What Is a Dentil? What Is a Dentil Molding?

The Toothy Grin of Classical Architecture

Illustration of dentil molding and photograph of neoclassical antebellum plantation house with dentil molding
Illustration of dentil molding and photograph of neoclassical antebellum plantation house with dentil molding. Getty Images, Illustration by crandym/DigitalVision Vectors Collection and Photo by Ivan Dmitri/Michael Ochs Archive Collection

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 the structure.

The use of dentils is strongly associated with Classical (Greek and Roman) and Neoclassical (Greek Revival) architecture.

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

Why Use Dentils?

Dentils are mainly a characteristic of Classical and its derivative, Neoclassical architecture—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.

"The Melville, with its brick front, delicate dentil molding, white keystones, and arched Georgian entrance, looks a little too fancy for its rural location..." - Witold Rybczynski, Last Harvest (2007), p. 244

Dentil Examples:

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? 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; Ten Books on Architecture by Vitruvius, Project Gutenberg EBook [accessed March 28, 2016]