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Improve Moldings and Increase Referrals

Back in the mid-1980s, my brother and I were growing tired of installing 1 1/2-in. clamshell casing, and 2 1/2-in. streamline baseboard. As finish contractors, that’s all we did on every job, day after day (after we had installed the doors and windows). By then we’d nailed off miles of small trim in thousands of apartments and hundreds of single-family homes. The market was starting to soften up about that time, and one of the contractors we worked for needed an edge against other spec builders in the same subdivision. We suggested upgrading the moldings in one of his homes. Not the whole house, mind you, only the first floor. We told him we’d do it for our cost, just to prove a point.

We installed 3 1/4-in. casing on all the first-floor doors—the entry, dining and living room passageways, the kitchen, and powder bath doorways. And we installed 5 1/4-in. baseboard everywhere downstairs. That house stood apart from all the others and it sold quickly.

On the next job, we installed some crown molding, just in the entryway. By then, realizing that moldings meant quality to his buyers, the contractor was on board. Before long we were installing crown in the living room and dining room, in the kitchen, hallway, and even the powder bath. These days, my brother’s crews install crown molding in almost every room of every home they work in, along with coffered ceilings in the dining and living rooms, wainscoting paneling from the entry through to the kitchen, elliptical crown in ceiling soffits, paneled archways, etc.

Fig.01.7194.11mg-1

Our homes are defined by moldings, from large casing, baseboard, and crown molding, to elaborate paneling and rich coffered ceilings. Upgrade the moldings in your homes and collect better referrals. (Note: Click any image to enlarge)

Moldings make a home

The simple truth is that moldings add warmth and character to a home; they provide a sense of comfort and ‘order’ to a home. In fact, all of the moldings that finish carpenters install owe their origin to the Classical Orders. What’s an order? An order is nothing more than a post and a beam, like a patio cover supported by a 6×6 post and a 6×12 beam; or a header and the studs that support it. The Classical Orders are nothing more than posts and beams designed a few thousand years ago by the Greeks (with some Egyptian influence), then borrowed and modified by the Romans.

Each of the moldings we use in a house was originally a part of an order. {Photography by permission of the John Brown House, Providence, RI} Fig.02-JBH-Base-04-11mg-2
Baseboard comes from plinth molding on the base of a column; traditional basecap comes from the torus and scotia molding above a classical plinth. Carpenters with sharp eyes will notice that the plinth design in this example is unique to walls with wainscoting: the pattern originates on classical columns that are supported by pedestals. Fig.03-JBH-Base-06-11mg-2
Fig.04-Classical Origins(2)-1

Wainscoting owes its origin to the tall, almost waist-high pedestal found on some columns, called a dado; casing stems from architrave molding—the first element found on the bottom of an entablature, just above the capital on a column; and crown molding comes from the cornice on a classical order (drawing). All of these moldings were used abundantly for centuries, right through the Victorian period and up into the early 1900s.

Before the Second World War, a new wave of European architectural styles swept across America. Reacting against Victorian excess, architects in America, especially academic architects, adopted the new International Style, where moldings were not only discouraged but derided. Today the International Style continues to influence American architecture with sometimes magnificent results, but modernism isn’t for everyone. Though traditional homes have returned to ‘ordered’ design, one significant and lasting influence of the International Style has been the degradation of the moldings we use.

Fig.05-Lvroom-12mg-1

Cornell Argenterie House

Architects practicing the International Style believed that moldings were unnecessary decorations. Modernism continues to minimalize moldings, if they’re used at all, creating beautiful streamlined homes that are popular for some but not all homeowners. Ironically, International-style architects argued that the style was less expensive because there were no moldings, and craftsmen were no longer available to do nice work! Humbug.

As moldings were reintroduced between the 1950s and the 1970s, the ‘purism’ of the International Style, also called minimalism, resulted in the use of thin narrow casings, like 5/8-in. x 1 1/2-in. clamshell, and thin 2 1/2-in. streamline baseboard. After several decades of non-use and mis-use, many manufacturers, builders, and architects had lost the history of molding design and usage. Rather than use moldings to decorate a home and draw attention to structural form, moldings were thought of as a way to hide joints and seams. And they were designed to be as invisible as possible. That’s what minimalism was all about. These thin narrow profiles were made to blend in with the wall, rather than emphasize the doorways and windows, floors and ceilings they surrounded.

Fortunately for finish carpenters and molding suppliers, in the last few decades moldings have experienced a re-birth. Now architects, builders, carpenters, and homeowners have a lot to re-learn. What makes one molding more dramatic than another? What combinations of moldings work and what combinations don’t?

What makes a good-looking molding

Fig.06-Parlor-axial.11mg-1

This eighteenth century mantelpiece, in an historic home outside Philadelphia, is a perfect example of well-crafted moldings, and well-conceived composition, from the architrave molding to the crown molding. {Photography by permission of Cliveden)

I’ve watched many customers choose moldings for their homes. Most often they’re attracted to the largest pieces or the most ornate, whether it’s casing, baseboard or crown. The sad truth is that most of those gaudy profiles disappear—once they’re on the wall, they turn into mush. That’s because a lot of moldings, especially big ones, don’t follow the basic rules of successful design.

