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Raked Baseboard Returns

Hand tools should be a part of every carpenter’s arsenal.

There was a time—not too long ago, really—when carpenters approached problems differently than they do today, and the solutions they conceived were different, too. Some readers might suspect I’m talking about raked crown on an open pediment, but that’s a rare problem encountered in only a few homes.

A far more startling example is running baseboard down a stair and turning a level corner—installing a return. This is a technique which, looking at the whole scheme of carpentry, one would think every carpenter would know—after all, it’s a common everyday problem, and any carpenter capable of running baseboard should be familiar with the solution. But that’s not the case.

(Note: Click any image to enlarge. Hit "back" button to return to article.)

I think carpenters are being shortchanged today. They’re losing out on learning solutions to common problems. They’re not learning simple, fundamental techniques. And all those solutions, all those techniques, share one thing in common: hand tools.

Since power tools first became popular on jobsites, our skill sets have slowly eroded. The reason for this makes good sense. When you can cut a perfectly straight miter in a couple of seconds, why would you want to use a miter box and a shooting board? While we were quick to adopt the time-saving machinery, we were also quick to drop the tools which allowed us to make things in the field. That table saw did a nice job of ripping the stock, but how many of us went back and removed the saw marks?

It took only about three generations for nearly all knowledge of the use of hand tools to be lost. The result of this has been that there are times when operations are preformed on power tools when it would actually be faster to do them by hand. And there are solutions to problems which won’t even be entertained, because the thought is that the piece would have to be custom-ordered, which would take too long and cost too much.

If you are inclined to think that the use of hand tools is outdated and no longer relevant, then your options are limited to what was delivered in the mill package. If one is not aware that there are other options, then some great solutions will be neglected.

I’m not saying that power tools, in amongst themselves, are the problem; I own a fair number of power tools and use them daily. Without them I couldn’t make a living. They’re my bread and butter when it comes to repetitive work, to production, to efficiency. But there are tasks—important, critical tasks—that simply cannot be approached without hand tools and hand-tool techniques, at least in a cost effective manner. Running baseboard down a skirt with a 90 degree turn at the bottom (or the top!), is a perfect example of why hand-tool techniques should be a part of every carpenter’s skill set.

Solutions for skirtboard transitions

Ask any stair-builder and they’ll all say the same thing: Most architects do not know how to layout stairs. Among a litany of loose ends, they rarely provide room enough for proper skirtboard-to-baseboard returns. I’m sure it has something to do with saving square footage and squeezing as much as possible into a home—the same way all return walls are framed with two studs, which really limits the size of the casing that can be used. But I digress….

There are several methods for transitioning a raked skirtboard to horizontal baseboard. One thing is certain: if you can control the skirtboard height, you’ll have many more options. But often, by the time the trim carpenters get on a job site, the skiftboard height is already established.

Miter Saw Solutions

If you’re not able to use hand tools, your options will be limited to mitered transitions. Here are two examples:

Example 1: Rake to Horizontal

Example 1: In this scenario the carpenter has limited options. There is not enough space before the corner to transition to a typical baseboard height. The skirt height can not be lowered enough, and forces a break to horizontal before the molding turns the corner. The result is a return piece taller than most baseboard.

Example 2: Vertical Transition

Example 2: Here, there is slightly more room in front of the bottom tread for a transition, but still not enough to make a clean miter from rake to horizontal at the appropriate height. A common solution carpenters use is to make a vertical transition with the base cap in order to reach the desired baseboard height.

Hand Tool Solutions

Most carpenters, when presented with a raked wall running into a level 90 degree turn automatically think it will require a transition to avoid a profiled return, right? Actually, that’s not true. But for many carpenters today this is the only solution available because they’ve been raised on power miter saws. If a power miter saw is the only tool you know how to use, then the solution to every problem is a miter. While I’m not saying this approach is “wrong,” the short vertical transition of base cap is confusing to the eye—the torus molding on a classical plinth never runs vertically (see below).

