You Use Stairs, But Do You Understand Them?

Stairs are more than just a way to get from one floor to the next – there can be several parts to each step. Each of those parts needs to be precise to create a staircase of any length that meets the country’s strict regulations.

At Glacial Wood, we know how hard stair builders work. How much goes into their craft. And, how often a stair builder is the entire show – design, estimates, procurement, installer, finisher. Collaborating on the turned wood and squared parts of staircases across the U.S. make us really appreciate the engineering beauty of each individual staircase. Here’s why.


A staircase is as much function as it is beautiful design. To make one takes carpentry skills and some knowledge of engineering, which makes some DIY’ers keen to try it themselves. But it’s actually one of the hardest elements of a house to create. First, they must meet very stringent building codes that are meant for the safety of the homeowner and the comfort of anyone who is invited in the home. Stairs that are slightly off in width or height pose a potential hazard because we are so used to using stairs that were engineered precisely for our natural gaits and leg length. Stairs that are too tall put strain on our knees while those that are too narrow become awkward and unaccommodating.

You Use Stairs But Do You Understand Them?

The designer has three parts of a stair to work with: the stringer, the threads, and the riser.

Stringers (typically made from pieces of two-by-12s that are spaced about 16-inches apart on center), are the sloped boards that support the stairs and set them on their angle. Wider than 16 inches is fine because that kind of space makes the stairs more roomy and easier to climb or rest on. Treads are the top surface of the stair, which is the part that needs the most traction because it makes direct contact with the bottom of the climber’s feet. The risers are the vertical pieces that run from the bottom of the treads to the exposed endgrain of the stringers.

Next, we’ll delve a little more into how exact the angles of the stairs in a stairwell must be.


Building codes require that your staircase be constructed with safety and comfort in mind. Building regulations vary from state to state, and even between cities. This means stairway designs should always be submitted to the town before you embark on the work.

The general stairway rules that seem to apply across the board (most states, as well as Canada) include the following:

  • The top of the handrail must be between 34 and 38-inches above the pitch of the step.
  • The balusters along an open side of the stairs must be close enough that a 4-3/8-inch sphere cannot pass through.
  • The riser height must not surpass 7-3/4 inches.
  • The tread depth, measured horizontally between the nosings of adjacent treads, must be at least 10 inches.
  • The headroom clearance must be at least 80-inches at any point.


As long as you meet the regulations laid out above, your stairs can be designed however you like. Why go conventional, when you can have floating, see-through or mason-made stairs? Our builder clients are always coming to us with the most surprising designs that balance several different materials but always require some of our fine turned wood and perfectly squared parts.

The best thing to have when you are building any stairs is experience. It’s really the only way to balance practical knowledge of measurements and requirements with the instinct to know what works with the space and the people using that space.

When you are ready to fit your home with regulation steps and stairs, Glacial Wood can make custom turned wood and squared parts to finish your staircase. We work with builders on certain components, like railings, newel posts, balusters, as well as custom turned wood items unique to each project and design. We won’t be putting the stairwell together but you can count on every cut and component we send out is precision crafted and guaranteed.