All About Dentils and Dentil Molding

The Toothy Grin of Classical Architecture

portico of antebellum plantation home, with tooth-like dentils in the pediment and the cornice
Lines of Dentils Complement Capitals on a Classical Portico. Ivan Dmitri/Getty Images (cropped)

A dentil is one of a series of closely spaced, rectangular blocks that form a molding. Dentil molding usually projects below the cornice, along the roof line of a building. However, dentil molding can form a decorative band anywhere on a structure. The use of dentils is strongly associated with Classical (Greek and Roman) and Neoclassical (Greek Revival) architecture. It is especially noticeable in the pediment of a portico of a Neoclassical building.

The Correct Spelling

If the word dentil sounds more like a root canal than an architectural detail, here's the reason — dental and dentil sound alike and have the same origin.

"Dentil" is a noun from the Latin word dens, meaning tooth. "Dental," from the same Latin root, is an adjective used to describe the objects and procedures of a "dentist" (e.g., dental floss, dental implant).

When speaking of the "teeth" under a cornice, use the word "dentil." It describes what the ornamentation looks like (i.e., a series of teeth). The teeth in your mouth have a more important function than the teeth on your house.

"Moulding" is an alternate spelling for the millwork or masonry "molding" found on buildings. "Dentil moulding" is an acceptable leftover spelling from the British.

Additional Definitions of Dentil

Dentils should not be confused with brackets or corbels, which generally have a supporting function.

The precursor to dentils, when the Greeks were working in wood, may have had a structural reason for being, but regular lines of rectangular blocks of stone became a mark of Greek and Roman ornamentation.

"A continuous line of small blocks in a Classical molding just under the fascia."—G.E. Kidder Smith, FAIA
"Small rectangular blocks placed in a row, like teeth, as part of a classical cornice." — John Milnes Baker, AIA
"A small square block used in series in Ionic, Corinthian, Composite, and more rarely Doric cornices." — Penguin Dictionary

Dentil Use and Care

Dentils are mainly a characteristic of Classical architecture and its derivative, Neoclassical architecture — used to get that Greek Revival Look. Dentil molding is an ornamentation with little or no functional architectural reason. Its use gives an exterior (or interior) a regal, lofty impression. Today's builders may use dentil detailing to give a house in a development an upscale look — even if the dentils are made of PVC. For example, developers of the planned community called New Daleville, built on transformed farmland west of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, offered a model home called "the Melville." Architect and writer Witold Rybczynski described the model: "The Melville, with its brick front, delicate dentil molding, white keystones, and arched Georgian entrance, looks a little too fancy for its rural location..."

Because they are from Classical architecture, dentils were originally made of stone. Today you may see netting tucked high up and around these stone decorations, because dentils in disrepair can be dangerous.

In 2005, a basketball-sized piece of the United States Supreme Court's dentil molding broke off and fell onto the steps directly in front of the building. The traditional color of dentils is stone white, no matter what construction material is used. Never ever are dentils painted individually in different colors.

Dentil Examples in History

The first examples of dentil ornamentation would be in ancient architecture of the Greek and Roman eras. For example, the Library of Celsus in the Greco-Roman city of Ephesus and the 2nd century Pantheon in Rome, Italy show dentils in traditional stone.

Europe's Renaissance from c. 1400 to c. 1600 brought a renewed interest in all things Greek and Roman, so Renaissance architecture will often have dentil ornamentation. The architecture of Andrea Palladio exemplifies this period.

Neoclassical architecture became the standard for public buildings after the American Revolution. Washington, D.C. is filled with the dignified Greek and Roman designs, including a rebuilt White House and the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson building. The 1935 U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. as well as the 1903 New York Stock Exchange building in New York City are late neoclassical arrivals, but complete with dentils.

Antebellum architecture is often Greek Revival with dentil flourishes. Any home with neoclassical details, including Federal and Adam house styles, will often display dentils. Elvis Presley's Graceland Mansion not only has dentils on the exterior but also in the more formal interior dining room, in spite of the wide variations of interior decor.

Dentils, Symmetry, and Proportion

Sure, Elvis had dentil molding in his dining room, but can we — should we — all be so bold? Dentil molding is a very powerful design. In some cases, it's overpowering. For interiors, dentil molding can make a small room look like a torture chamber. And why don't you see dentils on bungalows or "minimal traditional" houses from the 1940s and 1950s? Dentil molding was designed to ornament Greek temples, not modest American homes. Dentils may be traditional, but they are anything but minimal.

Dentil molding demands proportionality and is innately symmetric. Our sense of symmetry and proportion in design comes straight from the Roman architect Vitruvius and his description of Greek architecture.

Here is what Vitruvius wrote in De Architectura over 2,000 years ago:

  • "Over the frieze comes the line of dentils, made of the same height as the middle fascia of the architrave and with a projection equal to their height. The intersection...is apportioned so that the face of each dentil is half as wide as its height and the cavity of each intersection two thirds of this face in width....and the total projection of the corona and dentils should be equal to the height from the frieze to the cymatium at the top of the corona."
  • "...the scheme of dentils belongs to the Ionic, in which there are proper grounds for its use in buildings. Just as mutules represent the projection of the principal rafters, so dentils in the Ionic are an imitation of the projections of the common rafters. And so in Greek works nobody ever put dentils under mutules, as it is impossible that common rafters should be underneath principal rafters."

Sources

  • Source Book of American Architecture by G. E. Kidder Smith, Princeton Architectural Press, 1996, p. 645
  • American House Styles: A Concise Guide by John Milnes Baker, AIA, Norton, 1994, p. 170
  • The Penguin Dictionary of Architecture, Third Edition, by John Fleming, Hugh Honour, and Nikolaus Pevsner, Penguin, 1980, p. 94
  • Last Harvest, Witold Rybczynski, Scribner, 2007, p. 244
  • Ten Books on Architecture by Vitruvius, Project Gutenberg EBook, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/20239/20239-h/29239-h.htm [accessed March 28, 2016]
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Craven, Jackie. "All About Dentils and Dentil Molding." ThoughtCo, Nov. 19, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-dentil-molding-177507. Craven, Jackie. (2017, November 19). All About Dentils and Dentil Molding. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-dentil-molding-177507 Craven, Jackie. "All About Dentils and Dentil Molding." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-dentil-molding-177507 (accessed May 21, 2018).