Lacework in Wood

As you explore this charming island, take a close look at the buildings and houses. So many are all decked with intricate fretwork, made of finely carved wood and classic wrought iron.

Your admiring eye is first drawn to the railings, which aren’t the usual plain vertical posts. Instead, you’ll see elongated oval cutouts at the top and bottom, with a round hole in the center, or several variations on that theme. Now, move your glance upward a bit to the soffits under the porch eaves, and along the roof ridge. Soon you are caught up in a myriad of delicate patterns. Hearts, moons, and bursting suns are popular centerpieces, while scallops, chains, and curlicues form a ribbon along the entire length of a porch or roof.

Such studied craftsmanship begs the question: where did fretwork start and how did it reach the Caribbean? Fret­work veneers were found on early Greek and Roman furniture, and an ornamental over­lay was even discovered on a piece re­moved from a 3,000-year-old Egyptian tomb. But it wasn’t until the 18th century that European artisans a­dopted elaborate patterns on furniture. Most likely, this in­no­vation accounts for the style’s ap­pearance in the Caribbean, as sugar barons transported Duncan Phyfes and Chippendales here to furnish their island plantations.

Gingerbread architecture in St. MartinTo see Victorian gingerbread architec­ture at its best, stroll down Philipsburg’s Front Street to the Guavaberry Empo­rium. Its eaves are decorated in a ribbon pattern, while a row of finials in alterna­ting heights march along the roof ridge. “Restaurant row” in Grand Case is another delight for fretwork viewers. Look for the Peter and Paul pattern, where the cutout from one part of a design is used to make its counterpart. This “robbing Peter to pay Paul” method uses every inch of the wood. In Marigot, wrought ironwork exhibits its own artistry, and several designs mirror the fretwork patterns.

Much of the island’s scrollwork was done with a handsaw or the early jigsaw. Some patterns are very complicated, sig­nifying amazing craftsmanship with the tools then at hand. Saws graduated from the hand variety to foot pedals to electric motors. Then in 1974, Helmut Abel from Germany built the Hegner line of scroll saws – a revolutionary leap in ease of op­er­ation that opened up fretwork to hobbyists. Today, scroll saws are so so­phis­ticated they even have tiny pin blades that enter a piece of wood at any given spot without cutting through the wood’s edge. Patterns are now rarely traced on paper before being glued to wood; instead, they’re computer generated.

Our tour of ornamental island fretwork is not confined to the island’s towns. Venture into the countryside to scan fen­ces, forts, and museums. Keep an eye out for the gingerbread farmhouses, par­ticularly around Orleans. This area happens to have a colorful history of its own... but that belongs in another story.