Fluted Columns

by Paul R. Martin



At some, long since forgotten, point in time during my childhood or adolescence, it occurred to me to wonder why architectural columns are fluted. It seems that most columns have those vertical, equally spaced cylindrical grooves all the way around them. Since you see fluting on modern as well as ancient columns, I supposed that the reason modern columns are fluted is simply to copy or mimic the ancient architecture. After all, the architectural standards established by the ancient Greeks, and before them the Egyptians, have been mimicked and copied by civilized societies ever since. The fluting is simply part of it.

But, I wondered, why would the ancient builders flute their columns in the first place? And, how did they do it? It seemed to me it would have been a very difficult feat for no apparent reason.

If you imagine yourself as an ancient builder and try to think how you would make a fluted column, it doesn't seem to be that easy. We know that most of those columns were built up from "drums" of stone set one on top of another. So, we can imagine starting with a block of stone from which we want to fashion a drum. It would have a cylindrical shape with flat and parallel surfaces on top and bottom. It's not too hard to imagine making the blank in this way. But then, we have to add the fluting. It would seem that they would have to have a gouge-like chisel and some way of controlling it to make the flutes so straight and uniform. How on earth did they do it, and why?

If you look at pictures of ancient columns, or if you are fortunate enough to see the real things, you will see that many of them have nice smooth nearly perfectly cylindrical flutes separated by an inch or so between each of them. But the interesting thing is that that inch or so is not always finished smooth. Instead, it looks as if the stone were fractured between the flutes leaving the rough and jagged surface of broken stone. Why didn't the builders smooth out those ridges? It would seem to be a lot easier to smooth them than smoothing out the concave surface inside the flutes. Maybe the ridges were smoothed out originally but they were broken off later for whatever reason. After all, the ridges stick out and would be easy to break off, while the flutes, being concave, are protected and would be hard to break.

But the broken ridges between flutes seem to be all over the column, from top to bottom and all around it. If the ridges were broken off later, it doesn't seem that the damage would be so uniform or so ubiquitous. It is a lot easier to conclude that they were made that way originally. But again, how and why?

These questions only vaguely nagged at me throughout my life, among a host of other interesting questions, and when they occurred to me, I satisfied my curiosity by expecting that someday somebody would explain it to me and by simply postponing the gratification of learning why and how until that day. Well, the day never came. I have not yet heard an explanation.

However, on September 27, 2006 the answer to my question revealed itself to me in a sudden inspiration. I had just finished cutting a rough 10-inch diameter hole in a thick plank. The plank is the bottom tread in the main outdoor staircase in my log house and the hole was to accommodate the newel post.

I cut the hole by drilling a circular series of parallel 7/8" holes down through the plank. Most of these holes intersected with neighboring holes but some of them were separated by a thin web of wood. I used a saber saw to cut around through all the webs and when the chunk of wood fell out from the inside of the hole, I had my sudden inspiration almost before the chunk hit the ground.

There, lying at my feet, was a miniature wooden replica of a fluted column drum. I realized that this must have been how the first fluted column was made. The ancients must have fashioned the drum by drilling a series of circular holes, just like I had, down through a block, or seam, of stone and then released it by breaking the webs between the holes. This would explain not only the smooth cylindrical surfaces of the flutes, but also the fractured surfaces of the ridges between the flutes. The only doubt in my mind was the question of whether the ancients had drills that could drill through stone. I just didn't know. But based on my sudden inspiration, I bet that they did.

Later, in learning something about early Egyptian stone masonry, I learned that they did indeed have the capability of drilling through stone, although I still don't know exactly what types of drills they had. But knowing that they had the capability was enough. A satisfactory explanation for fluted columns, at least to me, was clear.

To make a nice looking fluted column, the ancients would start with a block of stone with flat, parallel, top and bottom surfaces. This was not a unique requirement because it was also required for building blocks of which they made millions. Then they would drill the series of circular holes in a fixed pattern so that the flutes would line up with those on the drum above and below the one being manufactured. Finally, they would only need to break away the stone on the outside of that ring of holes leaving the fractured surfaces on the ridges between the flutes. That's it. The drum would be ready for the column (unless they also did some keying on the upper and lower surfaces to bind the drums together. I simply don't know about that.).

From that beginning, it was a matter of copying the technique at first, and then, as the structures inspired later generations of builders, both the technique and the style was copied so that even to this day, the style is copied even though the techniques for producing various columns in various materials might differ quite a bit from that "ring of holes" technique.

I might be completely wrong about this analysis, and if so, I will gladly abandon it and accept any more correct explanation if I ever learn one. But for now, I feel good about having figured out a long-held mystery by myself simply by thinking about it. I put this one up on the same shelf as the problems of why water doesn't burn, how the Incas built their stone walls, and why it makes sense that there can be a geometric figure that you can fill with a finite amount of paint but it takes an infinite amount of paint to paint the surface. I figured out the answers to those questions by myself as well, and I have written about them in other essays. I suppose I could also put my conclusion about continental drift up on that shelf too, but I was not alone among the crackpots who believed in continental drift long before plate tectonics became accepted. Anyway, it's fun to think, and it is fun to get those rare but satisfying inspirations.

Paul Martin

March 22, 2008

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