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Replicating Historic Curved Millwork

About ten years ago, I was between shops when I got a call from a historic church in Half Moon Bay that had some woodwork in need of replacing. It was an hour and a half away, so I asked them to send me a photo. After all, why drive that far unless I knew it was a worthwhile job? When I saw the photo they sent me, I knew I had to do it!

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The Community United Methodist Chapel is the oldest operating church in San Mateo County. Originally built in 1872, the chapel was thrown off its foundation in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. A year later, the church was rebuilt and extensively renovated. Many of the furnishings in the sanctuary are original; the bell that was installed in the cupola in 1907 remains to this day.

During my inspection, I found that the beautiful old millwork above the entry stained glass was extensively rotted after 130 years of exposure to the ocean air. All that held it together were the remnants of rusted square nails, layers of paint, caulking, and flashing.

. . .

The job was to remove the old millwork, take it apart, extrapolate the original geometry, get it milled, re-assemble it, and re-install it like new…. Yikes! But, YES! I wanted that job.

In the end, how did I get the job? No one else was crazy enough to touch it.

Removal Day

My partner Vince and I packed up our demo tools and took along a 4X8 sheet of plywood to capture a preliminary layout. After recording a lot of measurements and reference points (width, height, inside measures, outside measures, rises, and spring points—more on that later) we were ready to remove the original piece.

We had prepared for a long, arduous removal process, but, surprisingly, once we started, the molding almost fell off the wall. Those old hand-beaten square nails were amazing—they didn’t have any corrosion protection, but they were able to hang on for 140 years.

We removed the entire piece in four main sections, then hauled it home, where I could spread it out and draw up the exact layout—each radius, each individual molding, and the substrate foundation.

Templates

The profile stack was a total of 6 in. thick and 11 in. wide at the base. The trick was to draw up all the individual profiles and lay them out in proper orientation.

It took about a week for me to lay out the whole composition and test the old parts to be sure they fit. I did a complete full-scale drawing using two 4X8 sheets of 1⁄4-in. MDF, which I divided up the center line. That way, I could give one half of the layout to the mill shop as a template, with paper profiles printed from my computer glued right on the template. The template included computer layouts for each profile along with their radii.

I labeled each molding carefully, so there wouldn't be any confusion. Those labels will help you understand the layout process, too.

Layout

Sometimes I see things differently, and it seems that whoever was connecting up the wires in my head had a sense of humor that day. When I looked at the front of the chapel, what I saw was a pattern of circles (see photo, right). The challenge was finding the center point and radius for each one. After that, it would be a simple matter of identifying the intersection or tangent points. The first circle was easy—the radius was half the width of the door opening, from casing to casing. It seemed to me that all three circles shared the same radius, but I had to confirm that.

I used a very simple technique which isn’t exactly precise, but it’s effective. I later checked my measurements against the existing millwork, just to be certain that each radius was accurate.

The existing moldings were joined at the tangent point, or spring line, where the two radii met in the center of the s-curve. I simply measured the cord length from that point to the top of the upper radius, right beneath the finial.

With a construction calculator, you can enter those dimensions as RISE and RUN, then press the CONVERT key and the ARC (radius) key to solve for the radius.

If you don’t have a construction calculator, use this formula (X = Run; Y = Rise):

[(X ÷ 2)² + Y²] ÷ 2*Y = Radius

Once I knew the radii for each of the circles, the job became more procedural.

Making a full-scale drawing allowed me to check the length of the radius. I was able to hold the pivot of my trammel arm at the tangent point in the molding and swing an arc up and out to the left side of the door, near where I thought the center might be for the upper radius. I swung a second arc centered off the base of the finial. The intersection of those two arcs identified the center point for the upper radii. I repeated the same steps on the right side of the door.

With the original trim work at my shop, I was able to measure each individual molding and determine the setback or radius for every piece in the composition.

