French farmhouse renovation - August 2019

Nick Inman charts the ups and downs of doing it himself with tips and information he has learned renovating a French farmhouse. This month: the secret life of French shutters

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If I have to name one element that distinguishes my French house from all the other houses I have lived in, it has to be the shutters (volets).

These vary from region to region, and house to house, but they always serve the same two purposes (apart from providing an instant blackout):

  • They keep the elements out, notably rain lashing against the windows, but mostly the summer heat;
  • They make the house more difficult to burgle when it is unoccupied.

They look so simple but there is a lot to them, structurally.

I am talking here about traditional shutters, not modern industrial varieties, which will need much less attention but have no aesthetic charm.

If you are fortunate, your only job will be to maintain the shutters you inherit from the previous owners of the house.

Lucky is the homeowner with shutters that swing open and closed with ease for a lifetime.

You will need to inspect them for rot periodically and bring them down occasionally in the dry season and give them a coat of paint.

High humidity, near the sea, for example, may also cause rust problems – causing ugly streaks on the walls. A more frequent problem is sagging shutter syndrome, as the weight of wood pushes down on the hinges, making them impossible to swing silently and effortlessly into position.

A light smear of oil or grease on the moving parts may help – but if not, all you can do is take them down and try to adjust the ironwork that holds them to the outside wall.

Standard traditional shutters have three elements:

  • The wood itself, typically five vertical slats held together by a Z-shaped pattern of supports. Pine is the usual material. Oak used to be used as it is hard-wearing but very heavy. I can say from experience you need decent pine that has been properly dried or, despite your paint or impregnation, you will see damp creeping into the exposed grain.
  • The swinging mechanism, for opening and closing; a black flat metal bar with a ring (penture) at the end that slots over a peg (gond) set into the wall. This bar is fixed with 6cm bolts that must have rounded heads so they cannot be prised out from the outside.
  • The shutting mechanism inside: a handle and some kind of hook, or even a revolving piece of wood that keeps the shutter in place when the wind whips up.

There is a fourth, detached, component to bear in mind. When the shutter is closed, this little ironwork detail sits in the wall waiting for the panel to be opened so it can spring into duty. It is a swivelled catch called an arrêt or tête de bergère (because it is in the shape of the head of a shepherdess) and it stops the shutter flapping in the wind.

Making shutters is straightforward but hanging takes care. You have to fit the peg in the wall in just the right place so that the shutter swings open and closed without touching anything. This usually has to be done at the top of a ladder and shutters are heavy beasts. It takes practice.

My shutters are far from perfect but add to the charm of my imperfect old house.

In heritage-listed villages and some whole regions of France, a limited range of colours for shutters is permitted. In the Basque Country, for instance, shutters are painted either dark red or dark green.

Planning permission for a new house or an alteration may well stipulate the approved colour scheme. If in doubt, check with your town hall or local planning authorities.