Architecture is all about the details—Modernist architect Mies van der Rohe expressed this best with his famous statement that “God is in the details.” Shutters are inarguably one of a house’s most significant details; historically, they shielded delicate fabrics from the sun, protected fragile glass from inclement weather, and also offered security, privacy, and ventilation. Now merely window dressing, shutters are frequently misunderstood and installed as an afterthought.
For homeowner Michael Orman, keeping the shutters on his mid-Victorian Gothic Revival cottage in Rochester, New York—one of many along historic Mt. Hope Avenue designed by nationally and locally famous architects such as Gervase Wheeler, Andrew Jackson Davis, and A.J. and J. Foster Warner—was a must for maintaining the house’s historical accuracy. When he found pieces of the shutters on the ground one day, he knew it was time to call in the pros: in this case, Ted Robertson of Kirkwall Construction.
Old vs. New
For Ted, the first step was to determine the cost of new shutters versus the cost of repairs to the originals—if they could be repaired at all. Few contractors or home-owners would consider rebuilding or restoring these double-row, peaked-top shutters, each of which has about 100 parts that must be disassembled and put back together. Wouldn’t it be easier and cheaper to order new ones?
Ted called a nationally recognized shutter manufacturer and provided all the measurements and details. Including the extras needed to replicate the original shutters—like working louvers, tilt bars, and peaked tops—the final cost was just under $1,000 per shutter. They wouldn’t be an exact copy of the originals, but close.
Bonus: Learn how to repair sagging shutters.
To analyze whether the shutters could be repaired durably for a similar price, Ted took all the parts to his shop, where he and associate Mike Marini inventoried the reusable and unusable components. Like window sash, the shutters were constructed with mortise-and-tenon joints held fast with wood pegs. Many of the hinge-side stiles were rotted beyond the help of Dutchman or epoxy repairs. But the louvers were in good condition, except for paint buildup that left them unworkable.
Michael’s main concern was that the shutters look appropriate to the house. Ted worried that new shutters wouldn’t look right, and custom-made replicas would be far too expensive. So, he decided to repair the originals on a time and materials basis, estimating that the final cost would be less than or comparable to the new shutter price.
Ted and Mike started repairing the shutters by stripping paint from the ends of the louvers where their pin terminations fit into corresponding holes in the stiles, which freed the louvers from immobility. They experimented with a steam box to remove the paint, but ultimately settled on a heat gun to strip small areas (such as the stile and rail joints) and an infrared stripper along the louver-to-stile connections.
Disassembling the shutters was easy: Once the pegs were pulled or drilled out, the stiles released from the rails, and the 68 individual louvers fell away from the shutter. Fortunately, the tilt bar, the vertical stick that moves the louvers up or down, kept the numerous pieces in place and maintained the order in which they would be reinstalled.
Once the shutters were disassembled, Mike carefully stripped, scraped, chiseled, and sanded the remaining paint off the louver shoulders and pins that engage the stiles; to get the louvers back into working order, they needed to be assembled like new, with each pin able to rotate in its hole.
The white pine shutters had resisted rot for a century and a half—but because pine is a soft wood, areas around the attached hardware had deteriorated due to the weight of the heavy, double-sized shutters. Rather than reuse the old, deteriorated stiles, Ted and Mike made new stiles from white oak, a species renowned for durability and its ability to tenaciously grasp hardware screws. Although joining dissimilar woods with glue generally isn’t recommended, in this case it works because the louver pins are moving freely within the stile mortise holes.
After carefully measuring the original parts with calipers, Ted and Mike cut the new oak stiles from larger stock, then planed and routed them with edge beads to match the dimensions of the originals. They then clamped the old stiles to the new ones as a template, carefully marked the louver pin holes, and inserted them with a drill press. Rotted louver pins were replaced with mahogany dowels. The rail tenons and stile mortises were measured to match the originals; the mortises were cut with a mortiser, and the tenons on a table saw.
The peaked Gothic head rails also had rotted on the top edge where original paint had long since disappeared. (Unless shutters are removed for painting, the top edge of the head rail rarely gets painted unless a sympathetic painter notices deterioration or bare wood while looking down from higher work.) Using the old rails as guides, Mike and Ted made new head rails that incorporated a mortise for the center rail and tenons on each end to join to the stiles. They chose clear cedar for the head rails, since it is rot-resistant and holds paint well.
Reinserting all those louvers back into the stiles proved to be surprisingly easy. With the shutter laid flat on the workbench, Mike lined up the pieces as closely as possible, then gradually pulled them together with bar clamps until each louver was back in place.
When finished, Ted primed all surfaces of the shutters with one coat of exterior oil-based primer and two finish coats of white acrylic latex paint to contrast with the house’s fawn-colored bricks. The shutters were then reinstalled, bringing the house back to its original appearance.