I was able to measure the ends of the original woodwork, which made it easy to measure and draw the individual profiles and steps. Each profile meant stepping the radii back the width of the profile. I drew each individual profile on the rough template. After a little fiddling and adjusting, I managed to come up with a geometrically true template, which was time-consuming, but simple—anything that didn’t fit correctly or looked “kinky” wasn’t a “fair curve,” which meant a small adjustment to smooth the lines out.

I also used the full-scale drawing to help me when it came time to enter all the information into AutoCAD. AutoCAD also gave me one more opportunity to check that each piece landed precisely. Once the drawings were complete, I carried everything—including half of the template, and the computer files to Haas Woodworking.

I’ve worked with Haas for years. They’re a fantastic mill shop. Their history mirrors that of San Francisco. The shop, founded in 1887, is still family-owned and operated; though today, instead of belts and pulleys, you’ll find the shop is full of modern shapers, power feeders, and CNC machines—everything necessary for making those fantastic S-curve profiles, which minimize joinery and simplify construction and installation considerably.

Plumb Alignment

As I said earlier, I checked and double-checked everything throughout the long process of building this casework. Before assembling all the milled redwood onto the plywood base, I joined the top and bottom plywood forms with biscuits and took one of the layers to the jobsite.

That trip turned out to be a good idea. Because of past earthquakes, and decades of settling, the doorway was 1 1/2 in. off level across the top. Using the plywood base as a template, I was able to align the arch and finial so that it pointed directly at the window above, a step that enabled me to build and install the final composition without any further on-site trimming.

Assembly

The original three-centered piece was probably assembled with hide glue, but I used modern glues and adhesives —this made a tremendous difference in assembly, and will no doubt add years of longevity to my work. I used urea formaldehyde to glue the two plywood layers together; and I used marine epoxy to bed moldings onto the plywood background, in combination with biscuits for securing the mitered joinery. On top of that, I fastened as many parts as possible with stainless steel screws through the back of the plywood.

First came the plywood base, made from two almost identical layers of marine plywood cut on a CNC machine, which made assembly very easy. The two pieces forming each layer fit together perfectly. The CNC machine even allowed for an offset in the joint between the two layers. Once the base or foundation was complete, I had a reliable form for precise placement of each additional layer.

Spline joint

I started installing the moldings with profile D, because it was flush with the edge of the plywood base. Next I installed profile C. The gap between D and C was intentional; I wanted room for expansion and contraction, plus a little wiggle room so that both moldings could be located precisely on the foundation. To install profile B, I used a spline joint. That piece had to be installed accurately, and I didn’t want any fasteners to ruin the clean face of such a delicate molding. I cut the grooves for the spline joint on my router table using two custom curved fences that matched the radius of each molding. I used bending plywood for the 1/8-in. spline.

In fact, profile B was the “key” to unlocking the entire assembly process. With B set temporarily in place and secured by the spline, I was able to place profile A against B and mark for critical end cuts and intersecting miters. Also, once B was positioned on the spline, I was able to slide profile A up along B, until A met the center line. That’s how I marked and laid out the most critical cuts—like the long acute miter following the center line.

At this point, I had to work off the actual piece as opposed to the MDF layout. First, I marked the top where it crossed the 6 3/4-in. horizontal line at the base of the finial. After cutting that line (a nerve-wracking but necessary step), I made a tick mark at the top and a tick mark at the bottom where the S-curve crossed the center line—the same simple method I used for marking miters on ordinary casing around an arched door. In this case, the tick marks were a bit more daunting: The top tick mark had to perfectly split the 1/2 round at the top of Profile A.

To cut that miter, I flipped the moldings over and drew a straight line from the upper tick mark to the bottom tick mark. I rough-cut near the line on each piece with my bandsaw, then used a straight-edge and a series of flush trim router bits to clean right to the line. Yes, my palms were sweating, and not just because the material was 2 3/4 in. thick.

Details That Matter

Once all the pieces were cut and everything fit perfectly, I glued up the final moldings. There were no fasteners piercing the face, anywhere. This way, nothing breaks the smooth, continuous flow of the moldings.
The original geometry of the piece contained a bad water catch, which led to serious water damage and rot in the original woodwork.
I filled the deep pocket with marine epoxy, and shaped it so water would drain out of the area. None of this is visible from the ground.

