Replacing Brackets and Corbels

Scott Gibson, Contributing Editor

Many houses built these days are plain vanilla compared to the more elaborate styles of the past. It may be the current mood of architecture or the need for homebuyers to pinch pennies, but details like heavy corbels and detailed brackets at roof overhangs have largely fallen by the wayside. Yet they were signature details of some architectural eras gone by. A Victorian house without elaborate spindle brackets along porch eaves would be a half-completed thought - akin to a 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz without gigantic tail fins.

In the old days, brackets were made from wood, and corbels could be carved from stone, wood, or another material like plaster. Replacing them with exact duplicates can be costly, and unless you are a slave to authenticity you may be better off with a reproduction made from modern materials. Unlike their original wood counterparts, they won't rot. The nooks and crannies that make this architectural trim so distinctive also offer plenty of places for water to collect. Maintain it as you might, wood eventually fails.

The many coats of paint applied over the years can create another disadvantage: Surfaces eventually get bumpy and uneven unless the wood is scraped bare before each paint coat. Newer materials aren't nearly as susceptible to cracking, insect damage, or decay.

Modern replicas are made from a variety of synthetic materials - molded urethane, plastic resin, fiberglass, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). They are decorative, not structural, but they mimic the look of much more costly materials and will last longer without the maintenance.

Wood, of course, is still available. But when you compare prices, the synthetics start to look very attractive. At one Web retailer, for instance, a carved wood corbel was just under $50 while a urethane equivalent was $14. Given the extensive catalog offerings, you'll probably be able to match what you already have on your house.

Custom corbels are another option. If nothing in stock appeals to you, consider a custom casting. This isn't cheap, certainly not the best idea if you only want one or two corbels. But if you're replacing several dozen - and you want to match the originals exactly - it's an option worth exploring.

One retailer I spoke with had recently been asked to reproduce exterior corbels originally been made from plaster. The shop made a new mold and produced several dozen corbels - this time in urethane. The customer got an exact replica in a material that is essentially weatherproof, and it's unlikely that anyone looking at the house could tell the difference.

That's progress.

About the Author
An accomplished woodworker and carpenter, Scott Gibson is the former editor of Fine Woodworking magazine, and a former editor at Today's Homeowner and Fine Homebuilding magazines. He also is former managing editor of the Kennebec Journal, a daily newspaper in Maine.

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