“D” is for Dentils: An Alphabet Soup of Architectural Terms, Part 4

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 on a porch, Lexington, Kentucky.

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.”

Detail of dentils on a column on the Church of St. Martin in France. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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 accent a bay window and a porch on a house in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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.

Dentils on a Greek Revival portico, Fayette County, Kentucky.

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 used on a decorative belt course between the first and second stories of a Colonial Revival house (circa 1900), Lexington, Kentucky.

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.

Detail of dentils on a gable of a dwelling that makes use of multiple architectural styles, Danville, Kentucky.

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!

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  1. Patrick Kennedy says:

    Dentils are one of the first things to go when a house is vinylized. Years ago, I was working for Bob Polsgrove on his house at Wapping and Wilkinson in Frankfort. It had been covered with asbestos shingle siding which mercifully he had already removed. But like vinyl pirates the asbestos shingle folks approached the house in the same way. Rip off every projecting detail and cover the house. Part of the work for Bob was to make upwards of 200 replacement dentils to be installed under the soffit. The house and the dentils are still looking good today, 30 years later.

    Love your postings Janey-Rice. Keep em coming.

  2. Graham Pohl says:

    My least favorite ornamental device.
    Grossly overused, like symmetry, because it’s easy.

  3. Rogers Barde says:

    I love dentils! I love the way they make interesting shadows on the appearance of a house, or any building, but especially houses.
    Are we in for an alphabetical architectural history series? I love it.

  4. Miss Maple says:

    Believe it or not, I had a large Empire style silver coffee and tea service & tray that was made for my grandmother. It had nice scroll work, the formal lines of that period, & dentils on or under every space available. They were a challenge to clean. My daughter-in-law’s dining room has them (but not the parlor or library). So I very willingly gave it to her.

  5. Eileen Starr says:

    Love your blog! Nice photos of Kentucky buildings with their dentils. Thanks Janey-Rice!!

    I don’t have the opportunity to travel thru KY to look at its many lovely buildings but I’d like to. Keep up the good work!

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