Primed and ready to go.... It just fit in my Ranger!

Installation took only two days…
and most of the second day was spent on the step-flashing.

The finished arch

•••

AUTHOR AUTOBIO

Looking back, I see where the word “journeyman” comes from.

I was in junior high school shop class when I first fell in love with wood—the colors and grains of different woods joined, shaped, and polished.

A mix of teenage-jobs later, and a year and a half as a gravedigger in Monterey, at 20 years young I became a fireman. My schedule left 20 days off a month, so I was really able to get back into making beautiful things from wood.

An early gift was to learn from a Swiss master carver, Fritz Abplanap, who first came to America in the 1920s to carve a convent chapel with full-size saints and angels, all in black walnut. With him, I first experienced grace in the sweep of a gouge.

I discovered stone carving and spent years in a realm of sensuous forms and smooth polished surfaces of alabaster and marble. I carved by hand, hammer on point, tooth chisel, rasps and sanding, and more sanding, polishing and more polishing.

Through a series of dramatic impulses and events in 1977 I was now called Sangeet and spent four years in an Indian ashram, on my path to enlightenment . . . but while meditating on that elusive carrot, I spent a good part of my time doing some wonderful woodworking under very simple hand tool conditions. There is nothing quite like getting teak and rosewood delivered by bullock cart and cutting dovetails by hand.

The ’80s brought several tsunamis of change that swept me through some carving jobs and body surfing in Hawaii, and onto the mainland US for more time in a spiritual community. From there, I took a woodworking job in Munich, Germany, but ultimately washed ashore just north of San Francisco, where I continue to roam to this day.

My time in the San Francisco Bay Area has blessed me with some fantastic projects and mind-bending challenges, working alongside amazing craftsmen. It is here that I fused my love of geometry with woodworking.

From my well-equipped shop in San Rafael, I keep looking for better ways to meet the challenges that come my way. And I am always open to that next wild project! Feel free to email me at [email protected].

Comments/Discussion

45 Responses to “Replicating Historic Curved Millwork”

  1. Dan Levin

    I had a similar job a number of years back. The job entailed the rebuilding a Victorian porch that was crumbling. It took me almost a month to do the demo…the old wood was crumbling in my hands. I managed to save one piece of every one of the “gingerbread” patterns. I bought 5/4 pine and used the old gingerbread to make plexiglass templates. I rough-cut the new pieces (305 of them) on the bandsaw and then finished them on the router table, using the templates as a guide. That part went well. The major hitch showed up when I had to make and install the “X” braces. It seems that the porch was so old (c. 1876) that a 2×4 was 2″ x 4″! I had to re-calculate the dimensions to account for the new lumber. From there, the installation went well, except that the homeowner neglected to prime and paint the new work, and since it was October when I finished, it soon became too cold to prime or paint until the following spring. After the winter was over, I went back to look at the job and found to my horror that the wood was all warped and falling apart. Of course, the homeowner blamed me, even though priming and painting wasn’t part of the deal! Oh well…another lesson learned the hard way!
    P.S. This job was done in Southeast Connecticut, very close to Long Island Sound

    Reply
    • Sangeet Henry

      I had put so much into making this in beautiful redwood I felt it had to be me to cover it over, so I did that first prime coat myself. Front back top bottom.. That way I knew it was covered.

      Reply
    • Sangeet Henry

      Thanks.. I too felt it was a gift. While I was doing the the job it felt so demanding and fulfilling I realized that even winning a Super-Lotto couldn’t take me away..

      Reply
  2. Brian Cinski Jr.

    You ROCK! Great job! Tradesmen of this level, I think, are a dying breed. Thank you for sharing your skills.

    Man I just love seeing these kinds of jobs!

    Brian

    Reply
    • Sangeet Henry

      A dying breed.. Yea it’s hard to compete in this economy with Home Depot parts and rubber moulding!

