Improve your home’s curb appeal with shutters: How to choose the right size & more tips from landscape architect Ted Cleary

Are you interested in adding shutters to your windows in order to improve your home’s curb appeal? In this guest post, landscape architect Ted Cleary gives us tips on how to do it right. Ted writes:

“Why do you love your older home? I’d venture to guess that it’s all about the charming details that give it away as a house that was built 50, 60, 70 years ago. You don’t have to be an architect to appreciate the subtleties that, taken as a whole, exude a richness that’s often absent with more contemporary materials. Back in the day, a house with true-divided-light windows, real lap siding (made of 3/4” thick planks, as opposed to thin cement board siding), and chunky, substantial trimwork was the norm, and the deeper shadowlines and sense of craftsmanship simply presented a more comforting and engaging image. Home design was as much about creating a pattern of light and shadow as it was about creating comfort. In future blog posts we’ll discuss all these different aspects, but today I want to highlight one seemingly minor detail that makes or breaks that perception of ‘genuineness’: the proper use of window shutters. Thanks to Gavin for urging this topic with Pam’s recent post on front doors..

“Granted, most of our mid-century modest homes aren’t in the same category as historically designated ones built a hundred years ago. And for some styles such as Arts & Crafts Bungalows, or Mid-Century Modern, shutters are totally inappropriate. But if you happen to own the sort of Neo-Colonial or Cape Cod revival styles Royal Barry Wills popularized (or, more likely, some kind of modest hybrid cobbled together by a ‘merchant builder’), then they are likely just the right thing to dress up your windows, and your house will thank you for lavishing the same kind of attention to detail on it. Cheap shutters, which are so common that many people don’t even question the look, can give a flat, pasted-on appearance; authentic ones can make all the difference.

“Of the several shutter styles, board & batten is probably the easiest to construct for a D-I-Yer [see example to the right of a properly hung set of authentic shutters]. Notice how each shutter is exactly one-half the width of the window; this is the first cardinal rule to follow, regardless of how wide the window is. The whole idea is that you must give the believable appearance that they could actually be closed over to protect against sun, storms, or cold; therefore they should always be mounted on the side window trim rather than against the outside edges of it. Notice also that the length is exactly that of its particular window, rather than whatever standard length happened to be available from the big-box store; let’s call that the second cardinal rule. (By contrast, see the photo I snapped of one of my favorite “don’t try this at home” examples from a rental house in my city.) By attaching with actual hinges, either working or simulated, the shutters will be slightly folded back against the wall; again, giving a greater sense of depth than the “wallpapered-on” fake ones (as well as letting air behind them to avoid rot). Pivoting tie-backs (“dogs”) are attached to the wall and hold them from swinging in the breeze. Ideally, you should also have some sort of slide bolt that would keep them latched, if closed. While the cost of such accessories can certainly add up, if you’re serious about the details they are worth the investment, and available from numerous sources such as this one.

“Perhaps the most commonly used shutter style is louvered. If that’s the one you choose, you should look for well-made versions of wood or high-quality synthetic material (not the cheap vinyl clip-to-the-wall version). You want them to last many decades; I’d recommend two coats of primer followed with your preferred color of topcoat. With louvers, a paint sprayer will avoid a whole lot of frustration com-pared to trying to get a paint brush into all the nooks and crannies. Consider adding a tilt-rod [as in photo below] so that they look like they could actually operate just like “plantation shutters” on the inside of your home, and mount them opposite to the way the louvers are typically tilted: think about it, if most fake louvered shutters were actually closed in a storm, the louvers would pour water right down onto the window instead of shedding it away!