Fine moldings are the result of fine details: crisply cut edges, deeply cut incisions, so that each curve and fillet almost jumps off the composition. Notice how the edges around the egg-and-dart molding in the Cliveden mantelpice—the fillets—are all sharp and clean, the carving deep, so that the shadows around each detail are well defined. The same is true in the simple crown molding on the mantelshelf, and the chair rail that terminates against the architrave just beneath the crossette corner.

Fig.7 new-1

More than anything, moldings must be designed to work with light. In this case, a picture is worth a thousand words. Notice how these profiles each end in an eased edge: how the separations between profiles—between one curved section of the molding and the next curved or flat section, are rounded over, so there are no sharp shadow lines defining each profile (Moldings courtesy of the local big box store).

Fig.8 new-1

Moldings can be milled successfully if the edges are cut sharp, so the light breaks cleanly and crispy at each edge and at every point where a curved profile terminates. Crisp sharp edges create crisp sharp shadow lines. The relationship between shadow and light is what defines an attractive molding profile, one that that can be seen and enjoyed from up close or from a great distance.

Study Moldings

C. Howard Walker’s book, Theory of Mouldings, is a must-have resource for anyone interested in studying this fascinating field. This early 20th century book has been reprinted and is readily available. Fig.09.0736-1

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we can learn the most about moldings by studying historic homes. Books are useful, too, but for real information on molding design, you have to look for a book that precedes any influence by the International Style. In The Theory of Mouldings (1926), C. Howard Walker offers an excellent explanation of molding design and use at the very outset of his book:

Any projecting lath-like cleat gives a sharp shadow line, with clean cut definition, but if used without the intervention of mouldings with curved profiles, the effect is dry and crude even if varying in widths, and is like ruled lines of identical tones. The values of mouldings with curved profiles is therefore the production of variations of tone, thereby creating interest and distinction. …But the curved sections must have their boundaries defined or the shades they create will slur into the surfaces of the planes to which they are related, or into other curves. It is of the utmost importance that these outer boundaries should be announced, and because of this, curved sections either impinge upon planes at an acute or at a right angle to the plane, or separated from it by a small bead or fillet. (pg. 3-4)

Walker’s point is simple: strips of sharp-edged square stock make nice moldings yet they’re boring without curved profiles. But the curved profiles must be separated by flat fillets and sharp-edge terminations, otherwise the curves ‘slur’ into each other. Ironically, for the last few decades, sharp-edge molding and millwork have been demonized.

When I was a teenager, my father used to drop me off on a jobsite, hand me a few sheets of 180 and 220 paper and tell me to “ease all the edges on the cabinets and doors, and on the baseboard and casing. Otherwise the paint won’t stick!” He actually believed that sharp edges wouldn’t hold paint. That’s a myth. Probably spread by modernists! But that’s not the only reason that today’s moldings, in opposition to Walker’s advice, have so many eased edges. As Bill Shaw, a custom molding millwright for over twenty years and the inventor of the Copemaster, puts it:

Sharp crisp edges and profiles are harder to cut for several reasons. First, it takes more time to sharpen the knives. In order to get a sharp edge you have to have a very square edge on your grinding wheel—it must be dressed to a point. And the wheel must be redressed as it breaks down, which happens with greater frequency when cutting sharp-edged moldings. Second, the section of the knife that forms the point or sharp edge heats up more quickly, so the knife must be sharpened more frequently, and the molding can’t be cut at the same rate of speed. We typically ran moldings with radius edges at 30 feet per minute, but sharp-edge profiles had to be run much slower, at 20 fpm or even less. The speed is also affected by tear out, which is a problem at sharp intersections, requiring an even slower rate of feed.

Shaw helps us better understand the real cause of molding design degradation—a combination of economic and stylistic influences. As moldings were reintroduced, manufacturers were glad to follow the rules of minimalism, in fact they preferred to ease edges for faster production.

Why combine moldings

Successful molding designs are dependent on curved profiles and flat fillets. The harmony in this WindsorONE cornice, borrowed from a classical entablature, demonstrates the same lesson in a larger scale: corona and soffit boards are combined with simple molding profiles, creating attractive depth and drama. Fig.10-ClassicalColonial-1
Compressing too many profiles into a single molding is silly because without the separation of flat fillets, all of the profiles slur together into one mushy mess. Fig.11 new copy-1

As I mentioned earlier, some clients are drawn to the largest moldings available, ones with the most profiles. But if the profiles aren’t separated by fillets, then they don’t create identifiable interest. Instead, avoid busy patterns and create variety and interest in molding installation by combining simple profiles separated by wide fillets. The result is a molding of significant size and still with the separation necessary to create depth and interest in each profile.

