An Overview of Wooden Staircases for Design Professionals

Featured image for “An Overview of Wooden Staircases for Design Professionals”

In homes, commercial, and public buildings on one or more levels, a wooden staircase frequently becomes a central part of the décor, used as an aesthetic focal piece to shape the design and enhance the whole look of the space. Along with the plethora of shapes and designs that can be used for wooden staircases, the material itself adds warmth and texture.

For design professionals working on projects where a main interior focal point is a wooden staircase, there are some critical steps to take in stair design:

  • Check the local code as there are often code and engineering issues related to staircases which need to be approved by an engineer
  • Consult with an experienced stair builder to double-check your geometry
  • Clear your stair design with the local building officials before fabrication commences

The Architectural Woodwork Standards, along with the AWI-0620 section which is recognized by QCP, provides options and illustrations about the challenges of designing and building safe wooden stairs, but doesn’t advise on code compliance as that is the remit of local and national regulations. Safe stairs, design, and engineering to meet local codes is your responsibility as a design professional. 


What to Look out for When Designing Wooden Staircases 

There are a number of considerations a design professional should take into account during the design of wooden staircases. Most importantly, your contract documents should clearly indicate or delineate material, fabrication, installation, and applicable building code or regulation requirements. Don’t forget that stairs, stair rails, risers, runs, structural strength, and handrails or guardrails are all subject to building code requirements.

You also need to look out for possible color variations. Color variations in wooden staircases normally occur in cross-grain when using band sawn or laminated members, edges in veneer-laminated members, and in multiple layers which might be exposed by shaping. Any color variations can easily detract from the overall aesthetic.


AWI QCP - Light CTA, Architect Whitepaper


Where Most Staircases Fail QCP Inspections

On QCP-registered projects which include a wooden staircase, our inspectors commonly come across the following deficiencies:

  • Stair fit and finish – these are the two biggest challenges for a woodworker
  • Overarching – this is mostly covered by code 
  • The type of wood used – make sure the wood used is the wood specified for the project, a wood with good density is recommended, for example oak or maple
  • The spacing of balusters – the attachment and support of a wood stair railing should be considered

We also find issues with the height of the step and wood stair railing, although local code covers sizing requirements and they are not part of the Architectural Woodwork Standards.


Benefits of Custom-Designed Stairs

A customized wooden staircase provides design professionals with benefits over using mass-produced options.

  • Design flexibility: You have freedom of expression and can use your creative vision while meeting the practical needs of your client. As custom woodwork is normally produced by a specialty architectural woodwork firm, dimensions can be changed prior to fabrication if necessary. Special situations such as designing for the disabled can be accommodated by the woodwork manufacturer.
  • Cost-effectiveness: Custom woodwork competes favorably with mass-produced millwork in terms of price, while also providing almost limitless variations in design and material. Most woodwork lasts as long as the building, showing that quality counts. 
  • No restrictions: Having custom wooden staircases means you can choose the best type of wood from the numerous hardwoods and softwoods available. You have the best of both worlds: high quality and freedom of choice.

You’ll find all the information and guidance you need about wooden staircases in the new edition of the standards, AWI-0620 – Finish Carpentry/Installation or in Section 7. These sections cover stairwork and rails in detail, as well as compliance requirements. 


Contact us to find out more about how to join the Architectural Woodwork Institute’s Quality Certification Program and strengthen your reputation for quality and integrity. 

Drafting accreditation - AWI QCP