A baluster is a carved post installed under a railing such as a stair rail or balcony railing. These architectural elements can be used ornamentally in a variety of ways of settings. The earliest known use of the baluster dates to ancient Assyria, where structural elements which strongly resemble modern balusters appear to have been used by the nobility in the architecture of their homes. Today, variations on the baluster can be seen all over the world, in a variety of settings and guises, and numerous archaeological examples have been uncovered all over the world, suggesting that the design has always been very popular.
The term “baluster” comes from the word for “pomegranate flower,” a reference to the very distinctive shape of a classical baluster. This bulbous, curving shape does indeed resemble that of a pomegranate flower which has partially opened. Balusters can be made from wood turned on a lathe, or carved stone, or cast metal, depending where they are being utilized.
A row of balusters is known as a balustrade. Balustrades are often used with railings which circle open plazas, rooftops, and so forth. The railing may be purely decorative, set at a low height which allows people to sit on it, or it may serve a safety function, preventing people from falling. Staircases are also often lined with balusters to prevent people from falling through to the floor below.
Usually, a baluster is not a support element. Instead, thicker posts and supports are placed at intervals along the railing to hold it up, with the balusters being more ornamental than functional. Removing a baluster or two should not destabilize the railing, although it can make the balustrade look rather uneven and snaggletoothed. This can be useful for people to know when they need to replace or repair balusters, as it is entirely safe to pull them out, and usually very easy to do so.
Some balusters are highly ornamental and heavily stylized, while others may be more minimalist. Ornate balusters may be used in very formal architectural settings, while more utilitarian versions can be seen in homes with a more humble aesthetic. Old balusters are often a topic of interest for people restoring old houses, as they often need to be refinished and sometimes replaced. Replacing balusters can be tricky, with several companies specializing in replication of old balusters, taking samples from homeowners and making copies to replace damaged or missing balusters.