What is a Corbel?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A corbel is an architectural member which is designed to support the weight of a horizontal protrusion. The corbel is sunk deep into the wall to provide stability so that when it is loaded with weight, it will not fall or twist. Corbels have been used in architecture all over the world for thousands of years, with a number of interesting examples in cultures ranging from India to Central America.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

In addition to being functional, corbels are also decorative. In fact, in some modern design, they are designed to be entirely ornamental, with structural support coming from other areas of the building. Corbels may be made from wood, stone, brick, metal, or even materials like fiberglass and plastic, especially if they are ornamental. They consist of roughly triangular blocks, with the hypotenuse of the triangle being exposed while the two legs face the wall and the protrusion the corbel supports.

Historically, many corbels were carved, sometimes very ornately, with plants, animals, and other decorative features. Designers also played with the triangular shape, creating some variations which retained the supportive nature of the corbel and also made it more visually interesting. Some modern corbels are highly stylized since designers can focus entirely on form and not be concerned with function. Highly decorative carving continues to be common and popular, although structures with a more modern aesthetic may use more stripped down corbels with a less fussy look.

The corbel is essentially a bracket. It can be used standalone, in a pair, or as part of a row of corbels to support something like a balcony. In an ancient technique known as corbelling, corbels would be placed at increasing height and protection to take a wall from the vertical and into an arch shape. Corbel arches were one of the earliest versions of the arch, and some cultures took the arch and used it to make corbel vaults, enclosed galleries with corbel arches for support.

Although originally designed for architectural uses, corbels have also been adapted for furniture making. In this case, the devices are usually purely decorative, adding texture, style, and visual interest to a piece such as a cabinet, piano, or bed. These decorative devices can also be used to conceal keyholes, hidden compartments, and other surprises in a piece of furniture. Numerous companies supply premade corbels for furniture making and construction uses, and many will produce custom designs in specialized materials by request.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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