Wood shutters can be purchased at almost every price imaginable. If you're not a professional in the shutter industry, how do you distinguish between high and low-quality products? There are a number of factors you can use to compare shutters before making a commitment. In this guide, we show you how to tell the good from the bad. And we debunk a few myths along the way.
We only discuss wood shutters in this guide, since shutters made from MDF, composite, and polymer materials are different enough in design and construction as to make fair comparisons with wood shutters impossible.
Telling High Quality From Low Quality
Let’s compare two typical wood shutter panels to illustrate the differences between higher and lower quality shutters. The first panel is made overseas, imported and sold by an American distributor. The second is a custom panel made in the U.S.
Both these panels are 12" wide by 21" tall. Both are made from Basswood. They are painted and have 3-1/2" louvers. Even with these common specs, you’ll see some surprising differences in their design, construction, and components (click any image for detailed view).
Good Design Means A Better Fit With Your Window
The most obvious difference between these two shutter panels is in the number of louvers they have. The American shutter has 5 louvers, while the imported shutter has only 4. The reason has nothing to do with aesthetics, but with how the shutters were designed. One is a true custom made shutter; the other is known as “cut-to-fit.”
This design difference is the single most important factor in understanding a shutter’s quality. Here’s why:
The overseas factory makes shutters to predetermined sizes; in this case, the heights of the shutters are made in 3” increments. So the foreign factory makes shutters that are 18”, 21”, and 24” tall. If none of these dimensions fits your window’s measurements, the U.S. distributor takes a shutter the next size up and cuts it down to fit your window. This means the shutters have to be designed with taller rails and wider stiles so there is room to cut. For most customers, the result is a shutter with more stiles and rails, but less louvers. Fewer louvers mean less light and a restricted view.
While the cut-to-fit technique is less expensive, the overall lower quality is obvious even to the casual observer.
In contrast, the American made shutter is custom-made to fit the window right from the start. It is designed to fit the measurements of a specific window. In this sense, it’s like a suit that’s been tailor-made for its owner from the cutting of the fabric to the final fitting. The rails and stiles are carefully constructed to the correct aesthetic proportions for both the rails and the louver area. The result is a more balanced shutter and a brighter and airier window.
Thicker Is Better
Another indication of quality is a shutter’s thickness. Stiles, the vertical pieces on the sides of each panel, can range in thickness from 3/4" to about 1 1/4". Rails, the horizontal pieces at the top and bottom of each panel, can be as thin as 1/2". Thicker stiles mean higher quality. More material means the shutter will be more stable and less likely to warp or sag over time. In general, you want a stile greater than 1" in thickness.
The stiles on the American shutter are 1 1/16" thick. The imported shutter’s stiles measure only 15/16" thick.
You may notice that the rails on both shutters are thinner than the stiles. In our experience, about half of all wood shutters are made this way.
The Right Hinge Makes A Stronger Shutter
Two basic types of hinges are used on shutters: butt and non-mortise. With butt hinges, the two flaps fold together (or "butt up") against each other. With non-mortise hinges, the two flaps are each only 1/2 the height of the hinge, and they fold together so that one flap recesses into the other.
For butt hinges to fit properly, the stile of the shutter has to be mortised, or chiseled out. The hinge itself lies so the flaps are flush with the stile’s surface. In contrast, non-mortised hinges (as their name implies) do not require this sort of modification to the shutter.
It’s less expensive for manufacturers to use non-mortised hinges, since they do not require mortising. However, non-mortise hinges are weaker than butt hinges, since each hinge flap is only half the size of a butt hinge flap.
Louver Shape Can Be A Factor
Louvers on traditional Plantation Shutters have an elliptical shape. They’re about 1/2" thick in the middle and taper off at the edges. Some manufacturers make louvers with a flat profile because they are much easier to work with. A flat profile is quicker to paint, sand, and stain than an elliptical one, for example.
Flat louvers in and of themselves are not a quality flaw, especially when they are as substantial as their elliptical counterparts. However, the louvers on the imported shutter shown here are only 1/4" thick all the way across. This is thinner than all but the very tip of the louvers on the U.S.-built shutter. In fact, the louvers on the imported shutter are about the same size as some of our wood blinds! Too flimsy.
