Many companies are dedicated to supplying reproduction Victorian ornamentation, but for the home craftsman, basic gingerbread is easy to create. Here’s how.
Story and Photos by Brian Slemming
Home decoration is an art as old as mankind. Pre-historic man often painted the walls of the family cave. The medieval hunter hung antlers outside his humble home.
As mankind became more sophisticated, so did the manner of ornamentation. Early buildings needed brackets, supports and hand rails, and they provided an opportunity to combine decoration with utilitarianism. Skilled carpenters keenly embraced the challenge. When this style was first described as gingerbread is unclear, but it dates back to at least the 16th century.
The trend reached its peak during the Victorian era, when the love of intricate patterns influenced every architect, builder and home owner. In the 100 years between 1810 and 1910, the gingerbread fad was at its height. Hundreds of skilled carpenters were employed, using machines designed to cut, turn and shape thousands of board feet of the decorative trim.
Catalogues displaying unique gingerbread designs began to appear. One of the most comprehensive was produced by the Lawton Company of New Brunswick in 1904. It demonstrates the wide variety of gingerbread available. It includes stair balusters and newels, brackets, door-caps, verge boards, gable ends, pickets and fence posts, porch spindles and brackets – page after page of them. Not surprisingly, the more expensive a property, the greater the amount of ornamentation. But even the humblest of homes was not really finished until it was adorned with a piece of gingerbread.
The process has had a variety of names. Gingerbread is the most common, but it has also been known as carpenter’s lace, bric-a-brac, gothic and fretwork. The trend toward ornate gingerbread fell away as the twentieth century began. But now, with the desire to retain our heritage, the love of the intricate decoration is with us again. Many companies are dedicated to supplying reproduction Victorian ornamentation, but for the home craftsman, basic gingerbread is easy to create. With the current generation of tools and minimal skill, the production of even the most complex designs is feasible.
Strangely, one of the first problems encountered in producing gingerbread is finding a pattern. Patterns are as varied as the imagination of the early carpenters and builders, but it is not easy to buy working patterns or blueprints. It’s quite likely you will have to produce your own.
A good source of pattern ideas can be your local library. If you don’t find anything under gingerbread, look for books about restoring old houses, architecture and architectural history. Most of these books will have photographs of gables and veranda decorations that provide a selection of patterns. Also, Lee Valley tools has reproduced the 1904 catalogue of Victorian designs mentioned previously. The best do-it-yourself stores may have a book of designs as well.
Your first decision is what type of wood to use. As with all projects, you need good wood, but not necessarily expensive wood. My wife made a series of quite acceptable porch brackets using one-inch-thick pine and a hand-held jig saw.
Charlie Schlegel, an architectural carpenter in Plainville, Ontario, is a skilled craftsman who works to high standards and fine tolerances (see Step-by-step, next page), and he agrees expensive wood is often unnecessary. Anyone can create gingerbread using almost any wood. White fir, cedar, poplar or pine are ideal. If you want a bracket with a greater width than one inch, just use exterior or waterproof glue to adhere two or three pieces together. Schlegel goes so far as to suggest offcuts can be a viable alternative. “You will be painting the finished piece, and you can usually draw the design you have selected in such a way as to avoid knots and other blemishes,” he says. “For indoor pieces, you will probably want a natural finish and oak or pine would give the best result, but the underlying principal is to let price determine the wood you use.”
The tools you need depend on the design of your particular gingerbread project. A drill press with auxiliary support stands to hold long trim is useful, as is a scroll saw and handheld jigsaw. A variety of drill bits are needed to bore the holes that form the inside curves of your pattern. To return to my wife, she used only a hand-held jig saw and an electric drill for the brackets she made.
With your wood selected and the tools prepared, it is time to start.
The design will have to be transferred from the printed page to a working drawing. If you have access to a photocopy machine with an enlarging feature, it’s a simple task, but for those lacking access to such a machine, there is no shortcut to the grid system.
Purchase a transparent grid from the DIY store or make your own. Draw a series of squares on a sheet of transparent paper – a one-inch grid makes for simple arithmetic when increasing the size – then trace the design onto the transparency. Next, select a piece of paper of the size you want your bracket to be. Divide that sheet into the same number of squares as the transparency. The size of the finished bracket will dictate the size of the new squares.
If you want the finished article to be 11⁄2 times the size of the original drawing, your squares will be 11⁄2 inches square. Then plot a series of dots on the enlarged grid that correspond with the pattern, connect the dots and you have a working design. It can then be temporarily affixed to the wood with a spray adhesive or cement, and you’re ready to start drilling and sawing.
When producing a series of brackets, the pattern can be laid over a stack of wood, or the pattern can be used to produce a template from plastic, hardboard or cardboard. Both methods ensure that your finished brackets are identical.
If your gingerbread is for outdoors use, it will require smoothing and sanding, and the curves and saw cuts must be smoothed with coarse sanding or with a rasp. The finish need not be mirror-like, but it should be smooth to the eye and the hand. Paint your work, allow it to dry and affix it to your porch with a waterproof glue or counter sunk screws.
In a short time you have recreated a part of history, and are paying your own tribute to those long-ago craftsmen who accomplished this work without modern tools and techniques.