Step Up with a Cast Iron Newel

Used with a wood or wrought-iron balustrade, a salvaged cast-iron newel post adds history.

Two Victorian cast-iron newel posts anchor a wood balustrade. (Photo: Dan Mayers)

These homeowners actually built a new townhouse in the heart of Manhattan! Wanting the new construction to fit into the 19th-century neighborhood of brick and terra-cotta buildings, they looked to traditional, time-honored materials and incorporated architectural salvage. For the main level entry greeting visitors inside, there was no better way to avoid a cookie-cutter look than to anchor the staircase with a pair of (slightly) crusty cast-iron newel posts. They’d been salvaged from a demolished Victorian church. The newel posts’ swirling foliate design is a counterpoint to the traditional wood spindles and handrail. Their patina and provenance bring New York’s past into the new building.

Steps to Renewal

With a wire cup brush attached to an angle grinder, layers of old paint and rust were removed. The design was revealed, but enough patina was left to suggest a colorful past. (As always, use heavy gloves, eye protection, and a lead-filtering respirator; a work apron is recommended as the steel brush wires may detach and go through clothing.)

These newels then were coated with low-gloss polyurethane, sealing remaining paint and assuring easy maintenance. Another option: Wax and buff the cleaned iron with Johnson’s paste floor wax or carnauba wax to provide a mellow finish that will need periodic reapplication. Had the owners elected to remove all the old paint and rust, newels may have been stripped and powder-coated at a metal shop.

Placement was carefully considered; posts often look better an inch or two out from the railing. Height was determined in relation to the rail; newels are typically 40″–45″ above the floor. With surrounding floorboards removed, posts were anchored to floor joists with lag bolts screwed into angle brackets: a newel post is the structural as well as visual anchor of a staircase. Floorboards were refitted around the newels. The handrail was firmly secured to each newel with a pin and fastened with a machine screw; a bolt and rail bracket would also work. The rail may have to be coped or cut into the post profile.

Tags: Brian D. Coleman cast iron OHJ May 2016 salvage stairs victorian

By Brian D. Coleman

Brian D. Coleman, M.D., is the Editor-at-large for Arts and Crafts Homes and Old House Journal magazines and has written numerous articles on home design. His work has appeared in magazines ranging from Old House Journal to Period Living in the U.K. 

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