The Magic of gingerbread woodwork
Among the numerous construction details that can be made with wood, gingerbread woodwork is the most appealing. It adds a touch of class to the beauty of a building and reads like the builder’s design signature.
— by François Varin, architect. Collaboration: Continuité Magazine.
Thanks to its wide range of species, textures and densities, wood can be used to design architectural components with intricate patterns and diverse shapes. Over time, this material was transformed into decorative and ornamental elements and has played an important role in defining the stylistic character of buildings.
From time immemorial, wood has been used to decorate and embellish roofs, frames, balconies and cantilevered structures, thus highlighting transitions and meeting points between various architectural components.
Be it in the Grecian, Roman, Gothic or Victorian era, wood was indispensable for the design of a building, while decorative elements, considered desirable, expressed the image of the owners’ ambitions. From 1840 to the 1900s, wood was the most popular building material in America. Up until the 1940s, it was abundantly used to decorate upper storeys and edges of roofs and gablesUpper part of the wall that supports the roof structure of a building. The triangular upper part of the wall of a building that creates a duo-pitched roof., as can be seen on several buildings from the late 19th century in the Rivière-du-Loup region.
Many reproductions of catalogues from the turn of the 20th century have illustrations of different models of wood ornaments that were designed for gablesUpper part of the wall that supports the roof structure of a building. The triangular upper part of the wall of a building that creates a duo-pitched roof. to be used as decorative strips or ridge crowning. In those days, the building industry was offering low-cost products and materials and these ornaments were sold individually.
These catalogues bear witness to the multiple uses of gingerbreadDecorative woodwork whose subtlety and apparent lightness are reminiscent of lace. woodworkAny joinery work or wooden lining, in particular on the walls.: we see ornamental ridge covering; decorative cresting; roof edges; balusters; ornamentation of cantilevered elements or of projections (porches, balconies, verandahs, loggias and orielsWindow projecting from the wall set on one or several levels of a façade.); crowning for dormersOpening with a glass pane located on the slope of a roof to illuminate / ventilate a space. and openings; specific ornamentations such as lambrequinsOrnament cut to shape, often with an openwork design, made of wood or metal, fixed on the edge of the roof or upper portion of a window., cornice A generally horizontal building element, with a sometime utilitarian role (to throw rainwater clear off a wall) but mostly decorative. returns, bracketsA support, often in an « S »shape, standing against a wall or fastened to it. and corbelsA piece of stone, wood, or metal, projecting from the side of a wall and serving to support a cornice, a beam, a girder, etc., and so on.
Old photos tell us the story of our towns and villages and also show the extent with which buildings, mostly residential, proudly boasted gingerbreadDecorative work whose subtlety and apparent lightness are reminiscent of lace.. The style and dimensions of this type of ornamentation varied according to its purpose, to where it was installed on the house and to the nature of its design.
Playing with shapes
Gingerbread woodwork is made with sufficiently thick pieces of wood that are sawed, then cut or turned. To make thicker pieces, the wood pieces are glued together before cutting out the desired shapes.
GingerbreadDecorative work whose subtlety and apparent lightness are reminiscent of lace. motifs are inspired either from geometrical patterns (oval, circle, cross, spade, heart, half-wheel, half wagon wheel…), or from shapes found in nature (icicles, leaves, snowflakes, sun rays, clove, stars, the moon, cattails, reeds, etc.).
Hence the angle braceReinforcement tie, often curved, set between a vertical or oblique part and a horizontal part of a framework., which is at the junction of the post and the porch roof that it supports, often reproduces a spiral scroll or curves inspired from sea shells. The lambrequinOrnament cut to shape, often with an openwork design, made of wood or metal, fixed on the edge of the roof or upper portion of a window., which is installed horizontally under the porch roof, repeats a single motif: for example, a series of bobbins or small posts. The cut balusters of certain balustrades will sometime create specific motifs when assembled one after the other.
These various elements are a testimony to the talent of our builders and bear their signature. Not only do they represent the distinctive hallmark of a building, defining its style and personality, but their conservation and enhancement contribute to its overall quality.
Bad weather rarely damages gingerbreadDecorative woodwork whose subtlety and apparent lightness are reminiscent of lace. because it is mostly installed at the top of architectural elements. LambrequinOrnament cut to shape, often with an openwork design, made of wood or metal, fixed on the edge of the roof or upper portion of a window. and angle bracesReinforcement tie, often curved, set between a vertical or oblique part and a horizontal part of a framework. are protected by the porch roof while gingerbreadDecorative work whose subtlety and apparent lightness are reminiscent of lace. edges and gablesUpper part of the wall that supports the roof structure of a building. The triangular upper part of the wall of a building that creates a duo-pitched roof. are protected by the main roof. So wood is the material of choice, whether it’s pine, spruce or cedar, given that the location of this ornamentation on the building provides protection from the elements. It also facilitates maintenance, as long as a yearly inspection is carried out on the property to detect any deterioration.
An inspection at the end of spring will reveal areas that have deteriorated and need to be maintained, repaired or replaced. A defective component can be repaired or easily reproduced with a template: its shape and profile can be drawn on a new piece of wood that will then be cut or turned. Of course, it is strongly recommended to use the type of wood that was used to make the original. The piece will then be sanded and assembled. A primer coat and two coats of paint or stain will make for a seamless assembling.
If a section is missing (for example, the friezeA horizontal band below the cornice intended to receive a decoration, usually formed by the mere repetition of a pattern. of a roof edge), the vacant space is measured. Then the outline of an adjacent section identical to the missing one is drawn on a thick cardboard. This outline is transposed to a piece of woodwork that has the same thickness and length as the section to be replaced. The outline is then cut out with a jig-saw or a coping saw. The new section is sanded, given a protective coating (primer and paint or stain) and is fastened with screws with their holes filled in to ensure an even surface.
An annual inspection of a building’s condition enables you to pinpoint degradation problems and easily correct them, thus preventing a minor problem from worsening and leading to more difficult and costly interventions. Preserving a building’s aesthetics and increasing its market value more than compensate for the efforts that are required for this periodical maintenance.