Baseboard originates from the plinth or base of classical columns, so the torus molding that forms the primary profile of the base cap is never run vertically.

 

Carpenters have been cutting compound miters on skirt-to-base joints for centuries. Of course, the simplicity of the joint is deceptive. The 90 degree return is a taller profile and must be shaped to match the raked molding. Here’s what I mean:

 

Confronted with the same situation illustrated in example 2 (above), a custom profiled piece of base cap is created instead. The skirt height is adjusted so it meets the baseboard height at the corner. It is an elegant solution with its complexity hidden in clean and visually appealing lines.

 

In this example, there are, again, few options available due to the limited space between the end of the stair and the corner. The use of a custom profiled return still requires a taller base return, but makes the transition look clean. In fact, this same joint can be found at the Lilly House in Indianapolis, IN. (See photo below.)

Stairs with short return walls are not a contemporary problem, but a hundred years ago, carpenters had more joinery solutions in their tool box. Here's an example found at the Lilly House in Indianapolis, IN. In this case, the carpenters profiled a taller baseboard for the return so that the raked base could miter around the corner.

It should be remembered that factory-run millwork has been in wide use since at least the 1850s. When you see an aspect of an older home which appears striking to you, remember that, in all likelihood, they started with the same mill package we see today. Those small touches that you may like were the result of a different approach to solving the problem at hand. That approach is a simple set of skills, which could be fairly easily mastered by most carpenters today.

If you’d like to learn how to profile the custom molding for the baseboard return, watch the short video below. This is a technique that every carpenter should know—and these are hand tools that every carpenter should own, for several reasons. Sure, knowing how to match a baseboard profile builds confidence in carpenters, and having multiple solutions is always better than having only one option. But it’s also a matter of economics: carving that custom profile on the return is much faster than cutting all those miters and transitions!


Comments/Discussion

34 Responses to “Raked Baseboard Returns”

  1. Craig Savage

    Extraordinary article, graphics and video presentation.
    Today’s version of the pamphlets carpenters read in the 16th century.
    ThisisCarpentry is unparalleled.

    Craig Savage

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      My goodness! Such wonderful praise! And from the FIRST contemporary carpenter/author. Thank you, Craig!

      Reply
  2. Greg

    Love the article and the video. May I ask what kind of glue you where using to attach the piece to the bench?

    Reply
  3. Jesse Wright

    Awesome work! I am one that miters my transitions and this is something I would love to try. However my only concern is that when we use a more ornate baseboard, I could see this taking a bit more time. I know I would probably spend a lot much time on this to make it perfect, as that is how I am with the special details. But this is a true skill that we should learn. Thank you for sharing your historic solution.

    Reply
    • Keith Mathewson

      Jesse,

      I love you’re enthusiasm and desire to learn. It was the second pic posted which in fact drove the desire to have the article. The first pic may be the basis for an upcoming article. If I can I would like to steer you away from miters and toward curves. Once mastered they don’t take as long as all the miters. Although the craftsmanship is good the design is somewhat abrupt.

      Reply
    • Keith Mathewson

      Jesse,

      What were your thoughts when you designed the first pic?
      This is offered as constructive criticism, I hope it is received in that spirit.

      It appears that the skirt could have been a straight run off a single miter. Instead you have 3 nosings with 3 different reveals and 4 miters.

      Reply
  4. Matt Follett

    Great video to accompany the article. I too am one who just miters it. Actually never thought to do otherwise. Seemed a straight forward process to form solid stock to the appropriate profile but I agree with the above comment that an extremely ornate piece would certainly require a bit more perserverance.
    Thanx for sharing your experience

    Matt Follett

    Reply
  5. kreg

    Keith,

    Good job on the article I really enjoyed reading it. I will try this on my next job of this kind. thanks for taking the time to write this !

