What is the difference between a Newel, Newel Post and Post - or is there?

January 14, 2022

It can be said that one of the most iconic staircases is that from the RMS Titanic.  The intricate detail of the stairs captures the essence of first-class.  Indeed, the Grand Staircase (as it’s collectively referred to) is the perfect setting for women in extravagant dresses and men in dapper suits to cascade down into the welcoming ballroom or reception below.  Each staircase was built from solid oak, the newel posts are carved with illustrations of high relief garlands, topped with pinapple finials.  

Source: Five Minute History, Grand Staircase.  

Stairs are everyday features in many homes, the overall design combines both function and aesthetic.  An especially important element is the newel post.  It’s the final post at the bottom or top of the staircase.  Typically within a residence or building, one side of the staircase is supported by the wall and therefore the other side needs an anchor to terminate the railing of the stair banister.  

There is a technical difference, although these terms are sometimes used interchangeably: a newel is a central column-like structure that a spiral staircase is supported by. 
A newel post is the attractive structural foundation or load-bearing feature to support the side of the stairs not connected to the wall.

Source: A newel, not a newel post.  Credit: Library of Congress via Insider.

As our eyes naturally go up or down the staircase.  The distinct visual composition leads our line of sight to the newel post.  Precise detail and design is then displayed in this “endpoint”, the newel post, varying with detail of inlays, carvings, reliefs to other treatments that the material will allow.  

Recently, we’ve shortened the name from newel posts to posts and you can find some of Spindle, Stairs & Railings style options by this.   

Having an array of styles within interior decorating and architectural designs, there are just as many newel post aesthetics.  Most are made of hardwoods such as walnut or oak and are clear coated with varnish or shellac to show the fine craftsmanship within the grain.  This emphasizes the corners and lines of the wood, altogether creating breathless pieces of art for such a necessary structural component.  

A box newel post has a square base and four sides.  They’re typically traditional in style and can be bigger in size.  Grooves and fluting are decorative design choices.  These can either be made from a solid block of wood, therefore are heavier in weight.  Or, hollow, typically by four rectangular panels making each side with joint corners which is a construction decision.  
In older homes, it’s speculated that the empty voids of the hollow post were intentional!  Most frequent stories tell us that these chambers housed the deed for the house or architectural plans.  The thought was, once the decorative finial, or cap, on top of the newel post became loose it would then reveal the small compartment for the documents to be found!  Sometimes, the builder would place a coin in this hollow chamber once the build was finished.  

I’m proud that the Spindle, Stairs & Railings team has created insurmountable box newel posts.  Due to the high visibility of a starting newel post, the composition can be unique and definitely a cocktail showcase!  We like to add a “Where’s Waldo?” component for flare and character.  This is usually a one-inch by one-inch design, placed somewhere on a post so you can entice your guests to compete and see who can find the emblem first.  To date, we’ve made these accents with family pictures, emblems such as a coat of Arms and Shield or even the artist’s signature. 

Another fun feature with the box newel is that the finial or cap can be removable.  Historically, this was commonly used as a safe a quick place for the homeowner to return home, open the cap and stash their car keys and wallet.  This secret compartment eliminates the clutter of these small items around the house.  Additionally, these items are then hidden out of plain sight.  Including technology and functionality, the cap can be held down by magnets and LED lights can be included for those late nights or early mornings to see inside the chamber.

Secondary newel posts are used for winder stairs, since each step rotates upon an axis formed by the newel post.  Referring back to the Grand Staircase, a second pineapple finial tops the second newel post roughly halfway up the staircase, positioned by a landing to separate and change the direction of the stairs so guests could cascade down the room below.  A second, or more newel posts, can be smaller in size, to help focus or pull the eye to the largest grounding newel post.   

A common different design option, is the turned newel post.  These posts may combine square and rounded sections to create complex geometric shapes or patterns.  In comparison, this aesthetic is usually smaller than the box newel post and can have ornate, unique designs including rope, twisting, fluting and reeding elements.  We make them in maple, oak or any point grade variety of other species.  

Personally, I think that the same, identical patterned newel posts should be used in one continual set of stairs.  Each house and location has it’s own character and look.  The age- and style-appropriate newel posts enhance the character of their respective buildings; their presence is really rather significant where architectural integrity is concerned.  I think that anything absolutely stellar can bring a sense of passion to encompass your individual style which is to be applied to the overall completed look of your space.  

For installation, the post is usually bolted to the floor joist.  In my new book The Art of Spindle, Stairs & Railings makes note that, 

“[s]inking of a newel post into the substructure is the preferred method of installation as it provides the most strength.  It is, however, the most time-consuming of the newel post installation methods.”
Credit: Kevin Halliday 

I’m sure you share a memory when growing up, in running downstairs at breakneck speed, to grab onto the newel post to fling yourself into the living room or hallway bypassing the last step or two!  Of course, stern parental warnings were given about loosening the stair parts.  Which ultimately happened from this repeated action.  This story is to highlight the stability and sturdiness required in these posts and that quite likely for most of us, a day doesn’t go by that we don’t use a set of stairs.  

In the grandeur ship that the relic Titanic was, just two face panels of the newel posts were recovered in the debris from the North Atlantic amongst other wood fragments.  Now, they’re on display at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  Should you have the desire to own your own piece of history, architectural salvage shops sell dozens of old newels.  So maybe, you could incorporate a vintage newel post with a delicate artifact into your home or building space.  

Share this Post

Share this Post