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Circular Based Arches – Part 3: Four-Centered Arches

Four-centered arches are most often found in Victorian homes for a simple reason: Victorian architecture is a blend of neo-classical styles and Gothic designs. And there is no better example of Gothic revival architecture than a four-centered arch.

Today, few homes lend themselves to such extravagant design, so the four-centered arch has largely been abandoned, except for high-end Tudor or Tudor Revival homes, which makes sense: the four-centered arch is often called a ‘Tudor Arch’ because of it’s origin in Jacobean architecture.

These bookcases are framed with four-centered arches. Though the entablature looks a little busy, this design might easily fit in a ‘library’ today. (Note: Click any image to enlarge.)
Four-centered arches were once found only in Gothic or Gothic revival homes, like Lyndhurst, in the Hudson River Valley.

The mirror in the Lyndhurst dining room over-mantle (see photo, above) is framed with a four-centered arch featuring finial-like tracery. This Gothic theme is continued in the flanking two-centered arches. A closer look also reveals a depressed four-centered arched doorway on the left.

The four-centered arch is not seen very often in modern homes, but when the style dictates, it can make a very dramatic statement. The compound curves of this type of arch can offer a regal feel to the space.

When defining an arch using four different arc centers, the possible configurations are almost endless. The shape of the arch can vary, even with the same span and rise.

Four-centered openings are often framed with a square surround. This creates a triangular-shaped space above the opening, and is called a ‘spandrel.’ It is often used as an ornament, featuring a decorative panel or carving.

The Gothic style is often described as the ‘Gothic order,’ as opposed to the classical orders—which explains why this entablature is included in an 18th century pattern book Gothic Architecture, by Batty Langley. Notice the pointed 4-centered ‘ogee’ arches decorating the frieze.  
  Pattern books often included proportional drawings and instructions on layout, like this four-centered doorway. Following the instructions isn’t always a simple task.

The Pseudo Four-Center

A variation of the four-centered arch is the ‘pseudo four-centered arch.’ This type of arch is often used on openings with a short rise. In this variation, the larger arcs that create the pointed top are replaced with straight lines that are tangent to the outer circular arcs.

A pseudo four-centered arched door decorates this walk-in cabinet. If you’ve been noticing recent trends in kitchen designs, then you’ll recognize the influence that Gothic architecture currently has on woodwork and appliance surrounds—especially stove hoods.

The pseudo four-centered arch framing the fire box of the mantelpiece below is subtle, but its Gothic influence makes a definite statement.

This inglenook at the Frederick Holland Day home in Norwood, MA is an extreme example of a pseudo four-centered arch.  
Another home along the Hudson River Valley, Olana, built by the painter Frederic Church, is also decorated in the Gothic style, though the masonry and tile work—and colors—aren’t what you’d expect! These are examples of pseudo four-centered arches with a much greater rise.  

As you can see from the examples above, the four-centered arch can be used in a variety of ways—not only to decorate a passageway or doorway. Certainly, elliptical and three-centered arches are more common than four-centered arches—most homes in America are based, in one way or another, on classical designs, not Gothic designs, which explains why four-centered arches are rarely used today—but they should be. And one of the reasons they aren’t used is because few carpenters know how to lay them out—especially when the arch proportions must be adjusted to fit an existing opening. Here are some Quick Reference Guides to help you.

The Classic Four-Centered Arch

This example uses only the width of the arch to determine proportion. The relationships between the four centers in this example are not the only ones possible, but are the most commonly used.

Download the Quick Reference Guide for The Classic Four-Centered Arch

Four-Centered Arches with a Known Height & Width

The following steps will help you lay out a four-centered arch when you know the required height and width of the opening.

Download the Quick Reference Guide for Four-Centered Arches with a Known Height & Width

Pseudo Four-Centered Arches

The following procedure can be used for drawing out a pseudo four-centered arch. This variation is often used on openings with a very short rise. Trying to fit a traditional four-centered arch within these constraints can require radii that are very large and difficult to work with. Replacing the larger arcs with straight lines is much easier and creates a different feel.

Download the Quick Reference Guide for Pseudo Four-Centered Arches


10 Responses to “Circular Based Arches – Part 3: Four-Centered Arches”

  1. Anthony

    Great job man, glad you did these tutorials. I won’t use it everyday but at least now I can use it as an option. Thank you for taking the time to put this together. I love being a carpenter and it’s good to see others care enough to pass on their knowledge

  2. Kreg McMahon

    Todd. Thanks I have really learned a lot from these articles and it is going to help me in my built in business. !!

  3. John Bunday

    Yet another great article. This is the information that sets a professional carpenter ahead of his, or hers, competition. Thank you. I look forward to Saturday mornings sitting down with THISisCarpentry. I especially liked the opportunity to down load the information to hard copies. I keep a loose leaf notebook of “crib notes” in the shop as a personal reference covering all matter of information I have picked up over the last 20 years or so both from the written page and verbal communications from some some very talented and colorful work associates I’ve run into over the years.

  4. Todd D.

    I am so appreciative of this article series. The explanation and cheat sheets are perfect for what I have been trying to understand for years. I am not a professional so I do not have the ability to experiment until I get it right. Because of that most of my projects are completed with what I know I can set up. I have been wanting to explore how to incorporate more arches and varieties in my work for a while and this series has made it very clear how and when they can be used. Most of all, it is not nearly as complicated as I was making it out to be!


  5. Trapper Haskins

    Mr. Murdock,

    Thanks so much for once again taking a seemingly confounding subject and making all the steps involved so clear. The downloads and you tube exercises are fantastic!

  6. Doug Simmons

    Yes, many thanks to you, this type of format is how I’m learning and keeping up with our trade, I never had the opportunity to get a formal apprenticeship or tutor under someone.

  7. Todd Murdock

    Thank you ALL for the kind words. I’m very happy that this series was so well received. I’m also glad to hear that I’m not the only one who has struggled trying to decipher some of the instructions printed in 18th and 19th century books! Thanks to Gary Katz we now have TiC, and the opportunity to revisit lessons from the past and present them in a 21th century format.

    As far as Gothic influenced designs being used today, I wanted to share this link to Brent Hull’s website. Truly inspiring detail and craftsmanship; featuring two-centered and four-centered arches.

    • Paolo Giandoso

      Hi Todd
      Would you happen to have instructions on how to build a Ogee Arch (both versions, 1 centered and 2 centered ) with a given length and height?

      I have been looking for them around without much success.
      Kind regards

  8. Doug Turner

    I’m really pleased that the “proper” way to draw Tudor arches has been presented here. I feel like so much of the internet is filled with “experts” who figure out the wrong way to do something, then post it for the world to find. Google doesn’t care if it is wrong or right of course, and we suddenly have viral misinformation. In short, thanks for getting it right.


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