By Demetra Aposporos
One of the hallmarks of the Victorian era was a desire to be noticed. It’s a theme that repeated itself on every aspect of home furnishings of the day. Furniture was dripping in ornament, hardware was intricately incised, and buildings were adorned with every manner of attention-grabbing detail—from gingerbread trim to stained glass windows to seductively turned porch rails. Even exterior walls vied for attention through rows of patterned shingles, a technique with the funny- and formal-sounding name imbrication.
Victorian architects managed to use common cedar shingles to wildly decorative effect. These architects took simple pieces of wood—albeit ones handsomely cut across their butt ends—and placed them in rows to form distinctive patterns that managed to draw the eyes of observers as effectively as a wolf-whistle turns heads on a crowded street.
The patterns could be simple, like a single band of fancy shingles running three or four deep around the middle of a house, which is known as a belt course. Or they could be much more elaborate, with row upon row of shingles of different shapes and styles stacked one atop the other, top to bottom, much like a queen wearing dazzling crown jewels on her way to a royal ball. It’s fitting, then, that these most elaborate patterns were reserved for Queen Anne-style houses.
Queen Anne homes, of course, are known for layered attention to detail. While all Victorian-era houses boasted fancy architectural accessories, on Queen Annes, they seemed to cover every inch of available surface. Walls were the final frontier—and oh, did they get covered.
Some shingles were fancier than others, although all of these decorative shingles are referred to today as ‘fancy cuts.’ Back in the day, the simplest shingle designs might be square- or diagonal-cut across the bottom. But even these plain-Jane cuts could make dramatic statements across a house, especially when paired together in alternating rows. Mixing two rows of square-cuts with one row of diagonals created a shadow-box effect, heightened as the sun moved across the sky throughout the day. Paint those shingles different colors, and suddenly walls came to life in the pointy petals of a black-eyed Susan or a sunflower.
And those were just the simple patterns. On complicated, architect-designed high-style houses, it was possible to find five or six rows of different shingle designs. Shingles ending in diamonds or arrows were set atop round- or fish-scale cuts. Half coves were arranged in a line above square-cut shingles, their cutouts matched at the seams to form half-circles. A gable might be decked out in shingles with ends cut to resemble puzzle pieces, looking like something you’d find in a crumpled heap in the corner of a child’s room. The possibilities were endless.
Wood shingles come in two varieties, green and kiln-dried. Green shingles are basically natural wood fresh from the tree. Historically speaking, all shingles were green. However, it’s hard to get fancy cuts exactly the same on green shingles, due to their moisture content. Kiln-dried shingles have been slowly fired in an oven-like kiln. “We use a dehumidification kiln that’s the reverse of a refrigerator, blowing hot air across the shingles to remove the moisture,” says John Whorley of Cedar Valley Research and Product Development. Kiln-dried shingles are considered more stable because the drying process limits the amount of moisture shingles can absorb. That’s why they’re recommended for use on exterior wall applications today.
Several companies now offer kiln-dried, fancy-cut shingles that are pre-hung on 8′-wide panels. The benefits of these panels, often called decorator panels, can extend beyond their ease of installation. Because shingles are layered on a backing, they offer added insulation benefits (amounts vary by manufacturer). Manufacturers say panels use less wood per shingle because of the backing, thus saving some trees. Best of all, it’s possible to use them and still mix up different styles of shingle cuts to create traditional designs.
Paint was another important part of the shingle mix, adding another dimension to an already complicated display of architectural finery. Simple belt courses of decorative shingles would often be painted a single wildly contrasting hue. Houses with many decorative courses could show off separate paint colors on each one. The varieties were literally endless.
All of this frivolity arrived thanks to advances in the Industrial Age. Power tools and mechanization made construction much easier, allowing workers the time to add decorative touches to houses without adding much to the overall cost. As for the rationale behind running courses of wood shingles in staggered and overlapping installations in the first place—a practice that made decorative treatments easy to pull off—it was motivated by rather practical considerations: Staggered and overlapping shingles shed water pretty efficiently.
No matter how good the installation, though, or even the quality of wood used, shingled walls can’t last forever, though some can last a century or more. Eventually, time and weather combine to make repair of select shingles, or replacement of the entire bunch, a necessity. When this happens, it’s good to know that modern options are available to help deck your Queen out in all her finery once more.Published in: Old-House Journal May/June 2008