A Rabbet Cut Makes For A Better Joint
Shutters are usually built with more than one panel. When two shutter panels meet, there are a couple of ways to join them. The simplest way is to cut each panel so it has a straight, flat edge, and let the two panels butt up against each other. The downside to this approach is that it creates a slight gap between the two panels.
A better way to fit the panels together is to rabbet them. A small lip is carved into each panel in such a way that one panel overlaps the other by about 1/4". The rabbeted panel blocks light and ensures privacy.
It’s common for panels to be rabbeted when they meet along an unhinged join. But the mark of a true custom shutter is rabbets are used every place the panels meet, even where two panels are hinged together.
If you’re thinking of purchasing bi-fold shutters whose panels are hinged together in pairs, be sure to ask if the panels are rabbeted where the inter-panel hinges are located. The salesman will be surprised—most manufacturers don’t do it, because most customers don’t know to ask about it.
Look For Dowel-and-Glue Joints
Stiles and rails are usually joined with dowels and glue, the most common method of joining wood throughout the furniture industry today. Almost every shutter manufacturer uses two dowels in each joint. This is true of all shutters, from the least to the most expensive, with very few exceptions.
Two Layers Are Better Than One
When shutters are finished with paint or clear topcoats, some manufacturers try to save money by applying just one layer of topcoat over a stain, or only one layer of paint over primer. High-quality shutters have two coats of each. The final coat imparts a smooth finish and rich luster.
In our comparison between the imported and the American shutter, the imported shutter has only one coat of paint over primer, while the American shutter has two. The difference may not show up in photographs, but the one-coat finish is rougher and almost powdery to the touch. In contrast, the two-coat shutter is much smoother.
All Shutters Need Periodic Adjustment
Tension control is the balance between how easy it is to move the louvers and how well they stay in position once adjusted. After many years of use, you may find that the tension on a shutter has changed and needs adjusting. Traditionally, manufacturers provide a screw in one or more of the louvers to adjust the tension. You tighten the screw to increase tension; loosen it to decrease tension.
Some manufacturers install self-tensioning nylon pins. Once installed, these pins cannot be adjusted. Although they are marketed as never needing maintenance, shutters with these pins actually need their tensioning adjusted about as often as any other shutter. Manufacturers that omit tension screws are doing so for one reason: to reduce their costs. Guess which method the imported shutter uses?
Beware of Plastic Staples on the Tilt-Rod
The tilt-rod is the vertical piece of wood running down the middle of each panel that attaches to each louver. You use it to adjust the angle of the louvers.
Traditionally, tilt-rods are connected to the louvers by metal staples. Over time, or in a household with heavy use (such as one with small children), it’s possible for the staples to be pulled out. Metal staples are easily repaired or replaced by pushing the staple back into its hole. A drop of glue can be placed into the hole first and the excess wiped off. If you lose the staple, replacements are available at almost any hardware store (of course, we will send you free replacements if you ask).
However, some manufacturers have switched to using plastic staples instead of metal. Not only are the plastic staples more complicated and fragile than their metal counterparts, it is almost impossible to find the parts or someone to fix your shutter when one of those gets damaged.
Buy A Quality Shutter…But Not More Than You Need
There are literally thousands of shutters on the market today. Most of them display a mix of high-quality and lesser-quality characteristics. Buying quality is important; but buying more shutter than you need is a waste of money. Hopefully you are now armed with the information to shop knowledgeably for the quality shutters you need and want for your home and lifestyle.
This table shows how our products stack up to these signs of quality.
The Warranty Is The Best Proof of Quality
The truest measure of a company’s confidence in the products it offers is the strength of its warranty. Most shutter companies offer coverage for up to 10 or 25 years, although some warranties cover the shutter finishes for a much shorter period.
There are three things to look for in a warranty. The first is the term; the longer the better. Second, see what is covered as some companies exclude the finish and other components. Finally, a warranty isn’t of much use if the company that backs it is not around when you need them. Make sure the company is well established so you can be confident they will be around for years to come.
Take a look at warranties for all of our products.