The newel post is the end post of a guardrail on a staircase and I am always impressed when I see a 100+ year old newel post.
Why? Because they are firm!
In the photo to the left, the only new material in the photo is the flooring. The rest is original to this old Virginia farm house. Even the stair treads are in good shape. And they are refinished, but delightfully worn at the edges!
One of the biggest complaints in newer construction is that the newel post wobbles.
If you can find me a more-recent newel post installation that will last 100+ years, let me know...
The reason for a wobbly newel post is installation.
And so often a poor installation involves the ubiquitous drywall screw!
The installation to the right, which uses a very firm plate of metal called a "button plug," has to be attached firmly to work long term. The right screws and material underneath have to be used. By right material, the wood under the vertical screws has to be solid and very strong. It is very vertical and does not flair much for support.
And the structure of the whole thing is okay. However, the structure of the whole thing is very local to the base of the post.
Notice how a skyscraper flairs larger at the bottom, and/or its structure extends very deeply into the ground? A newel post has to do the same thing for long-term firmness.
That extension is mimicked by the post attachment to the left. It would work very well given two things - strong screws and firm structure underneath into which the screws go! Then the screw heads would be capped and professionally hidden.
Why do the historically-old newel posts last so long?
1. They are typically very wide at the bottom. I seldom see them less than 5" and sometimes they are as wide as 10".
2. They extend below the surface where they are viewed. Some interesting examples of that can be seen in the diagram above from a 100+ year old book in my collection (notice the wonderful vocabulary used!). Notice how the post at the bottom of the stairs extends below the floor? It can extend many inches and there it would be bolted two or three ways into solid substructure. Most often that attachment is not visible.
Builders don't often take the time in new construction to do things the "old" way. And the carpentry seen in the photo where the post is fitted around the stairs and stringers is very hard to find.
Plus, the availability of drywall screws is too tempting! So the posts wobble!
My recommendation: lots about the "old" is better than the "new!" Certainly the professionalism of the "craftsman old" exceeds the less-professional "tract new!" And necessarily. Houses are built quicker now, for reasons that weren't around 100+ years ago. But you can't pay too much for the kind of craftsmanship that existed in the old days...
Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC
Based in Bristow, serving all of Northern Virginia.
Office (703) 330-6388 Cell (703) 585-7560