I would be hard pressed to choose my favorite architectural term – but dentil comes pretty close to the top of my list. Even if you didn’t wonder about the similarity between dentil and dental (the word is derived from the Latin “dentes,” meaning teeth), looking at a neat, orderly band of blocks ornamenting a cornice just looks like teeth ready to chomp down on something tasty.
Dentils are ancient. According to the 1911 version of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the dentil cornice “derived originally from the ends of the squared timbers which carried the cornice of the primitive Ionic temple, and in the earlier stone examples copied more or less literally; it subsequently in the 4th century was introduced as a part of the bedmould of the cornice of the Ionic Order.”
Dentils are one of those details that you’ll need to look up to see – usually at cornice level (at the top of the wall where it meets the roof).
Dentils are standard and uniform in size and appearance (unlike most people’s teeth). Generally, the projection of the dentil is equal to its width, thus appearing square, and the intervals between are half this measure.
What architectural style makes use of dentils? It would be easier to ask what styles don’t make use of the ornamentation. In Kentucky, you can find dentils on Federal and Greek Revival style buildings in the early and mid 19th century, and then again with the emergence of the classical revival styles at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th.
Dentils are occasionally seen in the Gothic Revival and Italianate styles and are used sparingly during the Victorian period. Brackets, inset panels, and various moldings often take the place of dentils at this time. That doesn’t mean you can’t find dentils on buildings constructed when these styles were popular – simply that they weren’t as widely used as other elements.
Dentils can often be seen on Kentucky houses that combine elements of the Victorian period with the emerging classically-influenced styles (like the photo above).
As architects and designers began looking to antiquity for inspiration in the late 19th century (and reacting to some of the florid exuberance of styles like the Queen Anne), the classical dentil made a comeback and is commonly seen on Neoclassical and Colonial Revival-inspired buildings.
And even better than dentil? I sometimes refer to the “denticulation” on a building – now that’s fun to say!