..“A third style are paneled shutters, which can look quite elegant, as with reader David Bramblette’s home [in photo below]. Along with faithfully following all the other shutter ‘rules’, his wonderfully mimic the panelling in the front door. (The circular detailing inside the squares, which I’m guessing David omitted for simplicity as he made them himself, is actually something I prefer; instead of being a slavish copy of the front door, they instead echo it..
“So… to handle the inevitable problem where some windows are double-wide? To flank them with shutters (even though it’s often done) makes for an odd look. You could construct shutters that look obviously as though they’re double-folded, similar to an accordion door, that would theoretically cover all the windows if closed. It’s a tough call, but my personal advice is to simply avoid shutters completely, with double- (and certainly triple-) wide window units, or in a case where there’s just no wall space at all on both sides of the window. Step back and consider the overall composition of the windows in the facade and the effect of which ones will have shutters and which may not, in terms of visual balance. (You may want to avoid shuttering the oddball out-of-place window to avoid drawing attention to itself, rather than dutifully mounting shutters at every window.) If you have that rare case of a home with a Caribbean or South Florida flavor, you might consider louvered Bermuda shutters that are hinged at the top, or consider if other options for dressing up the windows (planter boxes; fixed awnings; paint color choice; slightly different surrounding trimwork) are suitable or even necessary for your style of home.
Next month: some landscape design principles for the front yard of the ubiquitous Ranch.”

Ted Cleary, ASLA, is principal of Studio Cleary Landscape Architecture. His guest blogs appear every month, on all things related to landscaping, exteriors, and curb appeal for Mid-Century Modest and Modern homes.

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  1. Mark says

    I often look and laugh at the shutters some people have on their house, that and the fact that most are falling apart.
    Thanks for this!

  2. Gavin Hastings says

    I don’t laugh at someone for something they don’t know. I’ll take shots at others with the best of ’em….But that’s my personal rule- especially in the workplace where people can gang up.

    In the past 40 years, it is contractors, builders and siding salespeople that have changed how shutters are applied to a home. Go to ANY big box store and buy shutters-all you will find are 15″ wide shutters that have become an “industry standard”, regardless if your window is 34,36 or 40 inches wide.

    I think that once folks are shown the difference in balance that proper shutter sizing creates-they would prefer the more traditional look. The larger sizes are special order…and never on sale $

    As I stated in the earlier post- David’s shutters are perfectly proportioned.

    • Gavin Hastings says

      I have hung shutters angled in corners…I use hinges, but you can screw the shutter when you would normally (on the casing) angled and screwed to the perpendiicular wall. On very authentic homes I have seen 2 shutters hinged together; just as you would if they were on the interior, on one side of the window.

      Take a ride out into a historic area and take note of how original shutters are hung.

      • Tonya says

        Hi Gavin,
        I don’t know what to do with my house! I have a painter who will be painting it white next week but I’m now convinced that antique olive green shutters would look nice on my house…not sure because the windows are kind of strange. Not sure whether it would work. My house was built in 1939. Can you look at the picture and let me know what you think? Ok, just checked…how do I send a picture??? Please let me know.

    • Ted Cleary says

      Yes, most of the time I would recommend not doing shutters in that case — although Gavin’s idea below (angled to the available space), is one way that sometimes visually ‘works’ which I’ve occasionally seen. Worst is when (as I recently saw) a shutter was made into a narrow sliver to fit the outside corner of a house! At least i give ’em an ‘A’ for effort.

      As far as shuttering all the windows seen from the street (i.e. the sides of the house): sure, why not, if they make sense there too. After all you nearly always view a home obliquely, rather than dead-on from the front. (A fact often ignored by production builders, when they face a front elevation with a premium material like brick, then switch to cheaper vinyl on the sides….the effect looks like wallpaper. The right approach is for them to wrap the brick/stone around the corners, back a foot or two, so it appears to have some genuine depth.)

