Mistakes: Exterior Shutters Today vs Historic Shutters –
What is Wrong and What to do Right
Shutters are an important feature on a house. The goal of this website is to enable readers to make their house architecturally correct which would then be aesthetically pleasing. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of correct exterior window shutters.
Think of the windows as the eyes of the house and the window shutters as the eyebrows (although to the side) to understandthe impact. If the shutters are the wrong type or mounted incorrectly, they can ruin the appearance of the entire house.
Yes, the money you spent on restoring that new front door or painting with authentic Victorian colors will be wasted if your window shutters are incorrectly hung (mounted).
Most people look at exterior window shutters as a decorative feature with no further thought. The decorative shutters are installed and the mission is accomplished. How dreadfully wrong!
The following is what you need to look for and, once you see the difference, you will pick it out every time. There are a number of points you need to understand about exterior window shutters in order to make your house look great.
On historic louvered shutters (historically called Blinds), the louvers were either Fixed Louvers or Operable Louvers. Each type represents a different period in history and provides a slightly different look.
Fixed Louvered Shutters.
Fixed Louvered shutters are appropriate for buildings built prior to the Civil War. Operable louvered shutters grew popular quickly although fixed louvered shutters remained in builders catalogs into the early 1900’s.
- The louvers are constructed in a fixed open position in order to allow a certain amount of air and light to pass through.
- The louvers must be fixed at an angle in an approximately 60 degree open position. (a completely closed louver would be a flat apx. 10 degrees, perfectly horizontal would be 90 degrees.) So you want it roughly between perfectly flat and horizontal.
- When the shutter is open the louvers angle pointing downwards towards the house and upward facing out.
- When the shutter is closed, the louvers are angled pointing downwards away from the house to shed water away from the window and block the sun’s rays from entering the room.
There is an important aesthetic benefit with louvered window shutters. The louvers create shadow lines which provide texture and interest. Shadow lines are most important on a house for they create the character that bring buildings to life.
Purchasing a Fixed Louvered shutter with flat closed louvers (10 degrees) as sold in home improvement stores results in a flat artificial appearance due to the lack of shadows.
A historic operable louver shutter with louvers completely closed would never display the flatness fake plastic shutters have. Unfortunately this is the type of shutter you see on all houses today, no matter what the period architecture.
Some shutter companies manufacture quality wood window shutters with louver’s that resemble plastic shutters. Be careful! While the shutters may be well made with quality wood the design is wrong and you will be wasting your money.
Fixed Louvered Shutters:
Fixed louver shutters were used from mid 18th century through mid 19th century. Operable shutters became available 1830-40.
Have stationary slats in a fixed position apx. 60% open.
The slats are angled downward and inward towards the house.
The louvers provide a nice texture when seen on a house.
Fixed louver shutters were used from mid 18th century through mid 19th century.
Never have flat louvers with fixed shutters. Shutters were meant for ventilation so what sense would there be to have closed louvers that cannot be adjusted?
Operable louvered shutters:
Have operable louvers that can be adjusted to be opened or closed by a tilt bar.
The slats are angled downward and inward towards the house.
Louvers provide a nice texture and tilt bar adds to the appearance.
Operable louver shutters were installed on buildings from 1830’s-40 through 1950’s.
Plastic shutters are fake and cheap looking.
There is minimal texture for louvers molded flat against each other in a permanently closed position making them look flat and bland.
A cheap looking shutter provides cheap curb appeal and not a good reflection on the homeowner.
Louvers are angled in the wrong direction.
Purchased by homeowners and builders that do not understand shutters and have not read this website.
Wood shutters in this style are fine for a 1950’s building.
Operable Louvered Shutters
Operable Louvered Shutters were first used around 1830-1840. Operable louvered shutters can be adjusted by a Tilt Rod to regulate air-flow and light. Shutters with operable louvers and a tilt rod create a shadow pattern providing the best depth, contrast, and character.
If your goal is decorative window shutters they must still appear as if they are operable. A “fake” plastic shutter from a home improvement store has louvers that are fixed in a tightly closed position than they normally would be if they were to actually operate. The amount of space opened would not need to be as great as 50 percent as Fixed Louvered shutters (as explained above), but should NOT be totally flat either in order to look real.
