A primer on real, old-fashioned, appropriate exterior shutters, suitable for old houses, includes weather-resistant options.

Houses meant to have shutters at the windows look best when the shutters are maintained or, if they’re missing, replaced. The shutters are a key visual component, and they also provide privacy and protection from the weather. “Shutters were the first storm windows, so they tend to fill the same opening as a storm or a screen,” says Colleen Murdock, owner of Shuttercraft, a builder of custom shutters.

Vintage homes deserve shutters with real raised panels, louvers, or some combination of the two. The most common type of exterior shutter is the fixed louver, but other forms include movable louver, paneled, combination, board-and-batten, and Bermuda. Louvered shutters are composed of horizontal slats held in place by stiles and rails. Movable versions are equipped with a narrow post that allows for the adjustment of the slats to permit more or less light, privacy, and ventilation. The best are built using mortise-and-tenon construction.

Shutters-in-a-Box system from Aerati

After the stiles, rails, and louvers are trimmed to size, individual components in the Shutters-in-a-Box
system from Aeratis assemble on-site in as little as 30 minutes per shutter.

Paneled shutters may have solid beveled (“raised”) panels or simply flat planks. Since individual shutters usually feature two or even three panels or sections of louvers, it’s easy to create combination shutters that include both panels and louvers. A typical combination might be raised panel below, louver above, or vice versa. Thanks to the wide availability of CNC, any paneled shutter or combination shutter can be decorated with cutouts in simple classic designs like stars, hearts, or acorns, and even complex designs like a golfer swinging at a tee.

Board-and-batten shutters are made up from vertical planks secured with cross members. A variation is tongue-and-groove, which have interlocking planks, similar to beadboard. Another configuration is the Bermuda shutter, a single, full-width louvered panel that is hinged from the top and swings out at the bottom, like older wooden storm windows. Bermuda shutters are increasingly popular in beach communities and tropical locales, where they may come in handy during hurricane season.

sanding shutters

A worker at Withers Industries sands a pair of custom wood shutters.

Many old shutters were made by hand, out of wood; in towns with lots of old houses, the same subtle characteristics pop up over and over because the shutters were made by the same person or company. In certain parts of Massachusetts, for example, it’s common to see shutters with slightly extended stiles at the bottom, on either side of the panels or louvers. Those extensions are called horns. The horns create a slight gap under the shutter when it’s closed, allowing for snow, debris, and rain to drain out.

While shutters may be specified in woods like Western red cedar and Honduras mahogany, many operable period-look shutters today are made of composite materials that are moisture-, rot-, and termite-resistant—and much better looking than the old vinyl ones were. One recent innovation in composite shutters is Aeratis’ custom Shutters-in-a-Box system. Made from paintable, solid, extruded PVC, every component in these ready-to-assemble shutters is engineered to mimic those in early-19th-century louvered shutters, from the size of stiles and rails to the thickness of the louvers.

 A good set of shutters not only looks authentic in materials and scale (like these from Aeratis), but also closes tightly to protect the window.

A good set of shutters not only looks authentic in materials and scale (like these from Aeratis), but also closes tightly to protect the window.

Once assembled, the shutters are fully operable. Because components like stiles and louvers are trimmed to size on site, the shutters can be customized to fit nearly any opening. Turnaround time from order to delivery is much quicker than that of custom-built wood shutters, and the shutters are up to one-third less expensive. The system includes all components to assemble and hang shutters, from stiles, rails, and louvers to fastening and finishing hardware.

In order to look authentic, shutters should be the same shape as the window sash. A pair (or single shutter, in the case of Bermuda styles) should cover the window completely when closed. Hang the shutters on the inside of the window casing, next to the sash. When you measure, determine whether the opening is actually square (it probably isn’t), note the depth of the reveal (the thickness of the channel allotted for the shutter), and that you have the appropriate amount of clearance needed to permit opening and closing. Before you order, check with your manufacturer for more help on measuring.

An old louvered shutter—with horns at the bottom of stiles and a delicate swag cutout in a raised panel—next to its replica made by Shuttercraft.

An old louvered shutter—with horns at the bottom of stiles and a delicate swag cutout in a raised panel—next to its replica made by Shuttercraft.

To Match Old Shutters

Need to match an old pair of shutters? Measure every element in the existing shutter—total width by total length, the length and width of stiles and rails, the number of louvers or panels, as well as details like louver thickness and the amount of bevel in a raised panel. (Some shutter company websites include a detailed guide for how to measure.) Send the measurements with pictures of the shutters to a shutter company with experience in reproduction.

If you need shutters for more than one window, it’s important to measure all of the shutters—or at least all of the windows. Both windows and shutters tend to be smaller on upper floors of a house. If the shutter is especially old or unusual, you may want to ship a single shutter or pair to your fabricator to guide replication.

Many shutter makers have a range of stock sizes and configurations, so they may begin the process with a stock size that most closely matches your shutter, changing elements until the new shutter matches the old exactly. “We make everything custom on order to begin with,” says Shuttercraft’s Murdock. “We can choose what you really want to match, and what you can afford to live without.” When hanging the new shutters, she recommends ganging the old ones together on one façade and the new ones on another. “That way you see a continuum” on each side.

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