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25 Old House Terms Defined

Old houses have a lot of terms that you may not be familiar with. So, having a working definition of those terms will help save you confusion and overuse of phrases like Whatchamacallit or Thingamajig. Save yourself the hassle with this handy guide to 25 old house terms you need to know.

Balusters in a balustrade
Balusters in a balustrade

Baluster (Balustrade) – Balusters are sometimes referred to as spindles. They are the vertical members (often decorative) that make up railing on porches and stairways. A balustrade is the collection of the many balusters that makes up the whole unit.

Barge Boards – The more decorative versions of these are usually found on Folk Victorian or Gothic Revival homes. Barge boards (also called verge boards) are the decorative gingerbread like rafters that decorate the gable ends. On simpler homes, they are merely the plain final rafter that hangs unsupported at the edge of the eave.

Beadboard – This stuff is found everywhere in old houses. It is a tongue and groove wood panelling. Eaves are typically built of beadboard. Beadboard wainscoting is very common in period bathrooms. Porch ceilings are another place where this attractive yet utilitarian panelling is commonly found.

Casement Window – Unlike double hung windows which open vertically and fixed windows that do not open, casement windows swing open horizontally on hinges. The simplest type swing freely and have a basic eyelet latch whereas higher end forms have mechanical cranks that operate them.

Image credit: gjermund / 123RF Stock Photo

Clapboard – Long, wide wooden boards of horizontal siding that are installed in an overlapping fashion that creates an excellent protection against rain and weather.

Corbel – A decorative bracket (sometimes very large) that was used to support other building elements.

Cornice – The uppermost piece of exterior trim, typically just underneath the roof line. Sometimes very simple and other times, like in the case of Italianate homes, very ornate. Think exterior crown molding.

Dentil – While different from you teeth they have some similarities. The dentil is a small piece of trim (typical in Greek Revival homes) that resembles a line of teeth often found as a part of complex cornices.

Eyebrow Dormer

Dormer – A bump-out or place where the roof is interrupted by a building element that has a roofline of its own. Dormers contain a window and serve to add light and extra headroom to cramped attics. They are defined by the type of roofline they have (i.e.. shed dormer, gable dormer, etc.)

Double-hung Window – The most common window in old houses. Two sashes, one hung above and the other below that are positioned to slide past each other and can be opened independently of each other. Each double hung window contains two sashes. The sashes are suspended by ropes and iron counterweights hidden in weight pockets on either side of the window.

Eaves – The underside of the overhang of a roof beyond the exterior walls of a house.

Gable – The is the most common and simple roofline in architecture. The traditional top half of a triangle or peaked roof that appears on most homes.


Wood Lath

Lath – Thin wooden strips nailed horizontally to studs with small spaces between them to provide the base and holding power for plaster to be installed upon.

Lite (Light) – This confuses a lot of folks. A lite is one piece of glass in a sash divided by a muntin from the other pieces of glass. Window sash are called according to the number of lites they posses. For example, a sash with three pieces of glass is called a 3-lite sash.

Mortise Lock – Old doors typically have lock-sets that are mortised into the door itself. A chunk of the door the size of the lock is dug out to provide for the lock to be nestled inside the door itself.

The larger mullion separates these two 6-lite sashes which contain one vertical muntin and 2 horizontal muntins each.
The larger mullion separates these two 6-lite sashes which contain one vertical muntin and 2 horizontal muntins each.

Mullion – Kind of like a very large muntin. Mullions are vertical pieces of wood trim that divide one window from the next.

Muntin – Where mullions divide one window from the next, muntins are smaller pieces of trim within a sash that divide one lite from another.

Plaster – A hard and resilient wall coating made from gypsum, lime and sand used in most homes prior to WWII that was applied wet and troweled on by a skilled plasterer in a 3-coat process (scratch coat, brown coat, finish coat) onto wood lath.


Porte-Cochere – A portion of the building that extends over the driveway creating a partially covered driveway. Sometimes porte-cocheres are just an extension of the roofline over the driveway and others allow the second story of the house to extend overhead as well.

Foursquare house with porte-cochere
Foursquare house with porte-cochere

Quoins – These are still seen in new buildings today though they are rarely the real thing. In stone buildings, quoins are dressed stones used as a decorative element at the corner of a house.

Sash – A single wood frame piece of a window that contains at least one lite and may or may not contain muntins. Double-hung windows contain two individual sashes.

Shellac – Before polyurethane, there was shellac. A clear wood finish that is made from a mixture of denatured alcohol and flakes from the cocoons of the female lac bug. Sounds a lithe gross but when the flakes are dissolved in the alcohol they create a strong clear finish that is easy to work with for furniture and woodwork. Don’t worry, most stores have everything already premixed, but if you want you can go find your own lac bug cocoons.

Stucco – An exterior finish very similar to plaster that was usually troweled onto the walls atop wood or wire lath. It is a very common finish on exterior walls of Mission and Spanish style houses.


Beadboard Wainscoting
Beadboard Wainscoting

Transom – A window above a door basically. Interior transoms often opened to allow air flow but allow residents to maintain privacy.

Wainscoting – Most often found in dining rooms and bathrooms, wainscoting is any type of wood panelling installed on the bottom portion of the wall. It is found in varying heights and styles that depend on the architecture of the house among other factors.


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12 thoughts on “25 Old House Terms Defined

  1. As in some of the mansions I have seen, like on the TV Program North and South, what is the top rectangle portion used for? This is either circular or square shaped.

  2. Looking for the name of purely decorative heavy carved wooden thingies attached to corner edges of gables on my son’s Queen Anne Victorian house circa 1878. I have pictures.

  3. I’m looking for the term for decorative wood going underneath a beam on a porch extending from post to post

  4. What would you call a triangle shaped window at the top of the wall just under the eaves that runs the whole length of one side of the the house of a 1953 CA ranch?

  5. I bought a house built in 1921 and we have 236 of whatever these are. Can some one help me name them?

    They’re under the eaves and are long boards that protrude from the house horizontally to the edge of the eave cut/carved from 2×6 boards with a ball shape on the end. From what I can gather, they’re not a Corbel or a bracket. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    I have pictures that wouldn’t attach if that would help.

    1. I believe the term you’re looking for is Modillions? They were often carved in an ornate scroll pattern on old traditional buildings, and are often found as simplified flat stock on early 20th century examples.

  6. Also an old term not used anymore was “scantlins”. small pieces of wood used in framing, on homes and especially shipbuilding.

  7. I have wood framed double hung windows. House built in 1906. My top sashes have a graceful extension at the bottom of each side. What is this called?

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