How To Choose The Right Window Shutters

Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters, and threw up the sash.”

That’s a delightful passage for a young child to hear, especially when it’s Mom or Dad reading it with all the wonder and excitement the line suggests.

Even if the youngster doesn’t know exactly what it means.

Mom and Dad explained, of course, that a sash is part of a window – the part that the writer “threw up” to look out the window.

And everyone knows what shutters are.

But reading this dramatic account many years later, it occurred to me that the writer described opening the shutters before he opened the window...how is that possible from the inside - aren’t shutters on the outside of the window?



A Little History

Window shutters in some form or another have been around as long as there have been openings in walls.

Early shutters were intended to cover an opening in the wall, protecting the interior of the house from the weather, from animals, and from intruders – long before the invention of windows.

In the mid-1800s window glass came into wide use in America , and changed the way shutters are used.  Shutters were no longer needed to protect the house; they were needed to protect the fragile and expensive glass.

But as window quality improved, protection from the elements became less important.  And shutters – when they were used – became mostly decoration.

Shutters remain an important element of the composition of the exterior of homes today, even if they only serve as ornamentation.

Well-chosen and well-placed shutters can be a great finishing touch; many home designs just wouldn’t be complete without them.

But poorly-chosen and installed shutters can hurt a home’s appeal and value.

Here’s how to get the right shutters for your home.

An appropriate place for
a single shutter
Shutter Size and Placement

It seems obvious, but shutters don’t work on a house that doesn’t have room for them.  If a window is too close to a corner, a shutter can stick out beyond the edge of the house. On a house with siding, a shutter shouldn’t even overlap the corner board.

Shutter placement can also be difficult if windows are too close together – the space between shutters on adjacent windows should be at least half the width of one shutter.

The size of a window or group of windows determines the width and height of a shutter.  Ideally, the width of shutters used in pairs on windows should be half the width of the window, and both should be the same height of the window.

That helps give the shutters authenticity; if the shutters were closed, they’d completely cover the window.

That’s the reason shutters rarely work on multiple-window openings – they look silly if they aren’t big enough to cover the opening and ridiculous if they are.

And odd as it may seem, a small window should usually have only one shutter.

An authentic shutter dog
Shutter Hardware

Authenticity also applies to shutter hardware and how shutters are attached.

Since they don’t need to be functional, shutters are often wrongly attached directly to a home’s siding or brick with screws.  From a distance they might look ok, but up close – where details count – they look cheap and fake.

Shutters should always be hung with operable shutter hardware, even if they’re never going to be used.  They’ll look much better that way and here’s a bonus – they can be swung out of the way so you can paint or clean behind them.

Operable shutter hardware is widely available and consists of two parts. Shutter hinges allow the shutter to swing, and come in a variety of sizes to allow the shutters to clear trim or masonry veneers.

Shutter dogs hold the shutter against the wall in the open position.  They’re decorative, in designs appropriate for different Architectural styles.

And a shuttered home with operable hardware looks much better than one without.

Board shutters on a farmhouse
Shutter Style

Different shutter styles evolved in different climates; hot humid climates gave rise to the louvered shutter which keeps out the weather but still allows some air flow to cool the house.

Solid or paneled shutters were needed in the colder climate of the northeast United States, where winter winds, ice, and snow might damage window frames and glass.

In rural areas, the craftsmanship necessary to build paneled and louvered shutters wasn’t always available or affordable, resulting in the creation of simply-constructed board shutters.

So home styles with a New England Colonial heritage should have solid or paneled shutters; homes based on the Architecture of the American South should have louvered shutters, and “informal” styled homes (“French Country”, for example) often look best with board shutters.

Paneled shutters
Shutter Materials

Real wood shutters can’t be beat for authenticity.   But like any other part of the exterior of a home, shutters take a beating from the weather.  Real wood shutters suffer the worst, and may require frequent repainting or even replacement.

Vinyl shutters are a decent alternative to wood and never need repainting but choose vinyl shutters carefully – the quality of these units varies widely.  Better quality vinyl shutters will hold their shape and color longer.

Composite shutters however, offer the best combination of authenticity and durability.  Composite materials vary between companies, but they’re often a combination of engineered wood, PVC, and fiberglass with a factory-applied finish.

My personal favorite? The “Architectural Collection” from Atlantic Premium Shutters.

Shutter Colors

A typical home color scheme has two or three colors; shutters should be painted the accent color. Sometimes that means matching the color of the front door, sometimes the color of the windows, but always a different color than the siding or trim.

Read this article on choosing exterior paint colors for more information.

Mama in Her Kerchief, and I in My Cap

Clement Clarke Moore wrote the poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” in 1823 from his Manhattan Island mansion, Chelsea.

The exterior walls of American estate homes in the early 19th century were built mostly of brick, and were often very thick – as much as 18 inches or so.

Such extraordinarily thick walls made it almost impossible to reach and open shutters mounted on the outside of the wall; so the shutters were sometimes mounted on the inside.

Wood framing became popular in the late 19th century Victorian era, with much thinner walls – and allowing shutters mounted outside to be easily reached from the inside.

Now can someone explain to me what a sugar plum is?




Need expert Residential Architectural advice for your new home or remodeling project? Contact Richard Taylor, AIA at RTA Studio.