    Reply
  6. Kirby Dolak

    Interesting philosophy and clarification of our addiction to power tools, if the only tool we have is a hammer then of course all things are nails… Good use of 2P10 as a temporary vise. The combination of the draw knife and high tech rasp makes quick work of bulk wood removal and the use of planes to fine tune detail is awesome. All things easily and quickly done in the field. But as one says, nothing is obvious to the uninformed, so Keith’s detective work to see how it was done in the past, that re-exploration or discovery process is exciting and one that brings us back to trying those repetitive tasks from an entirely different perspective. Great info, look forward to seeing your upcoming articles Keith.

    Reply
  7. gary

    Hi Keith,
    Can you recommend another technique for holding the work. Would carpenters in the 20’s have used some type of glue? Great article.
    Gary

    Reply
    • Keith Mathewson

      Hide glue was used years ago. It also has the advantage of being reversible. You can steam the glue and release the bond.

      Reply
  8. Tim Raleigh

    Keith:
    Great article, the video details the solution extremely well. I learned a lot.
    Thanks to you and Thisiscarpentry.
    P.S. Nice watch too!

    Reply
  9. Dean

    Great article and I think you’re absolutely right in your premise that we’re losing skill sets to power tools. I’ve recently started collecting vintage planes and was amazed at what I didn’t know about using them.
    But I have to say I like the solutions at the top of the article much better than the lower. I think the eye wants to see the molding stay the same size to completion. It’s also very difficult to keep that straight line in any fabricated piece and that’s what brings “crispness” to the finished product.
    I see your point, I just like the first solutions better, we’ll just call it a matter of taste.
    Thanks

    Reply
    • Keith Mathewson

      I understand your preference for the first set of examples. These are esthetic choices so there’s bound to be differences of opinion. It is not as hard to maintain crisp lines in hand made molding as you may think. Don McConnell, from Clark & Williams has an excellent dvd on the subject.

      Reply
  10. Jim Baldwin

    [img]http://www.thisiscarpentry.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/angle corner skirt.jpg[/img]

    Often times a finish carpenter find his back up against the wall when it come to trim interface. All you can do is give it your best shot. This funny little turned-piece actually matches the stair newel post (I am still not sure I like it but the owner did. He definitely didn’t like the skirt board jumping up and down as it went around the corner).

    As a stair guy, the most common trim problem I encounter is a circle stair with an outside straight-angled wall (but I suppose that’s another topic).

    Thanks Keith

    Reply
  11. Larry Schweitzer

    I run a shop with lots of power tools to make just about any trim you can think of. BUT when a finish carpenter brings in a pc. to be matched and only needs 3 feet it doesn’t make sense to set up the molder or shaper. I just had this come up again last week. I made the trim in about 15 minutes with a table saw and hand planes, less time than it took for him to drive here! Old time carpenters always had an assortment of hand planes. Not for production but for odd parts that could be quickly made on site. Many of them had made their own wooden planes for the kind of situations they commonly encountered. Making a profiled wooden plane is pretty simple, learning to use it effectively, just a matter of practice. In a few cases you may need to make a right and a left of the same pattern so you are always going “with the grain.” Blades are held in by a simple wedge. To deepen the cut just tap the back end of the iron. To reduce the cut just give a sharp tap on the back end of the plane. Nice tools are a pleasure especially those you’ve made.

    Reply
  12. Sim Ayers

    Keith
    Great historical article on the knowledge of the use of hand tools. It was common knowledge, 3 to 4 generations ago, as to how geometricaly draw out the raked crown moulding from the horiziontal, but I always wondered who used the geometric drawing of the raked crown profile. Did they send the drawing off to a mill, or just make their own blades or knives and then make their own rake crown moulding?

    Sim

    Reply
  13. Tim Neeland

    As a 30 year trim carpenter, I’ll take my mitered version any day. What are you going to do if your base cap piece has to be 20′ long. Often when you see this style, it’s about half caulk and looks morphed. In my view the mitered looks way better.