If your house was constructed after the Civil War, there should be a tilt rod on your window shutters. This is an important feature that is always overlooked and greatly affects its appearance. In this case a false Tilt Rod should be attached to fixed shutters to appear operable. Failure to achieve this look will greatly sacrifice the appearance of the house.
When historic shutters are in the closed position, the louvers should be angled pointing downward and away from the house to shed water away from the window it is covering.
When shutters are in an open position, the louvers will be angled pointing downwards toward the house. Water will be shed to the back of the shutter towards the house; but, no need to worry, there will be air space from the hinge offset for runoff and drying.
Louvered Shutter Direction
If shutters are closed the louvers direct the rain-water out and away from the window. While this may sound wrong, it is beneficial because it deters critters: bats, bees, etc. from nesting there because it exposes this hiding place to the elements.
This is the correct way install shutters decorative or functional. If you prefer the opposite – incorrect way, I promise I will not yell at you so don’t be frightened! The most important thing about the louvers is the shadow line you get from louvers that are NOT flat.
Shutter Size Errors
Another mistake which is almost always made, is improper shutter height and width. The width of each shutter must equal half the size of the INSIDE of the window casing. If both shutters were to close they must sit inside and fill the window casing, covering the entire window in both height and width. Although you may never close the shutters, this is just as important when decorative shutters are in an open position.
Two properly sized shutters must fit inside and fill the window casing when closed
When you look at a window, your mind interprets it as a shape. When there are two shutters (right and left), which are sized correctly, they represent two-halves of that shape (the window opening). Your mind recognizes this, and interprets this equal balance as appealing. Sadly, most people ignore this and are probably busy thinking about watching I Love Lucy re-runs, instead of taking the time to respond to their natural inner senses.
Common sense will tell you that shutters must also match the shape of the window. Many times you will see a beautifully arched window with a rectangular shutter. Your mind is working overtime interpreting these two different shapes and why are they grouped together. Much can be learned by the child’s toy which requires the correctly shaped block to be inserted into the correspondingly shaped hole. As you see many homeowners never succeeded with this toy.
Rectangular Shutters on Arched Windows
In the two pictures above, not only are the shutters the wrong shape, they are also fake, too long for the window, and mounted incorrectly. Just because you pay someone with years of experience to install shutters, doesn’t mean that they will do it correctly. This injustice has already reached epidemic proportions.
Shutter Hanging (Mounting) Errors
Probably the most prevalent mistake made is improper shutter installation. This makes a beautiful house look cheap, ugly, and bland. Sadly almost all shutters are mounted this way and the public has evolved to accept this look. There are two parts to this error.
The first part of the mistake is that shutters mounted directly on the facade/siding of the house, appear banished off to the side of the window as if the window wants no part of the shutter. Visually, it MUST appear as if the shutters are mounted directly ON TOP OF the window casing, next to the window opening. Failure to do this looks ridiculous and drastically changes the appearance of the entire house. You are confusing your subconscious mind as it tries to interpret patterns and make associations. What is this rectangular shape doing all by itself out there?
Another common mistake is mounting the shutters flat against the house. Here you lose your shadow lines which result in a bland, uninteresting house. When shutters are mounted directly to the face of a house, there is no room for ventilation between the shutter and the house. This results in heat build up from the sun that can cause damage to siding and painted finishes behind the shutter. A correctly mounted shutter should APPEAR to be attached to a hinge, protruding from the house.
There are a few technicalities in properly mounting shutters depending on your window and the type of hinge used. However, the shutters should still have the same appearance as in the examples of GOOD Shutters on this page. When open, shutters should be located tight to the window covering all or part of the window casing and projecting outward at the window edge.
Architecturally, it is not necessary for a feature to actually be functional; however, it must always appear functional. Please understand, I think it is wonderful to have historic, functioning shutters, but the goal here is appearance. That said, you may not need or want your shutters to open and close, but they MUST appear as if they do. This is explained more in the next section on Exterior Shutter Hinges.
