New Turns for Old Newels
How to use the vintage wooden posts to support a new staircase, prop up a counter, or dress up an entryway
Perhaps the most intriguing newel post ever salvaged came not from a crumbling estate but rather from a wrecked "floating palace," the RMS Titanic.
Carved from English white oak and bearing a fruit, vegetable, and floral motif, the newel was part of the ship's Grand Staircase. It was among the debris fished from the North Atlantic during the recovery effort just days after Titanic sank on April 15, 1912.
The relic—actually just two of its face panels survived—is now on display at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, Nova Scotia. But if you want to possess your own piece of history, architectural salvage shops stock dozens of old newels—some with carvings as fine as those on the Titanic artifact.
Positioned at the end of a flight of stairs, a newel post's primary purpose was to support the balustrade. One of the first architectural features a visitor would see in an entry foyer or central hallway, newels also had a decorative function and were often designed to impress with columnlike shafts, plinth-block bases, and finial tops.
Because of their structural importance, newels were typically made from hardwoods such as walnut and oak. And unlike stair spindles, which tended to be turned from lesser, paint-grade woods, the majority of the posts and the handrails they anchored were clear-coated with varnish or shellac to show off their grain patterns and fine craftsmanship. "Unpainted wood was also easier to keep up, with hands running along it all the time," says Mark Foster, who runs Second Chance, a nonprofit salvage dealer and deconstruction outfit in Baltimore. "We all look for low-maintenance materials today, but the idea wasn't lost on people a hundred years ago."
The most ornate newels, which can be more than a foot thick at the base and up to 6 feet tall, date to the Victorian period, from about 1860 to 1890. These were typically turned on a mechanical lathe, producing elegant beaded shafts that were then embossed or built up with applied carved panels. Finials took the shape of acorns, urns, even figural busts of exotic animals. By 1910, pattern books and manufacturers' catalogs displayed simpler newel post designs in keeping with the emerging American Arts and Crafts movement. The staircase in a Mission- or Craftsman-style bungalow of the era, for instance, would have had a boxy, clean-lined newel, perhaps with applied wooden detailing to mimic the look of exposed joinery.
Some of the simplest wood newel posts have smooth square tops, while more decorative ones are capped with turned or carved finials.
Today, newels of various styles and ages, including ones from Colonial Revival houses built as late as the 1950s, cost between $100 and $1,500, depending on wood type, size, decoration, and condition. Most of the newel posts that Foster and his crew at Second Chance rescue from demolished or remodeled row houses will be used on a staircase in a new house. Because the majority of old newels have plinth-block bases that stand flush with the floor or stair landing, they are easy to retrofit. Less common are ones with notched bases that followed the rise of a step. To use one of these newels at the end of a new balustrade, you may have to level the base and then elevate the shaft on a new wooden block to bring the height up to modern building codes.
The creative reuse projects for newels are seemingly limitless, as they are just souped-up posts. Apply a weather-resistant finish, and plant one at the end of your driveway to serve as support for a mailbox or as a signpost on which to nail your house numbers or hang a shingle. A matched set of salvaged newels can be attached to either side of an old door to make a one-of-a-kind headboard. You could also use a pair to prop up a countertop that extends beyond base cabinetry on a kitchen island or peninsula to create a bar-seating and food-service area. A single newel that's been sliced down the center can function as a pair of pilasters to flank either side of a passageway (see how below), or as decorative stanchions secured to the wall to break up a long run of wainscoting.
The elegant turnings and carvings of vintage newels impart a classic, timeless look to any interior, but it's their sturdy construction that's the real testament to their enduring use today. "I call them 'strong bones' because they were built to last forever," says Foster. "And once they're reinstalled, it's likely they will."
Turn a Newel Post Into Pilasters
I lugged home these heavy halves of a Victorian-era newel from a flea market. It was an excruciating six-block walk, but worth it considering how fab they look perched on plinths flanking the passage between my living and dining rooms. Here's how to re-create the look at your house. (Note: My newel was already split in two, but you'll likely have to rip one yourself.)
1. To make plinth blocks, build an open-topped wooden box out of 1x material around which to wrap molding that matches your baseboard. The box should measure 1 inch wider and 1/2 inch deeper than the newel's base, and be slightly shorter than the baseboard.
2. Place the box against the wall, and screw its bottom face to the floor.
3. Nail the molding around the three sides of the box. (For a finished look, miter the corners, and cope the edges against the existing baseboard.)
4. Top the box with a block that's recessed within the molding walls (see photo far left); paint the plinth.
5. Position the newel on the plinth and secure it to the wall from behind using picture-hanging hardware. (Be sure to screw into a stud or use an anchor.)