      But on your home, I’d avoid the side shutters (in fact, all of the windows) b/c of the afore-mentioned double-window dilemma. (The electrical panel I see immed. next to the side window would be a problem for that anyway.) I think perhaps the best way to go would be simply with improved plantings; I posted a “before & after” to that same website you used.
      Notice the overgrown shrub goes away; you might like to soften up the chimney with a climbing vine or rose. I’m assuming the tree in the corner (Crape Myrtle?) has leafed out by now & is worth saving, although it looks awfully close to the house. (Incidentally, if you decided to dig up & move it further out, that species transplants beautifully; ya just can’t seem to kill ’em when you move ’em.) The bedline sweeps out, with simple, tangential, bold curves, probably farther than you’d be inclined to make it. (Naturally you want it to become narrower where logical, e.g. by the elec. panel & meter, or a hose bibb.)

      You might want to consider re-positioning the fence (a great style for your home, BTW), jogging it @ right angles over more towards or around the corner of the house, to include this area……or open it up w/ a gate……..I could go on & on, it’s hard to offer just one or two ideas without considering the yard holistically.

      A last idea (only for the really ambitious & determined!) is to cut away a wider section of that shaker siding alongside the windows, then install wider window trim along top, sides, and bottom, say, 1″ x 4″ (either wood or Hardiplank) & caulk the edges. Really beefs up the appearance of them & adds to that cottage-y look your home seems to evoke. (But again, you have that pesky elec. panel in the way.) That front porch looks like a place I’d love to hang out on with an ice-cold glass of lemonade!

  3. says

    We just added shuttered to our home that I will be posting about on my blog soon. It completely changed the look and feel of the house. I love them!

  4. Happy Daze says

    Excellent post covering a very common architectural faux pas. I would like to reiterate the point that shutters do not belong on “ganged” windows, in spite of the fact that this setup appears in period photos and vintage advertising materials. Ted’s alternative suggestions for dressing up a gang of multiple windows are much better design solutions.

    • Ted Cleary says

      Here’s a screenshot courtesy of the link I provided for shutter hardware:–goodexample.jpg
      See how they have no problem with using shutters on single windows and avoiding them on doubles.

      It should be pointed out that a big reason the house looks so ‘right’ is that it respects the symmetry of its style so perfectly; window shapes & placement that line up so thoughtfully, up & down, across, and diagonally……..a subject I’ll probably shed light on sometime in the future. This “Old Way of Seeing” (to borrow from the book of that name that really covers the subject beautifully) was basically lost to builders as far back as the late 1800s. It’s second-nature to architects but the reality is that few homes are actually designed by them. And anyway, I’m not sure just how far down that road I wanna tread; what we’re about here on this site is less about perfect architecture than it is about celebrating our modest, everyman’s post-war home…..and that may mean loving its flaws, like the quirky uncle who always has his pants too high. Ya know: “Love the house you’re in.”

  5. blissing says

    I have wide casement windows that have original dinky shutters on them! I think my house is really a “ranch” style, as in horse ranch-like, so I think that’s what they were after.

  6. jaysmom49 says

    Great article. I cringe when I see those shutters in the “yikes” photo. When I had my shutters painted 2 years ago, I couldn’t convince the painters to hang them “upside down” with the louvers facing up. If they were real workable shutters, when they are open, the louvers face up. They thought I was crazy and hung them the “right” way. Since I can’t get up there to move them, I guess I’m stuck. The good news is that at least they are proportionate to the window, the main reason that I decided to paint them and not replace (couldn’t afford customs). OK, so they are aluminum but they look almost right on the house.

  7. Shane Walp says

    LOL! This makes me think of the house across the street. When I first bought my 1954 ranch…

    These houses have the high-mounted, long, rectangular windows for the bedrooms, with NO place for shutters. Somehow, they managed to get one shutter mounted. That one shutter (vinyl, 15″ x 30″ tall) drove me nuts from the time I moved in.