      Reply
  3. Jeff Thiessen

    That’s some fine, fine cutting and fitting. Nice job in the article of noting how much of the work comes AFTER the molding comes back to your shop from the millwork sub.

    How long between demolition and finish? Was the congregation agitating for it to get done or were they OK with the schedule?

    j

    Reply
    • Sangeet Henry

      Demo to installation was a little over two months.. And yes they started getting agitated as winter rains where coming and a wedding was scheduled for the chapel a couple days after I got it back up.

      Reply
  4. Dan Miller

    Very nice work. I’m surprised to see the church found the money to do the job. So many churches are hurting today. I’d like to see another article showing how the curved moldings were milled. Did they use a CNC or a molding maker like a Williams and Hussey? I am a retired math teacher doing architectural woodworking. Your inclusion of the math was great!I have to make some curved rails for a porch this summer. I learned a lot from your article and was inspired by it.

    Reply
    • Sangeet Henry

      I’ll get Bob or Bill from Haas to reply about the equipment.

      Reply
    • Bob Haas

      Hi Dan,
      We have a custom made “Arc Cutter” by U.S. Concepts which is a single head moulder. (Somewhat similar to Williams/Hussey.
      You can go on-line and see newer “Arc Cutters” by U.S. Concepts even bigger and better than our 10 year old model.
      Bye the way, It’s always a pleasure to work with Sangeet!

      Reply
    • Sangeet Henry

      The step flashing was just face planted to the siding. Very basic.. We had wood prepared to fill in the grooves of the siding and worked our way up carefully gooping and copper nailing.

      Reply
  5. Joe Stoddaed

    Great work! Nothing more I can say except that’s inspiring workmanship and thanks for taking the time to do the article.

    Reply
  6. Ryan Mulkeen

    This some amazing work and photography of the details. Great job and thanks for documenting and sharing for future generations.

    Reply
    • Sangeet Henry

      Thanks… For awhile I have been gathering and documenting some of my more dramatic jobs for a book on circular woodwork. Lets hope I manage to get it out before I turn to sawdust.

      Reply
  7. larry haun

    Do no harm. What you have done will be pleasing to many an eye for years to come. Thanks for sharing it with old framers like me. Beautiful job. Larry Haun

    Reply
  8. Norm Miller

    I’ll think of you next time a contractor want me to install some rubber crown molding or casing. Every time I do I think of those craftsmen, ages ago, that painstakingly did it by hand. It’s nice to see there is still some of that around. Namaste my friend!

    Reply
  9. Arthur Tomlinson

    Very nice work! How amazing that the original woodworkers could replicate the relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in their trim details! It is as much a loss that this kind of skill is fading from our cultural memory as it is that the beauty of the Trinity is as well.

    Reply
  10. Fred West

    Truly a masterful job. I think that you left “journeymen” a long time ago and am now a “master”. A really great read and wonderful pictures. I too would like to see more about the step flashing. Thank you very much, Fred

    Reply
  11. David Henry, Sr

    This is a beautiful example that art does still exist in woodworking. The mathematical details are awe-inspiring. It would be great to have a similar article on the all-wood circular staircase you did more recently. Thanks for sharing

    Reply
  12. Eric Tavitian

    This was definitely not bought at Home Depot and these are not rubber moldings for sure. I live in The Ojai area of Ventura County and love doing extensive mouldings. I haven’t seen a job such as yours since leaving the Boston area 30 years ago. I moved up here a couple of years ago from the San Fernando Valley where I did a lot work renovating “Hollywood” houses. There are a lot of great jobs here in this area for a craftsman. It just takes a little time to get established in a new area. So while I wait for business to pick up I’m building my new 1000 sq. ft.shop. That’s just big enough to keep me busy for years building and remodeling for folks up here. Digging into a complex job such as the one you did on the church is a whole lot more rewarding than dressing up the average house in L.A.
    Great job Sangeet
    I hope to see more of your work in the future.

