Amanda says:

    I sure do love how your mind works in customizing. The details sure do matter, and you don’t miss a beat! It’s also how I visualize the end result, and then step by step make it happen. So important to then research each component to know what your options are!

    Can’t wait to see this manifestation come to life that sounds like it will compliment that home so beautifully!

  43. Debbie Ricks says:

    Beautiful design!!! Looking forward to following this journey. I was secretly hoping that you would have done an enclosed staircase like you were thinking about as an option for the back staircase in your current home. lol!!!
    Remember, I think it was about deciding to add a picture or something behind one of the sofas??!?!?

  44. Molly says:

    Hi, looks great! Not sure however I understand, are the risers and thread both going to be white (like the text says) or wood (like the picture shows)?

  45. Amazing and thanks for education. I think you should use metal balluster since there will be so much wood. Love your inspiration pics!

  46. Wanda says:

    This will be so beautiful. I envy your ability to see this. Visualizing is so difficult for me. I know, it’s your job and something you’re trained for, but I wish I could do it.

  47. Jess says:

    Love seeing what input you give to contractors. This is where I feel most hesitant because I can show them a picture but I haven’t been good about going another level of detail to point out exactly what I want. Excited for these stair plans!

  48. Susan C says:

    Very interesting. We desperately need to redesign ours. Will your top railing extend on to the wall as far as it does now?

    • Julia says:

      we’re still work shopping that

      • Stephanie says:

        This was my question! Do you mind posting on here or in stories your process on that? Your blog is such an amazing resource that I use often. 😊

        Also, your stair design sounds beautiful! I can’t wait to watch another house get CLJ’ed! Yes I verbed that. ❤️

  49. Heather says:

    This is beautiful and I love the inspiration you’re using!

    One question – would you consider your staircase half open/half closed stringer, since the stringer/trim on the wall doesn’t follow each step? I’m not sure if I’m explaining my question well enough.

    • Julia says:

      I totally know what you’re saying. Generally the stringer on the wall doesn’t follow the stairs.

      • Jess says:

        Wow! Love love love this and can’t wait to see it come together!! Thanks for teaching us all along the way.

  50. JL says:

    The inspiration photos are lovely. Have you made design plans for the back and attic stairs; e.g. keep the balusters or replace with half walls instead?

  51. Jenny says:

    Such a helpful post! Can’t wait to see the finished product. It’s going to look awesome!

  52. Carrie says:

    Are you planning to also shift where the balusters and handrail stops on the landing? I see that it currently continues on farther on the wall, as if attempting the illusion that it spans a farther distance. Curious how you will tackle that bit to streamline with the rest of the update. I love the direction this is going!

    • Julia says:

      Yes! That is something we mentioned we wanted corrected as well. It’s tricky because it’s the floor that extends all the way up there but I think we’re figured something out with trim

      • Lori R. says:

        Oh…so glad someone mentioned this …exactly what i was going to ask! Yes, the bit of railing on the left seems so odd… not to mention in the way for wall moulding! Don’t know why I worried, because we all know Julia & Chris will come up with some amazing solution! 😍

  53. meg says:

    This is going to be absolutely stunning — you nailed it. This was a super informative post, too. Can’t wait to see the finished result!

  54. Allison says:

    So much pretty inspiration, and I’m sure your contractor appreciates the visuals, especially since you’re communicating long-distance.

    Your stairs remind me of what Jennifer at Making Pretty Spaces had at her house; she straightened hers out to simplify them and make use of wasted space. Did you consider changing the footprint at all?

    • Julia says:

      For some reason it won’t let me see that link! I’ll have to go hunt it down. I really like the curved stairs but we will be straightening it the bottom step a bit!

  55. Kristin says:

    This is such a helpful post! I likely never will design a staircase but understanding the lingo and different options for each piece now will have me look at staircases differently from now on!

  56. Courtney says:

    This staircase will be absolutely stunning! Are you planning to add a runner eventually or leave the wood bare? My

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