What Is a Corbel?

People often ask "what would I use a corbel for? Where do you put them?" Corbels are the workhorses of architecture. Traditionally, a piece of masonry jutting out of a wall to carry an overhanging weight is called a corbel. This technique has been used by builders since prehistoric times in all types of architecture. As buildings evolved and became more ornate so did the corbels. The Mayans, Romans and Greeks all found corbels an ideal place to add carved ornamentation making them decorative as well as functional. When architectural styles trended toward excess ornamentation, corbels were frequently added strictly for decorative purposes.

So what about today? Most modern architects, designers and decorators restrict the use of corbels to places where they support or appear to support something. Does this restrict their use? Hardly. Let's look at some popular examples.

1. Fireplace Mantels. Easily one of the most obvious places to find functioning corbels. Something has to hold up the mantle. They are available in any style from simple rough sawn timber to deeply carved and highly ornate. The corbels you choose can easily help make your fireplace the focal point of any room design.

2. Countertops. Another often overlooked place that corbels are frequently used is to support countertops, especially natural stone tops. The amount of overhang for a countertop is limited by the material. By adding the appropriate size and number of corbels for support it's possible to dramatically increase the overhang and create usable breakfast bars and desk areas.

3. Doorways. Using corbels on the inside of an opening between the header and the doorjamb to create an effect not unlike an arch is a common use of corbels. But you can also use corbels to create a capital at the top of the casing before, a great idea for more decorative designs. This is especially effective with an exterior entry.

4. Wall Hung Cabinets. Corbels are a great way to add support and ornamentation to wall hung cabinets. Adding carved hardwood corbels finished to match your cabinet takes it to the realm of fine furniture. As an added bonus the corbels can be used to help hide any undercabinet lighting you might be using.

5. Curtain Rods and Valances. Using corbels for the end support pieces of curtain rods and curtain valances is a natural. With the huge selection available you're sure to be able to find something you like.

6. Shelves. When appearance counts, replace those ugly metal brackets with corbels. Want to add a plate rail to your breakfast nook? Use polyurethane corbels and three-quarter inch lumber painted to match your trim. Want to add a shelf above your beautiful stained oak mantle? Use carved or plain Oak corbels and a piece of three-quarter inch oak from your favorite lumberyard.

These are just some of the ways that you can use corbels to add a decorative element to the interior of your home. However, the exterior of your home has an equal number of appropriate places to use corbels as well. Any overhanging surface is fair game to add a row of corbels for decoration. Here are just a few examples.

1. Windowboxes. These are a great way to add garden space to even the smallest of homes. You can make them as decorative or as plain as you would like just by your choice of corbel.

2. Bay Windows. The addition of corbels to a bay window can add interest and define style.

3. Exposed Rafters Tails. Attaching corbels to the bottom edge of exposed rafters tails can add a lot of interesting detail to the eaves.

4. Eaves. A row of corbels along the eaves will add a feeling of weight along with needed ornamentation to revival designs.

There is really no end to the places you can use corbels and it's been that way for thousands of years. Corbels come in sizes as small as 2 inches to as tall as 4 feet. You can use a corbel anywhere that could use a little support or a little ornamentation. You are sure to find a decorative design that fits your style.