The Fancy Look of Bargeboard

Victorian Choices to Decorate a Gable

scallopped trim along the roofline of a shingled home
Detail of Bargeboard Trim on Martha's Vineyard House in Massachusetts. Gary D Ercole/Getty Images (cropped)

Bargeboard is exterior house trim, usually ornately carved, that is attached along the roof line of a gable. Originally, this Victorian wood trim — also called vergeboard or verge board (verge being the end or edge of a thing) —  was used to hide the ends of rafters. It hangs from the projecting end of a gable roof. Bargeboards are often elaborately hand-crafted and found on homes in the Carpenter Gothic style and what is commonly known as the Gingerbread cottage.

Bargeboards are also sometimes called gableboards and can attach to barge rafters, barge couples, fly rafters, and gable rafters. It is sometimes spelled as two words — barge board.

It was commonly used throughout a growing and prosperous America in the late 1800s. Examples of bargeboard can be found on the Helen Hall House in West Dundee, Illinois (c. 1860, remodeled c. 1890) and a typical Victorian-era residence in Hudson, New York. Used as ornamentation, bargeboard must be maintained and replaced to keep the Victorian-era look on today's historic dwellings.

Definitions of Bargeboard

"A board which hangs from the projecting end of a roof, covering the gables; often elaborately carved and ornamented in the Middle Ages."— Dictionary of Architecture and Construction
"Projecting boards placed against the incline of the gable of a building and hiding the ends of the horizontal roof timbers; sometimes decorated." — The Penguin Dictionary of Architecture

In older homes, bargeboards may have already disintegrated, fallen off, and never replaced. The 21st century homeowner might consider adding this detail to restore a historic look to a neglected gable. Look at he many books that illustrate historic designs, and either make it yourself or contract out the job.

Dover publishes several books including 200 Victorian Fretwork Designs: Borders, Panels, Medallions and Other Patterns (2006) and Roberts' Illustrated Millwork Catalog: A Sourcebook of Turn-of-the-Century Architectural Woodwork (1988). Look for books that specialize in Victorian designs and house trim, especially for Victorian Gingerbread details.

Why is it called barge board?

So, what is a barge? Although barge can mean a type of boat, this "barge" comes from the Middle English word berge, meaning a sloping roof. In roof construction, a barge couple or barge rafter is the end rafter; a barge spike is a long spike used in timber construction; and a barge stone is the projecting stone when a gable is built of masonry.

Bargeboard is always placed up near the roof, on the piece of roof that overhangs to form a gable. In revivals of Tudor and Gothic style architecture, the pitch of the roof can be very steep. Originally the end rafters — the barge rafters — would extend beyond the wall. These rafter ends could be hidden from view by attaching a bargeboard. The house could achieve greater decoration if the bargeboard was intricately carved. It was a functional architectural detail that has become purely ornamental and character defining.

Maintenance of Victorian Wood Trim

You can remove rotten bargeboard from a house without harming the structural integrity of the roof. The bargeboard is ornamental and is not necessary. However, you will change the appearance — even the character — of your home if you remove the bargeboard and do not replace it. Changing the style of a home is often not desirable.

You do not have to replace rotted bargeboard with the same style if you don't want to, but you'll have to check if you're in a historic district. Your local historic commission will want to see what you're doing and will often have good advice and sometimes even historic photos.

You also can buy bargeboards. Today it's sometimes called running trim or gable trim.

Should I buy plastic bargeboard made of PVC so it won't rot?

Well, you could, if your house is not in a historic district.

However, because bargeboard is an architectural detail found on houses of certain historic eras, would you really want to use plastic? You're right that PVC may last longer than wood and this trim area does have the potential for a lot of moisture runoff. But vinyl or aluminum that is sold as "virtually no maintenance" does require cleaning and repair, and it's likely to age differently (for example, the color) than the other materials on your house. Mixing wood or masonry with plastic may make your house look a bit artificial. Bargeboard is a decorative detail that gives a house character. Think hard about detracting from the natural character of your home by using a synthetic material.

Can I make my own bargeboard?

Yes, you can! Buy a book of historical designs and experiment with different patterns and widths. Remember, though, that bargeboard will be easier to paint before you attach it to high places.

You might even engage the local public school "shop" teacher to make your project into a student project. Ensure the proper permissions (e.g., historic commission, building code) before going ahead with any project that changes the look of your house.

And remember — if it looks awful, you can always remove it and begin again.

Sources

  • Photo of Cape Cod Gingerbread Cottage by KenWiedemann/Getty Images
  • Photo of Helen Hall house by Teemu008 on flickr.com, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
  • Photo of Hudson, NY house by Barry Winiker/Photolibrary/Getty Images
  • Dictionary of Architecture and Construction, Cyril M. Harris, ed., McGraw-Hill, 1975, p. 40
  • The Penguin Dictionary of Architecture, 1980, p. 28
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Craven, Jackie. "The Fancy Look of Bargeboard." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-bargeboard-vergeboard-177500. Craven, Jackie. (2017, December 6). The Fancy Look of Bargeboard. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-bargeboard-vergeboard-177500 Craven, Jackie. "The Fancy Look of Bargeboard." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-bargeboard-vergeboard-177500 (accessed December 14, 2017).