    As soon as the quit paying the mortgage, they were outta here like last year! And I ran right over there and RIPPED that shutter off!! LOL Finally vidicated! 😀


    • Ted Cleary says

      Sounds like that’s some version of an “atomic ranch” or at least some other hybridized Modern house. For the record, I don’t advocate that sort of dedication, but on behalf of mid-century Modern enthusiasts everywhere, thank you for doing your one small part to preserve architectural purity. :)

  8. jkaye says

    We took the shutters down from our ranch because they just did not look right. We have two sets of double windows and one single window on the front of the house, and those double windows just looked even more oversized with the shutters. They were just nailed on with no good hardware to make them look better. Now our house is the only one on the street without shutters.

  9. jkaye says

    One other thing — how about advice on how to pick the right color for your shutters? (The new owner of a house around the corner has been testing out new colors for the shutters on his rosy red brick house. Currently, the shutters are white, as well as the rest of the trim. The new owner painted a couple of shutters black. Now, after a month or two, he has painted those same shutters a sort of olive shade of green. Can’t wait to see what he tries out next.)

  10. nina462 says

    Just in time. I was going to paint my shutters this weekend – but the paint store was out of the base coat I need. Postponing that for a couple weeks- However, I wasn’t aware there were different types of shutters available. I was just going to repaint my louvered black shutters. I was thinking of painting them red or navy blue…now maybe I’ll just buy a new shape? nah, I’ll just repaint. thanks !

  11. nina462 says

    I do have a comment tho on hanging shutters. My shutters are original to my 65 ranch, but are just ‘screwed’ into the sides. I cannot attach them to the windows because I had new windows installed last year (much to my dismay).
    As another poster mentioned….how do we pick the colors? Any advice? my shutters are currently black but I was thinking of going red. My house is white w/red brick and black trim (door handles). Any advice–???

    • Ted Cleary says

      Nina (and jkaye),
      Since you’re the second person to bring up this aspect of color choice, I should offer some reply here.

      It’s difficult (obviously) to say “You should paint yours black [or red, or blue]” without seeing the context, which would include such things as material & color of shingles, wall surfaces, and trimwork. But some general thoughts: black is a pretty good universally stylish choice (think ‘little black dress’ hanging in your closets, ladies), but sometimes it’s a bit harsh. On my own home we ultimately chose a color very close to what we call in my part of the country “Charleston Green” — a very, very dark green that’s almost black. It’s an earthy tone that seems to work well with our beige/coffee-painted brick, and we chose it specifically to match the new paint for the [old] front door, as well as a wooden trellis I built along the property line that supports climbing roses. So Nina, black may be right for your house; generally it adds a sense of elegance and classic appeal, and would prob. be a nice counter to the other strong colors of red brick and white, & the black hardware. Red as an accent color (shutters; doors) with [red] brick’s a toughie; unless it’s really different e.g. very dark red, it just clashes too much.

      It’s hard for me to imagine white being a good shutter color in most cases (but there’s always an exception!); highlighting the chunky wide trimwork of an old house in bright-white, or maybe an off-white or cream, often does look great. (As an aside: sometimes homeowners paint everything alike because they’re thinking “same material” rather than stepping back & considering overall composition instead; the result is things like an oddly-placed crawlspace door sticking out like a sore thumb.) It’s this same notion of stepping back & letting the overall effect & proportions guide you — a skill that takes some self-discipline — that helps you figure out where to put shutters and where not.

      A little design idea that often guides me could be applied to color as well……I’m presently designing a pool and backyard for a new, “Tuscan villa’ styled home…..the predominant geometry is arches, but rather than repeat that in my design, which I think would come off as just “too much”, I look for a less-obvious, subordinate design detail that nevertheless appears in several places on the house: a square. So by echoing that square motif, it’s a more understated, less in-your-face way to make landscape sympathetic with house. How this ties into a discussion of color is, oftentimes (say, with a brick house), you want to match the mortar color (the subordinate thing) rather than the brick color, when adding woodworking elements, painting trim, or what have you.

      Lastly, as in every pursuit once you know the “rules” you are free to throw them all out! If you live in a funky, unpretentious ’50s cottage, maybe the best choice of all for shutters is aqua, or purple, or sky-blue!

