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Turning Stair Balusters

Design, Tools, & Lathe Work

My wife, Helen, is a grammar school teacher—third and fourth grades. For over twenty years, every weekday evening, as soon as dinner is finished, Helen carries a pile of papers to the dinner table and sets about grading each one, with diligence and care, because in the end—regardless of the ruling political party or that year’s favorite flavor of curriculum—Helen’s responsibility is to the children, her students.

Carpenters have a similar responsibility—though assuredly not one with such monumental impact.

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(Note: Click any image to enlarge)

Life for a carpenter today is not that much different than it was for carpenters a hundred years ago, or two hundred years ago. We face the same challenges carpenters have always faced: we must shelter our families and put food on our tables. And today we have to send our children to college, too! All of which means we have to make a respectable living, sometimes in an environment where, at times, it may appear that our clients think otherwise. Which leads to a challenging conundrum: whether our clients are willing to pay for it or not, we must do good work, partly because—in order to garner more work—we must protect our reputation. But truthfully, no matter whether we are respected by our customers or our culture, we must still respect ourselves and the work. Which is why I always tell anyone who will listen: make things that will last a hundred or two hundred years, things your children, your grandchildren, and great grandchildren will be proud of. And good work always begins with good design.

Baluster Design

I turned thousands and thousands of balusters—sometimes a couple hundred for a single job. Never once did I ‘make up’ a design from thin air; never have I relied on whimsy, the way a neophyte turner might make an odd-shaped bowl or pair of candlesticks.

No, I was taught to appreciate classical forms; to respect and emulate our rich architectural history. What a shame that more carpenters aren’t taught the same thing today. But that doesn’t forgive contemporary carpenters. We are all sufficient to stand on our own, to learn on our own. Education requires only effort and discipline. I used to tell carpenters: “If you want to learn about architecture, visit the library.” But today, it’s so much easier: Surf the web!

Good baluster design is based on classical models—forms that are important to us as human beings. The shapes and profiles in a traditional baluster reveal true forms of beauty. As Keats wrote in his poem Ode on a Grecian Urn: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” And urns form an integral part of baluster design.

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Lathe Tools

Every turner begins with a basic set of lathe tools—a bowl gouge, a spindle gouge, a rough-in gouge, maybe a skew, perhaps a scraper, and definitely a parting tool. Many of the tools for turning balusters that I use I made myself, especially small skews, which are a particular pleasure to use.

Turning Techniques

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Every turner will tell you that their technique is the best approach. I won’t. I can only be certain that my technique—perfected from turning thousands of balusters—works very well for me. But regardless of the specific techniques, the basics are always the same: keep your tools sharp; rest the bevel on the work; cut downhill.

Comments/Discussion

17 Responses to “Turning Stair Balusters”

  1. Jesse Wright

    Im sorry…But JED Dixon is just the BEST! I could listen to him all day!!
    Thank you Jed, for sharing with us young guys, your passion and experience. Your love for the craft is evident in that you take the time to put these videos and articles together to pass on your skills for the next gen. Your an inspiration to us all!!!
    BRAVO!

    Reply
    • Patrick Harte

      Thanks for a wonderful demonstration on spindle turning and the tools needed..Regards

      Reply
  2. Paul Comi

    That was inspiring. Thank you for taking the time to share your skills in such detail. Definitely making that tool rest

    Reply
  3. Joel Oksner

    Once again, Jeb puts life and meaning to an otherwise common element of our trade. His explanations are succinct and so clear, explaining the historical significance of his work really allows us to move forward in our craft. Thank you.

    Reply
  4. Bill Goodwin

    Jed,
    Always love your work, I’ve taken a few of your stair building classes and learn and immense amount. This video is incredible. I would have liked to have seen one last piece where you were on your 180th turning. Would love to see the efficiency you’ve created through all the previous turnings.

    Reply
  5. Jim Baldwin

    Love it!

    As a retired stair builder/wood turner, I still managed to learn some new things from you.

    thanks

    That’s me more than 40 years ago. The patterns on the wall are your template patterns. I’ve substituted the pocket-knife notch for small nails with heads cut-off and sharpened to a point.

