Board and batten, or board-and-batten siding, describes a type of exterior siding or interior paneling that has alternating wide boards and narrow wooden strips, called battens. The boards are usually (but not always) 1 foot wide. The boards may be placed horizontally or vertically. The battens are usually (but not always) about 1/2 inch wide.
Historically and traditionally, a wooden batten would be placed over a seam between the wide boards, creating a stronger and more energy-efficient siding. Because it was inexpensive and easy to assemble, board and batten were used for structures such as barns and garden sheds. Board-and-batten siding is sometimes called barn-siding because many barns in North America are constructed this way. Even today, this type of siding on a house exudes a comfortable informality. Board-and-batten shutters, which use the batten as a horizontal brace, are also considered less formal and more provincial than louvered shutters.
Reverse board and batten have very narrow boards with wide battens installed over the seams. Like horizontal siding, the size variations will have a dramatic effect on how natural light creates shadows on the siding.
Traditional Definition and Spelling
"board and batten A type of wall cladding for wood-frame houses; closely spaced, applied boards or sheets of plywood, the joints of which are covered by narrow wood strips...." — Dictionary of Architecture and Construction
The words board and batten are hyphenated when used as an adjective, but not hyphenated when used alone. For example: "My home has board-and-batten siding. Our builder constructed the house using board and batten." Some advertisers change the "and" to a single letter to sell "Board-N-Batten" vinyl shutters.
What Is a Batten?
Most people recognize that board refers to a flat piece of wood when used in reference to construction materials. The word batten, however, is less well-understood. It's a variation of the word baton, which is French for stick, staff, or pole. Because it's how the batten is used with the board that is important, they don't have to be made of wood. In siding, a batten is placed over the seam. The original use of battens was to secure whatever it was attached to.
Both words—boards and battens—can be used individually. To "batten down the hatches" was a ship's preparation for a severe storm when batten strips would be used to secure door-like hatch openings. This use of the word describes the construction of board-and-batten shutters—a horizontal batten strip secures the vertical boards of the shutter. They are easier to make than louvered shutters.
Use in Architecture
Board-and-batten siding is often found in informal architectural styles, like country homes and churches. It was popular during the Victorian era as a pragmatic method of adding architectural detail to Carpenter Gothic structures. Today you can find board-and-batten siding combined with brick or stone exteriors and also combined with more traditional horizontal siding.
Two contemporary uses can be found on opposite shores of the U.S. In the planned community of Celebration, Florida, established by the Disney Company in 1994, the siding is used in one of their house plans, a Neo-folk Victorian. Celebration was designed to express an ideal community of American architecture, and the "homey" look of this structure fulfills the vision—in spite of what actual building materials may be used.
The second example of the contemporary use of board-and-batten siding can be found in northern California. Architect Cathy Schwabe used the vertical siding on a readers' retreat cottage, and the result is a much larger-looking house than it actually is.
Board and batten are sold by a number of distributors, in an assortment of widths, and in a variety of materials—wood, composite, aluminum, vinyl, insulated or not. Remember that board and batten is not a construction material, and oftentimes the materials used will affect the overall final appearance.
Beware of inappropriately using board and batten as siding on an architectural style that historically would never have used it—this informal siding can easily make a historic old house look weird and out-of-place. Also, remember that "boards" and "battens" become siding because of how they are used—today you can buy board-and-batten siding and even products like shutters.
Harris, Cyril Manton. Dictionary of Architecture and Construction. McGraw-Hill, 2006.