A R C H I C A S T dan @archicast.com return to main page 901-323-8717
ADVICE on capitals and columns
 Free?  Priceless!
Want to know it all? Get yourself a copy of The American Vignola by Wm. Ware from Dover Publications. This is a clear, inexpensive, detailed source guide to classical architecture... Order it
How capitals are measured and ordered:

The capital's bottom surface diameter, where it sits on the column shaft, is what is measured. Capitals often have a larger ring near their bottom: don't go by that.
The capital's working height means the distance from that bottom surface to the flat top, even if the volutes (spirals at corners) or garlands descend lower than the working bottom surface.
You order capitals with just two pieces of information: the style and the size (bottom diameter). We also verify your working height. Round shape is assumed, so be sure to ask for square if needed.

Your capital's BOTTOM diameter should match your column shaft's TOP diameter. Otherwise, it won't look right.

Columns consist of:

  The base, we recommend one cast of concrete.
  The shaft, we recommend wood or the new thick plastic resins.
  The capital, we recommend reinforced plaster.

The height of the column is the sum of these.



Bases made of modern wood do not last long. Aluminum bases look bad. Pedestal bases have certain applications, don't use them everywhere.
Shafts of aluminum look like drainpipes. Concrete columns require masons and solid porches.
Capitals need to be a material that displays detail. Plaster lasts 100 years+ if painted and protected by the porch roof.

People think old plaster is terra cotta because it is yellow or pink. Plaster often turns these colors due to minerals in the mix. You can scratch plaster with steel but not TC.


Pilasters are rectangular columns built into walls. The architect William Ware (see book above) recommends against half-round columns emerging from walls - is the half-column glued to the real wall, or was the wall built as infill between columns? They always look lame. Pilaster caps resemble column caps, but have a square center. Pilasters don't usually taper, as round columns do.
Round columns usually have no taper in their bottom third, then gently decrease their diameter to 5/6 of their bottom diameter at the top. This is 'entasis.' You should be unable to notice any place where the taper changes quickly.
All the proportions in Ware's architecture are based on that bottom diameter. For example, the total height of an Ionic column should be 8 times the bottom diameter.
The different Greek orders each has its own set of proportions.
See
Ole Miss
page

Doric is the oldest and simplest. Its caps look like soup bowls on its shafts, which have a straight taper all the way down. Doric columns usually have a broad fluting and no base. The column height equals 7 diameters. When you buy wood shafts, they sometimes throw in cheap Doric caps. Roman Doric keeps the basic shape, but adds many surface details. Tuscan style is a variation of Doric.

Doric column and capital created for Dixon Gardens

 
 
Every order has many acceptable variations, here as well as all around the Mediterranean where they come from: Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Gothic, Renaissance and Empire variations abound. You're smart to take a decent photo of your best cap for us to identify.

Ionic and Scamozzi capitals at the shop

<

Ionic is the middle order. Its caps look like flattened, rolled-up scrolls. The sides are different from the fronts. The popular Scamozzi cap is a variation of Ionic, with big volutes (swirls) at all four corners, and all four sides are the same. The column height equals 8 diameters.

Corinthian is the fanciest. Its caps are tall and leafy, with small volutes at the corners. Its height equals 10 diameters, so this order has the thinnest columns. The Attic [Athenian] base may be used. The Composite style is a variation, with more prominent volutes.

Corinthian capital

But breaking the proportion rules- especially the column taper and its diameter relative to its height - looks crummy even to people with no training. Columns without entasis look like drainpipes, except in modern architecture. Mixing parts from several orders looks amateurish, too.
There is nothing wrong with using square columns. They are far easier to build and trim. Round columns are expensive, and fluting (done well) is doubly costly. For a discussion of the social connotations of round vs. square, read the first chapter of Gone With the Wind.

 

How columns are carpentered on porches

Capitals meant for porches have a hole through their center. This is provided so a round wood plug can fit in it. This also rests on the column top. The plug should be slightly taller than the capital's height, so the porch roof beam will rest on it, not on the cap. Thus, porch caps may be able to be spun! If your cap's outer half has been damaged by weather, try de-caulking it and twist the good side outward. Use a recommended exterior paint and primer. Avoid gloppy latex paints which fill your beautiful detail.
Porch rooves are raised a fraction of an inch using a timber (say a 4x4 an inch taller than the porch beam) hammered sideways, or with a porchjack. This is enough to slip the column/cap/plug out. There may be a couple of small nails going downward into that plug; try pulling them with pincers.
Sometimes the capitals will simply fall apart when lifted off the shafts; sometimes only many layers of paint are holding them together. Good broken plaster pieces can be glued back with shellac. For bad plaster - try Liquid Nails and a strip of inner tube.


Wood column shafts need to be vented. We recommend you find the tiny aluminum louver plugs and drill holes to fit them, then paint them. This keeps out wasps. Our cast concrete bases have "mouse-holes" which vent the bottoms of the columns. Concrete shafts may sound like a good idea, but their weight means a masonry crew is needed. We have just a couple of molds for them, and they're not very tall.

 

 
back to Capitals page  
main page