    Reply
  13. Mario Aldape

    I would like to say that your work is inspiring, but that would imply that I somehow had the skills to attempt to do something similar in scope. As a cabinet shop owner who had no background when I started it with experienced hired help, all I can do is to be in awe of the master skillset needed to do the type of projects such as this, as well as many other projects featured here.
    I am sure there is some sort of talent within me but sadly, not the artistry required to accomplish such master work. I would imagine you could not possibly be compensated adequately for the time it took you to do this work, nor that you would care. I salute you, sir. I am a mere mortal.

    Reply
    • Sangeet Henry

      Thanks for your appreciation, I guess we all have areas we excel; I for one could sure use some better business and promotion skills. I don’t even have a web site yet for pictures!

      Reply
  14. Teeg Merchant

    Thanks for the terrific article and photos. Your thoughtful precision is way off the charts. Did you and Geo. Nakashima discover a secret ashram way to magnificent woodworking?
    At the end of last year, we were in a 1920’s church in San Fernando to repair, rebulild and replace several dozen windows (all rectangles). We put a temporary satellite shop in a corner of the basement dining hall to fabricate the new sash and even for a secular humanist like myself it is always peaceful and calming to be working in a church.
    Respectfully,
    Teeg Merchant

    Reply
  15. Savita

    I know nothing about woodwork, but I can recognise great craftsmanship when I see it. What a miraculous piece of love-labour! Fantastic! How long from start to finish, I wonder?

    Reply
  16. jim arendt

    It is interesting to hear that a carpenter is using AutoCad since the price of the new Mac version tops $4k, a considerable threshold for most craftspeople to reach. In addition, it also requires a lot of practice. May I ask how long you have been using this and how you justified the purchase when you did buy it? Regardless, outstanding work in solving the geometry and pulling together the final product.

    Reply
    • Sangeet Henry

      Yes AutoCAD is off most craftsmen cost charts. Now with Google sketch-up there is also a far easier approach.
      I became fascinated with computers and 3D about 15 years ago and bought a powerful computer 200 mhz processor with 62 mb ram (I think a modern toaster has more computer power than that these days) and a 3d software modeling and animation package. I worked hard at it and got good enough to teach it part time and so learned and earned my way into CAD.
      I am still using 8-10 year old software and keep planning to learn Sketch-up but seem to keep using what I already know.

      Reply
  17. Anthony vieira

    Unbelievable, mind-blowing work. Just a shame it’s painted.

    Reply
  18. Pete Nestler

    I’ve known for along time about your’e curve and molding work, but to see the math involved in this project really inspires confidence ! press on Sangeet!

    Reply
    • Sangeet

      Hi Joe,

      Thanks for asking about classes. I feel so grateful for all the wonderful teachers I have had along the way and would love to pass on what I have gathered, learned and developed over the years.
      For now I am working, when I can, on a book about all this circular and geometric work and classes woul be a natural outgrowth of that. I am in the middle of a major move right now but soon I hope to get back to writing probably more articles that can be incorperated into the book.

      I’ll try adding an image of the project I will write up next.

      Reply
  19. Alexander Ulloa

    I’m so glad to to see so many good comments, because I am the person who contributed to do the arches. I did the drawings for the templates on megacad , glued up , and ran with Ray Buffalo the arches on the shaper and arc cutter!

    Reply
    • Sangeet

      Nice to hear about your contribution to the project.. I dealt mostly with Bill and Ray.. It takes a village!

      Reply
  20. Bernd

    Great job on this project. I am fascinated by artist craftsmen.
    Just an FYI, and I am sure you have already seen and most surely own it, there is a wonderful book on circular work called ” Circular Work in Carpentry and Joinery” originally written by a craftsman named George Collins. Its available as a reprint with modern day annotations…
    Keep up the GREAT work!

    Reply
    • Sangeet

      Thanks Bernd, Yes George Collins Circular woodwork book is great! I have been working on and off, on a more up to date version for over 10 years.. Including todays technologies.. Yet there are so many ways to get distracted by life and it’s myriad competing priorities.. so as yet it is still not ready.. Enjoy!

      Reply

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