If you are thinking of updating your wooden stairs by replacing the banisters, it's worth spending some time considering which timber to use. After all, stairs are a prominent architectural feature which can make a big difference to the overall look and feel of your hallway.
Oak staircases, in particular, are becoming increasingly popular with home owners looking for a premium, durable product that will not easily go out of fashion.
Strongly associated with quality and luxury, oak is grown mainly in Europe and North America. The trees are carefully nurtured in large forests and can take up to 120 years to mature, with only the biggest and best specimens considered suitable for the construction of high-end products such as furniture, flooring, doors and staircases. The amount of time and effort spent on cultivation ensures that oak will always remain a premium option.
White oak versus red oak
There are two main groups of oak wood: red and white. Both types are extremely hard and durable, but white oak is generally considered the most desirable because it matures more slowly. This produces a straighter, denser grain, making the timber almost water-tight and highly resistant to rot. For this reason white oak is a sought-after material for use in boat-building and outdoor structures.
Red oak, being faster growing and more abundant, is a little cheaper to produce and has a more open grain which is prone to swirls and wavy lines. It should only be used for indoor items such as furniture and cabinets.
Many home owners choose white oak rather than red not only for its good looks, but also because it has fewer variations in colour and grain pattern. This makes it easier to match new staircase parts with existing white oak fittings such as doors, floors and skirting boards to complement the rest of the decor.
American white oak is particularly popular, with a lighter colouring and lower production costs than the European equivalent. Shades range from pale yellow-brown to a light tan colour. The straight, knot-free grain is ideal for creating attractive and hard-wearing stair parts such as handrails, newels, base rails and balusters. It also accepts wood treatments very readily, so can be easily stained, varnished, waxed or painted.
Tips on fitting oak stair parts
Firstly, white oak is acidic, so is liable to corrode any metals that contain iron. To avoid the resulting bluish discolouration you should only use non-ferrous fixings such as stainless or zinc-coated (galvanised) screws and brackets when assembling your stair balustrade.
Secondly, as oak is a natural material it is likely to shrink and expand according to the temperature and moisture content of the surrounding air. For this reason you should always leave new oak stair parts to acclimatize in the room where they are going to be fitted (or somewhere close by with similar humidity) for at least 48 hours before installation.
Finally, if you are planning to varnish, wax or stain the banister rail, try out a small amount of the treatment beforehand on a stair component that will not be visible afterwards – the base of a spindle, for example – to make sure you still like the colour after it has dried.