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Window shutters: How to choose the right size & more tips from landscape architect Ted Cleary

Decorative window shutters are a great way to add timeless curb appeal to a midcentury houses with traditional (rather than atomic) styling. Since summer is a great time of year to plan improvements to the exterior of your home, here’s a repeat from our archives: Landscape architect Ted Cleary gives us tips on how to size your shutters just 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. 

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 paneling 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.

Well-sized shutters

So…..how 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. He has written several guest posts for Retro Renovation.

  1. ineffablespace says:

    I think the biggest mistake I see on historic houses even if they get the proportions right is that people want to hang them upside down. (Louver down in the open position).

    I think to some extent especially on a midcentury house you can cheat a tiny bit if there is a design issue resulting from full width shutters. Maybe you can narrow less than 10%, and get away with it visually. I was involved in a house designed to look like an old house and on the first floor under the porch roof, the windows were slightly too close together to allow for shutters of the appropriate width to be placed without overlapping in between the windows. and the outer shutter would have hit the porch pilaster. (It’s best to design so this doesn’t happen, but sometimes it’s unavoidable)

    We ordered shutters that were a couple inches narrower than correct to avoid the overlap in the middle and the pilaster on the end, and you really couldn’t tell visually, because it was so close.

    On a true historic house where the shutters really did function, they overlapped between windows, they hit the downspouts, they couldn’t be opened all the way because they hit an inside corner or other architectural element. All of this got ignored. That’s just how it played out.

    But I agree with possibly just leaving the shutters off if that occurs on a modern house, I think those things would look kind of goofy on a house where they shutters (as accurate as they may be) are obviously a decorative element.

  2. Robin, WA says:

    I don’t know that I necessarily agree that shutters have to look functional. There are many examples of mid modest houses with decorative shutters that have cutouts in various shapes (rooster, trees, hearts). I think in the right application, this is a great and fun look.

    That being said, my 1955 ranch has fake shutters that definitely violate the oversized window/undersized shutter rule. My windows are long and narrow and the shutters look kind of silly (installed by the previous owner). My to-do list includes removing them to see what the house looks like without them. There’s a house around the corner from me that is my house’s twin. No shutters on that house and it looks much more “clean” without them.

  3. ineffablespace says:

    Sure, midcentury houses have “shutters” that are strips of lattice, or something obviously appliqued on the house. I think those are a little different than something that’s supposed to look like an actual shutter.

    The hole or shaped cutout in a solid shutter is historical and has a practical purpose. It’s not a mid-century decorative affectation.

    Think about closing a solid shutter. Where is any light coming from? Remember, the houses started with no lighting. If there is a hole in the solid shutter, it’s at least letting some light in and keeping most of the weather out while also allowing the shutter to be a security device. Solid shutters were used on first floors with louvered above for added security. And if there is a hole there, why not make it decorative. ?

    1. Pam Kueber says:

      Your comment reminds me of something I read in a book about the history of homes. It said that in early American days, houses were taxed by the number of glass windows they had. Or that glass windows were taxed. Something like that. The idea being that: Only the wealthy could afford glass windows.

  4. Mary Elizabeth says:

    Great article, and good design advice. My “coolonial” ranch house had vinyl siding added at some point, and the wooden shutters were replaced with decorative vinyl ones. The originals were in the basement, and I toyed with the idea of painting them and reinstalling them, but DH decided it would be a pain to keep repainting the shutters. So off the wooden shutters went to Habitat ReStore. The addition of a covered porch in front also messed with the shutter idea, as it attaches just in the shutter area of the windows flanking the front door. So now the front windows each have one shutter on the far side of the porch. I thought about getting some that were an inch or two narrower to fit around the porch, but after reading this post, I’ve decided it would look bad. Anyone have any ideas?

    1. Allison says:

      Mary Elizabeth, why not make a cardboard mock-up the same size as the shutters you envision?

      Spray paint them roughly to match, and stick them up on your windows where you can evaluate them for a few days.

  5. Ingrid says:

    My house is a typical ranch house built in 1960. The previous owners installed these builders grade black vinyl shutters which look fine from a distance but definitely not authentic. I live in Lodi, CA and we have a few nice Cinderella ranch homes which have those great novelty shutters. I would love to replace my shutters with something like that (Google Cinderella ranch and you’ll see what I mean).

    I would involve finding someone who could die cut a wooden shape for me though. Essentially for 50’s novelty shutters you can do a frame and then the die cut shape in the middle or do a solid board and die cut the design out of it. Im not sure what our symbol would be. I just love this style of shutter even though it’s clearly not meant to look like an actual working shutter.

  6. Phyllis Wiggins says:

    I have a 1959 limestone ranch with ornamental wrought iron columns on the front porch. Recently I was in NC and saw ranch homes with not only the columns but matching shutters. I live in the San Antonio area and have not seen these around. Any ideas on where to find them? My pattern is floral, but not rose. It looks more like a lily, but rose would probably be ok.

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