Exterior Shutter Hinges
Historic shutters were mounted on hinges. There are two parts to a shutter hinge. One part is attached to the house and the other part is attached to the shutter. The part of the shutter hinge that is attached to the house contains a Pintle – a pivot point for the shutter hinge to rest on. This part of the hinge can either be mounted to the house on the face of the window casing OR on the inside edge (jamb) of the window. Each of the two mounting types provides a different appearance.
There are many types and sizes of shutter hinges you can use. A lot depends on your window and how much space you have to mount the hinge. These details and customizations you should discuss with the shutter manufacturer. Here, on OldHouseGuy.com, you will learn what you need to know to get the proper look.
If you think your house originally had shutters, you can check to see where the original hinges were mounted by looking for “ghost marks”. Even after years of painting, you should still be able to see these marks. You may even see them in both places (edge and face) – this means your shutters and/or hinges were replaced. Most likely, old face-mounted strap hinges were replaced in the late 19th century with newer hinges mounted on the inside edge.
Shutter Hinge Throw – distance from window opening
One of the most important things to understand when ordering shutter hinges is a term called “THROW”. This is the space between the pivot point of the hinge and the inside edge of the shutter when the shutter is open.
This is very important because if there is a large THROW, or large swing, there will be more space between the shutter and the hinge pivot point. In other words, the shutter will be farther to the side, away from the window opening, exposing more of the window casing. This large THROW will make your wonderful historic shutters appear just like all the fake plastic shutters you see mounted off to the side of the window.
As I stated earlier, each window is different and there does need to be some THROW for your shutter to work. Do not get a hinge with a larger throw merely for the purpose of being able to see the wood casing. Sadly, this is becoming the standard of the best quality shutter manufacturers. And why? Because the consumer is accustomed to the wrong look and that is what they want to buy.
Below are examples of shutter throw and the type of shutter hinge used to get the right look.
Here the shutter is tight to the window because a Jamb hinge (Butt hinge) is used. This look is correct for a house built 1854 to present. It is also correct for shutters using surface hinges after 1854. Surface hinges can also be attached tight to the window.
This shutter is off to the side because the hinge is mounted on the surface of the window casing. This look is correct for a house built before 1852. It is also correct for a shutter with surface hinges after 1852.
NEVER mount a shutter this way on any house. This is where homeowners, builders, and architects fail today.
Shutter Hinge Offset & Standoff
Exterior shutter hinge offset and stand off is the distance a shutter projects from facade and angle of shutter
I think it is wonderful to have operable shutters but there are technicalities specific to your windows that you should discuss with the shutter manufacturer. My objective on OldHouseGuy.com is to educate you on how your home can have the best appearance. Once this is understood, and if you prefer operable shutters instead of merely decorative, the next step of mechanics can be addressed with the manufacturer.
This information is important even if your shutters are strictly decorative. The next thing you need to understand is the term hinge OFFSET. OFFSET and STANDOFF are important terms in assuring your shutters will not only look good, but also open and close properly. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably.
The Offset and Standoff of the hinge pertains to the part of the hinge that is attached to the house. This part of the hinge has a point or Pintle – a pivot point where the shutter is connected.
The Offset we will discuss here is the distance the hinge extends your shutters AWAY from the window casing. An OFFSET of about 1/2 to 1.5 inches is usually recommended, although each window casing is different.
The Offset is important because the space provides necessary ventilation behind the shutter and creates additional shadow lines which make your house come alive with interest. Shutters you see today are flat against both the window casement and the facade, without shadows, making the house look bland.
The outer edge – opposite edge of the shutter, away from the Offset hinge, should rest closer to the facade of the house. The fully opened shutter can be secured with a Tie-Back attached to this outer edge (without this Tie-Back your shutters will flap in the breeze). The final result will be a shutter that is angled in appearance.
Shutter Hinges – Which Type to Choose
There are two basic types of hinges: Edge Mounted and Surface Mounted.
