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What is a Dentil?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 31 August 2016
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A dentil is a decorative architectural element which may appear on a structure or a piece of furniture. Dentils appear to have originated in Classical Greece, and they appear in many examples of Greek architecture. Architecture and furniture design which references this period may utilize dentils to tie it in with the classical theme, and dentils can also be used in more modern design.

The root word for “dentil” is the same as the root for a number of tooth-related words such as dental and dentist. Dentils look like tiny teeth, consisting of even rectangular blocks arranged in a row, with small spacers between the dentils. Classically, the blocks are smooth and plain, although in some designs a depression may run down the middle of the dentil, creating what is known as an open dentil.

Typically, dentils are arranged in a band around the top of a building or object. On buildings, they appear just below the roofline, wrapping all the way around the structure. Furniture may feature dentils in various locations, depending on where the furniture was made and the taste of the furnituremaker. In indoor molding, dentils are classically used in a form of crown molding, appearing at the top of the walls next to the ceiling.

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The simple repeating theme of dentils is often said to be evocative of rafters on timber-frame structures. Some historians have suggested that the dentil was in fact developed to mimic the appearance of rafters. Conventionally, the width of a dentil is equal to the amount it extends from the face of the structure, and the widths of the gaps between dentils can vary, depending on the design. Careful planning must be done ahead of time to avoid ending up with a partial dentil at the edge of a building, as this can look rather jarring aesthetically.

People who would like to capture the appearance of a dentil can purchase premade dentil molding made from plaster, plastic, or wood. This takes much of the guesswork out of installing dentils, and makes the process much easier. On stone buildings, the dentils will need to be cut and installed by a mason, and they may be accompanied with other decorative architectural features as well. It's important to consider the context in which ornaments such as dentils are being installed; some structures can look fussy, forced, or pretentious with elements such as dentils attached, while in other cases, they fit right in with the look and feel of a building, or room, in the case of dentil molding.

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