    Reply
    • Keith Mathewson

      Certainly one has to pick a technique appropriate to the conditions. A raked return works best for a short run, into a newel or door casing. In the same vein I would not like to have only one solution for every circumstance. Would it not be better to improve skill sets then to forgo them? These returns can easily be made to stain grade requirements.

      This mantel cornice was made entirely with hand tools

      Reply
  14. Jim Baldwin

    To add to what Larry Schweitzer says. I sometimes make a simple “scratch stock” which is nothing more than a small piece of spring steel (cabinet scraper) stuck through a slotted stick. It is ground to the molding profile and looks a little like a spoke shave. You don’t need a left and right hand tool since the scraper works either way.

    I can grind the profile in a few minutes on a bench grinder and finish any small detail with a dremel tool. This kind of a tool works on either straight or curved surfaces.

    Types of antique tools designed for this purpose can still be found, like a “Windsor Beader” or a “Stanley 66 Hand Beader”. They came supplied with a set of different scraping knives. A “Quirk Router” is a rare find but a great old tool. It is used to make the initial rebate cuts. The Cadillac cabinet makers tool was (and still is) the old “Stanley 45” or “Universal Plane” complete with all the bells and whistles.

    A hundred years ago, any of these tools would have been common in a carpenters tool chest, especially for the stair builder and any short piece of molding could have been scraped or planed out “PDQ” without a second thought.

    Reply
  15. Doug Simmons

    Thanks so much for this article, I have learned much of what I know because of guys like you, Gary, and Craig that can write and want to pass “it” along. This is a type of “living trust”, which helps fill some of the gaps for those of us that didn’t have an apprenticeship, for our trade.

    Reply
  16. Benjamin Miner

    This was an eye-opener! From my perspective, I could use a longer video showing how this would be achieved with an elaborate molding. I can grasp the basic principle, but can easily imagine having a hard time translating what I have seen here into a successful attempt in the field. These kinds of nuts-and-bolts articles are just the kind of thing I’ve been wanting and NOT getting over the years in the print journals!

    Reply
    • Keith Mathewson

      I wish I could show 5 minutes of any of the videos from Clark & Williams. Larry Williams and Don McConnell currently have 4 videos out which outline the use of molding planes such that most anyone could make short-run, custom moldings in the field without hesitation. http://www.planemaker.com/index.html

      Reply
  17. John McLellan

    Awesome article! It’s refreshing to see old time techniques brought back to the modern trim work site. As a carpenter of almost 20 years I was taught by some real “old timers” some really cool and effective methods of working wood. I am embarassed to say that over time I have forgotten much of what they taught me. Thanks for re-igniting that creative flame!

    Reply
  18. Jake

    I have 2 examples on a 90 degree half landing stair case that need solving. Lots of thought and time in this, and actually already have both skirts in place with a compound miter at each return waiting to be mated. Both examples involve the skirt not having enough room to run out to base board height before the return.

    Example one is the interior corner at the half landing. It’s the closed end of an open left staircase. Any ideas I’ve tried to transition the upper skirt to the lower skirt look goofy. I need some visuals to clear my brain cramps.

    Example 2 is at the bottom of the stairs. Here I don’t have the short run after the transition like the example in this article.

    Reply
  19. Eddie

    Are the videos still available? I would love to see. The information provided is great. I have this exact situation at the bottom of my stairs and would love to see the video for the visual on how to custom profile the returns.

    Reply
    • Tristan Katz

      Hi Eddie,

      The video is available at the end of this article, before the comment/discussion section.

      It’s also accessible through the following YouTube link: http://youtu.be/KfOHDAS0Gfc

      Please let me know if you have any other questions.

      Best,
      Tristan

      Tristan M. Katz
      Associate Editor, THISisCarpentry.com

      Reply
  20. Greg Holmes

    I have one problem with this, yes its a great idea if your return to base runs a short distance to a casing (like in the example photos) but if your run is long or goes around a corner etc… and is not broken up by casing this is useless. Have to be careful if you do this in one area of the house, that you can do it in the rest of the house.

    Reply

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