Edge Mounted Shutter Hinges (Jamb Hinge)
Edge Mounted Shutter Hinges are also referred to as Jamb Hinges or Butt Hinges (not to get confused with the derriere). These hinges are mounted to the Window Jamb – the inside edge of the window casing. Hinge mounting depends on your window construction since the window jamb needs sufficient space to attach the hinge. These hinges are mortised into the wood casing and the shutter. For an example of an edge-mounted hinge, just take a look at how a door hinge is mortised. The Acme Lull & Porter hinge was a very popular edge mounted hinge in the later half of the 19th century and after. They were self-locking, meaning when in an open-position, they locked in place, eliminating the need for Tie Backs. The Acme Lull & Porter hinge was Patented in 1854. Click here to see 1854 patent .
Surface Mounted Shutter Hinges
Surface Mounted Hinges are also referred to as Strap Hinges. These hinges are mounted to the FACE of the window casing. These hinges are not mortised into the wood. Strap Hinges are more visible due to the strap supporting the shutter. These shutters also provide a different appearance. Since the hinge is attached to the face of the casing, the pivot point can be no less than about an inch from the edge of the window opening. This results in a slightly greater Throw than Edge Mounted hinges since the point of origin is a bit farther away from the window edge. Surface mounted hinges were most popular on structures built before the Civil War.
Remember with whatever type of hinge you use, try to keep the shutter as tight to the window as possible unless your house dates back to very early 1800’s or earlier.
Surface Mounted Hinges for Recessed Windows (usually brick or stone houses)
There is a difference when mounting a shutter on a wood sided house compared to that of a house sided with Brick or Stone. The window is constructed the same but instead of being surrounded by a wide casing, the window is surrounded by a brick molding which is narrower than a casing.
On a WOOD sided house, the siding does not project beyond the face of the window casing. Surface Mounted or Edge Mounted hinges can be used and the offset needed is minimal.
On a BRICK or STONE sided house, the brick or stone projects beyond the face of the window casing. The window and casing are recessed. Here, a surface Mounted hinge MUST be used and, depending on how deep the casing is recessed, a greater OFFSET will be required. This will allow the shutter to clear the brick/stone siding when swung open (if operable) or fixed in an open position.
Shutters for Eastern Style Window Casings (New England Homes)
Do you have Eastern Style Windows? Do you even know what they are? If your house is located in New England, read about Eastern Style Window Casings here first.
As you now know after reading the article, these window casings are absent of a Blind Stop. Therefore the shutters need to be mounted in a way so when closed, they rest on the face of the window casing instead of the blind stop. The window casings have a different design to hold the shutters. A frame around the edge of the casing.
A Tie-Back on a shutter is usually referred to as a Shutter Dog or Shutter Catch. A Shutter Dog holds the shutter in place from the front. Since it is visible, there are many decorative Dogs to choose from.
A Bullet Shutter Catch or Acorn Clip is a pin that holds the shutter in place from behind. This is not visible when the shutter is in an open position. The bullet shutter catch or acorn clip is what should be used on a Victorian home.
“Dog” is an Old English word that means “a simple mechanical fastener”. The “S” style shutter dog was the popular style of the 1920-30’s. More info on types of shutters used throughout history in Part 5 of my shutter articles. Shutter dogs get mounted at the base of the shutter about 3/4 out toward the end. Shutter dogs are weighted at one end to hold the shutter in place. Otherwise the shutter dog could turn to the side and the shutter will become loose and flap around. If there is no space below the shutter to mount a shutter dog, a side-mount shutter dog can be mounted to the side of the shutter in this situation only. Shutter dogs must be within arms reach for shutters would be opened and closed from inside not outside the house.
Another Type of Shutter Latch
This latch was screwed into the back of the shutter and would clip on to the catch (shown in white) that was attached to the house.
While this type of a latch was very popular, it is difficult to find today. Of course your first option should always be to restore the hardware. If you do need replacement there is a manufacturer to purchase this from.
Click here to order this shutter latch kit at Ricca’s.
Other Shutter Hardware
There is a large selection of shutter hardware to choose from as you will see on the recommended shutter sites. There are locks, bolts, pulls, tie-backs, etc. These items will add additional visual interest to your shutters and house.
Strap hinges are only seen when the shutters are closed. If you are looking for hardware to be seen on your shutters when open, consider Zimmerman Fasteners if your house was built after 1860.
Check out info on Shutter Dogs here.
And more info on Shutter Hardware here.