Why do hand-carved capitals cost so much?

Master Carver Ian Agrell in this workshop
Master Carver Ian Agrell in his workshop

We bid on a lot of capitals. Whether the client requests Ionic capitals, Corinthian capitals, a mixture of the two (usually called Composite) or something entirely different, our estimates are often met with sticker shock. “Why do they cost so much?” We’re happy to answer this question to help the client become more familiar with the process—and more comfortable with the bid.

Hand-carved Corinthian capital for Fulham Palace, London
Hand-carved Corinthian capital for Fulham Palace, London

The Monarchy of Classical Architecture and Design

We see capitals as the monarchy of classical architecture and design. They represent and illustrate the proportions, complexities, and characteristics of the five architectural orders. (If you’d like to learn more about how capitals fit into the architectural orders, go here.) Consider how long it must have taken to build those ancient temples and cathedrals and to carve those capitals hundreds of years ago. Guess what? Nothing’s changed. We manufacture capitals in almost exactly the same way, using virtually the same tools and techniques. There’s no way to reduce the time it takes to carve a capital without compromising the quality of design. It can even take days to draw a perfect capital.

The construction of a Corinthian capital
The construction of a hand-carved
Corinthian capital

The Manufacturing Process

Capitals, and especially column capitals, are complicated to manufacture. First, we need to glue up a large block of wood, called a blank. In most cases, this blank must be equal in width to the measurement between the furthest outer points of the volutes, or the scrolls you see around the top. Whether solid or hollow, that’s a big chunk of wood. If it’s a column capital—that is, it’s fully round—then the block is turned, but only up to where the volutes start. On a Corinthian capital, that turned area will contain the leaves. There’s still more waste to remove: The area between the volutes has to be cut out carefully by hand (or sometimes using a bandsaw) in order to maintain the delicate shape of the scrolls.

Hand-carving a Capital

Well, that’s a start. Now the capitals need to be hand-carved.
Corinthian capitals typically have three layers of acanthus leaves that repeat all the way around the area below the volutes. There can be a couple dozen of these leaves, each one highly detailed and heavily undercut to mimic gravity’s pull. An Ionic capital is more likely to feature egg and dart moulding, which is less complicated—and therefore less time-consuming—to carve than foliage. However, both Corinthian and Ionic capitals have volutes around the top. In fact, a Corinthian can have as many as eight.

An Ionic capital, hand-carved in oak for the Utah Governor’s Mansion.

About those volutes. They are graphical, mathematical, natural, and artful all at once. Their execution can make or break a hand-carved capital. They must be crafted perfectly; if not, the piece just looks wrong. This takes a tremendous amount of patience and expertise, and we only let our most experienced carvers attempt them. A machine certainly can’t carve a volute, at least not credibly. Next time you look at a hand-carved capital, check to see if the volutes are clean and consistent with perfectly formed scrolls. They should resemble the shells of mollusks or the horns of a ram. If you see cinnamon buns, the capital is no good.

Bottom line: A 12-inch-tall Corinthian column capital with an 8-inch base, three layers of acanthus leaves Corinthian and eight volutes can take weeks to carve. A pilaster version of the same capital takes about half the time.

Unfinished hand carved French Versailles pilaster
Unfinished hand-carved
French Versailles pilaster

Budget and Design Alternatives

We always offer our clients design alternatives if their budgets can’t meet what’s required for, say, a Corinthian capital. Doric-style capitals, for example, don’t have volutes and can be as straightforward as moulding wrapped around the top of a column. Simple, yes, but effective.

Temple of the winds hand carved pilaster
“Temple of the Winds” hand-carved pilaster

In fact, any capital can be made without volutes or multiple layers of foliage, all of which greatly brings down the cost of design, materials and labor. There are no hard rules when it comes to designing capitals, though you can be confident that we’ll create something that fits your client’s budget while also maintaining your design intent.

Further information regarding capitals can be found on our site here

Ancient Egyptian Capitals

Restoration of Fulham Palace, London

Historical Room Design: Art Nouveau

Historical Room Design: Gothic


Visit our sister site www.ornapedia.org for further examples of hand-carved capitals. Ornapedia.org is a valuable research tool featuring hundreds of images from Agrell Architecural Carving and others demonstrating what defines good design and skillful execution in the ornamentation of a building or object.