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Quoins: Definition, Architecture & Construction

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There are many ways to increase the visual impact of a structure. In this lesson, we'll talk about quoins and see how they've been used throughout history, as well as their most popular arrangements.

What are Quoins?

Sometimes, talking to architects can be a bit confusing. For example, you may hear architects walking past an old building suddenly start talking about coins. Before you start looking around for loose change, you should know; they're not talking about currency. In architecture, quoins are external cornerstones at the edges of stone or brick buildings.

So how do quoins work, exactly? There's an example right at your fingertips. Take your fingers on both hands, and interconnect them so that your fingertips interconnect at a right angle. Right now, your fingertips are quoins. Just be careful saying that aloud. People might think you're crazy.

The cornerstones where the walls intersect are architectural quoins.
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History and Function

Obviously, the existence of quoin-like structural elements has existed since the first people built two walls that connected at right angle. The first conscientious use of these as defined architectural features, however, dates back to ancient Rome. The Romans started finding ways to emphasize the external cornerstones of stone and brick buildings, using it to visually contain the structure and increase the appearance of stability.

That concept was maintained in European architecture, although it didn't really re-emerge in a big way until the Renaissance and Baroque eras. At this point, they started appearing not only at the very end of walls, but around doors and windows as well. While quoins were particularly popular in France, the term itself likely comes from the Middle English word for cornerstones: coins. Of course, that word may have derived from the French word for corner, so French influence is apparent regardless.

Our modern understanding of quoins is defined by their usage during the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Since they are part of the wall, quoins are inherently structural. However, in terms of structure they aren't that different from other stone or brick elements of the wall. What we really use them for is decoration. Quoins almost always look different from the rest of the wall, either by varying the material, color, or texture of the blocks.

Construction and Patterns

With their joint aesthetic and functional features, it's important to understand how quoins are built. The most popular way to lay the quoins in place is with a toothed pattern. As the terminal stone in the wall, you see both the long side (the stretcher) and short side (the header) of the rectangular block, so in a toothed pattern you simply alternate which one is facing outwards.

If we go back to using your fingertips as quoins, the fingernail is the stretcher, while the fleshy part of the fingertip is the header. See how they alternate in terms of which one is facing outwards? This basic pattern has been used since ancient Roman times.

Quoins in a toothed pattern
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