    Should I mention, the best way to turn dozens of small balusters, is to get the copy-lathe dude to do them?

    Reply
  6. Barry John

    Excellent tutorial.

    Are you still doing courses Jed?
    Do you have a stair book out? It would be great to get your knowledge and expertise in print.

    Thanks
    B

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Barry (and all other readers who are wondering the same thing!),
      I’m sorry that Jed hasn’t responded to your question, but that’s Jed.
      As far as teaching goes, Jed continues to teach stair clinics at JLC Live in Providence Rhode Island–once a year. How much longer he will do that we don’t really know. Every year, for the last fourteen years, Jed has told me: “This will be the last year I do the JLC Live shows.” But he always shows up the next year. Still, one of these years he may not. And that year will mark a huge loss for our industry. Every article I have worked on with Jed, every video I’ve had the fortune to shoot with him, has been an incredible learning experience. Each time I visit his shop, I feel like I’ve entered graduate school–there’s always something going on that is completely over my head, but through his perseverance and his patience, I end up understanding the process. I have encouraged Jed to write a book, to write more articles, to shoot more videos, but so far I haven’t succeeded. Hopefully he’ll hear from more craftsmen who feel as you do, and one day he’ll make that a priority.
      Gary

      Reply
  7. Jim Baldwin

    Gary,

    I’ve been asked to write a book too and have nearly finished it but the fact is, publishing anthing (as you well know), costs money and quite a bit too. The average author may only sell about bout 100 copies, making profits hard to come by. Instead I hoose to shoot my mouth off on the internet, while Jedi does not.

    We all do what we can do. Few can do what you do regularily.
    Somehow “Thanks” isn’t enough.

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Jim,
      I appreciate your appreciation. Thank you. It’s not exactly a thankless job. But you’re right…there’s no money in writing books or publishing online magazines–unless, that is, you really pursue sales and concentrate on monetizing the publication. I have a tough time devoting energy to that, partly because I’m too busy and partly because for me that’s not fun. And I know you know how important fun is. Yes, it will take all kinds of people to save invaluable carpentry techniques. Know that I’m around if I can ever be of help to you.
      Gary

      Reply
  8. Deborah Treleaven

    Hi Jed,

    How are you? We are wondering if you are still building stairs?

    Best to Andy and your family,
    Deborah

    Reply
  9. Rafi Israeli

    What an unbelievable demonstration on turning stair balusters! One question- though. Being that you needed to make over 100 balusters, why wouldn’t you consider using a lathe duplicator ?
    Rafi

    Reply
    • Jed

      Hi Rafi,
      To be honest,I often have sent balusters out to a very good local turning shop- he has a $25,000.00 semi-automatic copy lathe, and a very good eye.
      None the less:
      You have to turn good samples, and there may be 4 or five different lengths of balusters in a stair.
      In my experience a duplicator attachment for even a good quality shop lathe does a terrible job, and quit a bit slower than I can turn by hand (after a little practice).
      Even the $25k lathe can’t cut sharp crisp 90 degree corners- the operator has to do this by hand-if he doesn’t the baluster will look lifeless.
      And… there is joy in hand-turning- even a hundred balusters. It’s good for your eye and it’s good for your hands. It’s meditative , even for an impatient person like me, and I like to think that the almost invisible differences between the balusters give the stair some kind of life. I don’t really like to give away the fun part of what I do.

      Reply
      • Josh Andrews

        Love this perspective… I tell our carpentry team all the time “some things, I do for me. I don’t ask the customer if they appreciate it or not. I don’t want to be in the business if I can’t do certain things that make me happy regardless of the monetary value”. Thanks for honoring the art Jed! It’s a legendary example.

        Reply
  10. Ken S

    Just posting to thx for sharing. I enjoyed watching the video. Excellent piece.

    Reply
  11. Terry B.

    Thanks for the informative and encouraging video. I’ve never thought of stair-building, but this has kindled an interest in me.
    I’m not sure whether there is much of a requirement for this kind of “classical” balustrade here in South Africa, but will definitely research it a bit.

    Again, thanks very much for sharing some of your knowledge and experience with us!

    Reply

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