  12. Cape Codder says

    I’ve had a window salesman and more recently a painter comment that my louvered shutters were hung upside down. When I explained the concept of directing water away from the windows the response was “do you ever close them?”. Hmmm, now that you mention it….

    So I’m thinking that when my house is painted I will let the painters have their way and hang the shutters the “wrong” way. Since most shutters are purely decorative and will never actually cover a window it seems to make more sense to direct water away from the house. I do love the idea of historical accuracy, but common sense seems to dictate a break with tradition. : )

    I too am struggling with color; mine have always been white (blah). The main house color will be a gray/beige; I’m leaning towards black shutters but with a small cape cod I’m concerned that they will be overwhelming (two windows and full length door shutters). One other option I’m considering is more of a monochromatic look with shutters the same color as the house. Any thoughts on that combination?

  13. Olivia says

    Glad to see I’m not the only one who thinks shutters should fit the window and at least look functional. My neighborhood is all 50s modest ranches and there are so many shutters that are obviously just attached to the side of the house and on windows too large. Drives me nuts. I’m glad my house didn’t have any. I also think they should be on all the windows or none, because why would you close up just some of the windows in a storm?

  14. Elizabeth says

    I know this post hasn’t been commented on in some time…but I hope you get a moment to respond to mine!

    I am purchasing this home, and one of the only things that bothers me about the outside is the fact that there are no shutters. My (builder-quality) dad claims shutters shouldn’t be added to it because of the way the brick is designed around the windows. What do you suggest?


    • kim washington says

      The Brick window trim does looks nice so, I definitely wouldn’t put up Builder Grade/ installation style shutters on this home. That would be a downgrade to it’s appearance. So if you think that you want shutters they’d need to be a high quality panel style. That was sized & hung for a classy & realistic look.

  15. lisa says

    please tell me which style of shutter to add to my raised ranch. i have over sized vinyl casement windows and front door has a large oval window with 2 raised panels on the bottom.

  16. Lauryn says

    Okay, discovering this post way late, but hoping I can get some help anyway. We recently had to take down our only shade tree when it broke my heart by dying and now the western side of our house is just baking in the sun. While I wait for new trees to grow, I am contemplating awnings or shutters. I think the shutters would look more appropriate on my minimal traditionalist home (looks a bit like an English cottage) though I am not opposed to awnings.

    My question is, do FUNCTIONAL shutters even still exist, or is everything just to for appearances? I read that the best way to keep the house cool is to prevent the sun from even hitting the glass, so while insulated curtains help, they’re not as good as externally protecting the windows from the sun. Saw some external “solar shades” but they would look wrong, wrong, wrong on my house. Any insight would be greatly appreciated!

  17. lynn says

    My house is a ranch or a rambler. The lower half of the front is a red brick and the siding is an almond, front door is a beautiful oak door which I don’t think I’d want to paint. The roof are soft blended colors of greens, soft redish tones and tan. Before siding the top half of the the house was white, once with black shutters and once with a hunter green. Now that it’s almond I am trying to decide to leave off the shutters or paint them a new color. Sure would appreciate your opinion. We do have some really nice landscaping in front of the house.
    Thank you

  18. Rachel Vann says

    Thanks for this blog post! In the past, I have assumed that I would probably get rid of my shutters when I redo the outside of my house since I have double hung windows, but I am also interested in considering the folding shutter….do you have any pictures of folding shutters on double hung windows you like? Thanks!

  19. Juli R. says

    Moved into a 70s ranch style home. The shutters are non-operable, black plastic. I love the European (specifically, Italian) solid, heavy wood “planks” (?) that are on rails and slide over the outside of the windows in the wintertime. I didn’t think I could pull that off here, but this article gave me some ideas (thank you!)..I think maybe operable board and batten shutters might get me close to what I like.

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