Preservation by Prevention: Caring for Your Historic Wooden Exterior Shutters

Wooden exterior shutters on a historic brick rowhouse in Baltimore

Wooden exterior shutters on a historic brick rowhouse in Baltimore

Wooden exterior shutters are integral to many historic houses in the United States. For the better part of four centuries, these shutters have helped keep our houses warm in the winter and well-ventilated in the summer. They have protected us from rain, sleet, ice and snow, as well as from hurricanes and the hot summer sun.

There was a time when people closed their shutters every night, and opened them back up again in the morning. In colder regions, louvered shutters used during the summer months were often replaced with thicker, solid ones in the winter. Further south, louvered shutters stayed up year-round – when closed, they blocked the midday sun without impeding ventilation.

Only in the past half-century or so have exterior shutters assumed a more decorative role. With storm windows, air conditioning and central heating, one hardly thinks of closing exterior shutters nowadays.

Still, the idea of having wooden shutters on our houses has not faded from our collective memory. A house without shutters looks denuded and incomplete, and so we continue to put the shutters up.

When restoring a historic house, it is important to preserve as many of its original parts as possible, including the shutters. Some contractors will advise the wholesale disposal of old and seemingly decrepit shutters. Always obtain a second opinion – from a qualified preservationist – before taking such drastic measures.

In many cases, historic shutters need only a gentle-but-thorough paint-scraping, a little epoxy filler for the cracks and splintered-off pieces, and coats of non-toxic primer and paint to be as good as new, with just the slightest hint of patina.

This early-nineteenth century Greek Revival-style house illustrates a historically-appropriate, dark green shutter color.

This early-nineteenth century Greek Revival-style house illustrates a historically-appropriate, dark green shutter color.

Occasionally, historic shutters will need to be taken apart piece-by-piece, each piece restored – or replaced if necessary – individually. This can be a time- and labor-intensive process, but worth the effort in the end.

But sometimes, historic shutters are too decayed to be salvaged. Any original shutters that can be restored should be hung on the front of your house. Elsewhere, use replacements that replicate the originals as closely as possible.

There are three primary types of exterior shutters: solid panels, shutters with movable louvers, and shutters with fixed louvers. If choosing shutters with louvers, opt for ones with movable louvers. Even if the louvers are never moved, the angle at which they are attached to the frame ensures that the shutter will have a nice depth to it. Stay away from shutters with flat louvers, as they are not historically appropriate.

Be sure that replacement shutters are of a suitable material – plastic or vinyl shutters are not historically appropriate for a historic home. Cedar and cypress are fine, solid woods that perform well when used for exterior shutters.

An exterior shutter should be only as tall as – and no taller than – the vertical dimension of the inside of the window frame. The width of each shutter should be equal to half the width of the inside of the window frame. If the shutters are not properly sized, they will create a disproportionate and historically inaccurate appearance.

And, if you are replacing the shutters of an arched window, be sure that the shutters are appropriately arched as well. Rectangular shutters are generally not suitable for an arched opening.

Hardware like these S-shaped shutter dogs hold shutters in place when opened.

Hardware like these S-shaped shutter dogs hold shutters in place when opened.

If you have the original hardware for your shutters, use it. Standard exterior shutters are typically hinged at the inside of the window frame. “Shutter dogs” are short brackets attached to the wall that hold back the shutters when opened. Reproduction hardware is available if the original hardware is no longer available.

Never nail shutters to your historic home. Some contractors will suggest this as a method of cutting costs, but it is not aesthetically pleasing. Nor is it good for the wall – without proper ventilation behind the shutters, the exterior wall can become moldy.

The nature of exterior shutters is to be able to be opened and closed. Nail them down and they are no longer shutters – just a pair of wide frames about a window. It does not matter if the shutters are actually ever opened and closed, but they must look as if they could be.

Always hang louvered shutters so that the louvers angle down and back to the wall of the house when the shutters are open. This is the historically correct position – if the shutters were to be closed, the louvers would block out the sun, rain and snow. Well-made exterior shutters are beveled on the bottom at the pitch of the window sill to ensure a tight seal should the shutters ever be closed.

Try to determine the original color of your exterior shutters, even if you are not sticking to the original color scheme of your home – the information may come in handy down the road. Paint analysis from flecks of paint carefully chipped off of the shutters can reveal the original color. Sometimes it is easy to determine the original color, but at other times, chemical analysis or historical research is necessary.

Most exterior shutters hung prior to World War I were either dark green or black. Major exceptions were the shutters of the “painted ladies” of the Victorian era (think San Francisco).

In the 1920s, color schemes began to vary, deploying – for example – white, cream or red shutters against cornflower blue clapboards. Mail-order catalogues of architectural plans from the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s illustrated appropriate color schemes for different architectural styles. Women’s magazines – House Beautiful, for example – did the same thing. These publications are excellent resources for home restoration projects.

Like any other preservation project, the proper restoration or replacement of historic shutters is neither quick nor easy, but it is rewarding. With properly restored or replaced shutters, your historic home will look as good as new – and as cheerful and welcoming as it did when it was first hung with shutters.

For More Information:

General information about historic exterior shutters, including illustrations of good and bad historic shutter restoration and replacement projects, by The Old House Guy

General information about exterior shutters from All About Shutters

The History of Window Shutters” from All About Shutters

Doors, Windows and Shutters” by the Historic Charleston Foundation

Shutter Do’s and Don’ts” by Paul Kelsey Williams of Kelsey & Associates, Inc.

Shutter Project from DuPont House; A Green Project” – photographs of a historic shutter restoration project by William L. Smith Jr. of Brandywine Historic Services