A simple piece of 1×2 installed on the ceiling adds more than an inch to the projection of a cove-cut crown molding, and the sharp edges of the 1×2 add crisp shadows and depth to the combination. Fig.12.Greek Revival.11mg-1

Many moldings adapt themselves well to build ups. WindsorONE adds an ogee door stop pattern to the top and bottom of the their Colonial Revival crown molding, which creates an emphatic cove, over 7 in. deep. The striking beauty of both their Colonial Revival and Classical Craftsman patterns is achieved through the use of a picture molding, about 6 in. below the crown (on higher ceilings the picture molding can be even lower!). Be sure to paint the wall space above the picture molding the same color as the moldings, so that the entire ‘combination’ will resemble an entablature—the picture molding representing the architrave molding.

Molding combinations are an easy and inexpensive way to create unique stand-out homes.

Fig.13.Colon.Reviv.11mg-1

This Colonial Revival wall treatment, designed by Brent Hull for Windsor ONE, is distinguished by four separate moldings: the crown molding nested between two identical bed molding profiles, and the picture molding below. All four moldings are painted the same color, and so is the wall between the picture molding and the bed molding, which creates a complete entablature, with the architrave formed by the picture molding.

Just be certain that each piece of molding earns its keep. Avoid any profile that doesn’t provide sharp shadow lines.

Sure, installing a two or three-piece crown pattern requires more labor, but the second time around the room is much faster than the first time—the scaffolding or ladders are already set up, the saw is right there, and frequently the measurements are almost identical. You can always make more profit installing the second and third layer of molding!

If you’re courageous and attempt to combine your own molding patterns, remember one rule that C. Howard Walker states empathically: “In all structures there is an acknowledgement of the law of gravitation which concedes that the lower part of a vertical structure should apparently be thoroughly capable of supporting the upper part” (pg 4), so never put a heavy bed molding on the ceiling, keep your dentil blocks down low, and be sure your egg-and-darts are aiming down!

Comments/Discussion

15 Responses to “Improve Moldings and Increase Referrals”

  1. Ryan Mulkeen

    Gary – One of the best articles on moulding! Understanding the shadow lines created by properly milled profiles with deep incisions and sharp edges has forever changed the way that I look at mouldings. Without them, I’ll often say that it may make more sense for to just paint a 3″ white strip around their door or window rather than install a cheap, poorly designed moulding!

    Reply
  2. Jim Hare

    After taking a trim features class taught by Gary Striegler at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking, adding crown and newer trim has been one thing I have been wanting to do in my home and plan to start the job soon. What is the best way to prep a textured ceiling so that the crown has a flat surface on which to attach at the ceiling. Thanks for the advice on crisp lines. I plan to review with my wife the trim we selected and see if it meets this criteria. If not, we may have to get some custom milled.

    Reply
    • Paul Jenkinson

      If it is a typical knock down, orange peel or skip trowel, there isn’t a lot that you have to do. If it’s an acoustic popcorn, you’ve got some decisions to make.
      On the houses that I add painted crown to the ceiling I want the upper fillet of the crown to be large enough that it creates a distinct vertical leg and if there is space created by the varying thickness of the texture, the space is caulked neatly. One of the problems with caulking these joints is that most painters use the finger method that creates a cove between the two surface. You can create a crisper line using a square edge caulking tool. The other problem is making sure that all the caulking that smears on the ceiling or wall is wiped off so it doesn’t affect the look of the texture filling the voids and valleys.
      Popcorn ceilings don’t lend themselves to adding crown since the texture is to thick. Since it’s was mostly used in multifamily housing as an attempt to provide sound attenuation cheaply you don’t find it in a lot of detached houses. But if it’s there and you want crown in that room I’d suggest that you remove it and finish the ceiling to level 4 or 5 drywall depending on the sheen of the ceiling paint. Check to be sure that the acoustic material is asbestos free. If it is it calls for expert removal and remediation.
      Stained crown is another question all together and from my perspective it should be used sparingly and mostly in spaces that call for something formal or dramatic. In this case you are almost certainly working with a level 4 or 5 drywall surfaces (or plaster in some cases). Here the issue is high and low spot in the plain of the ceiling and walls. “Scribing” the crown is the best way of creating that crisp line between all the elements. This is a lot more work and requires a highly level of skill and patents all together, which is why 85% to 90% of the work I see is painted. From my perspective the only acceptable use of “putty” on stain grade work is filling nail holes, joints are fit not caulked.

      Reply
  3. William Smithee

    This is a really nice article! Thanks for sharing this knowledge with us.

    Reply
  4. Craig Savage

    Excellent article, Gary.

    A couple observations.
    You say, “Rather than use moldings to decorate a home and draw attention to structural form, moldings were thought of as a way to hide joints and seams.” It’s my understanding that if you go far enough back into the history of moldings — way before the Greeks, Egyptians, etc. the first “crown” moldings were actually just sticks shoved into the intersection of wall and ceiling to stop air leaks..So what goes around comes around…

    And as for the order of beautiful shapes that we find in historical buildings — often as not, the final pattern was determined by the handplanes found in the carpenter’s tool box…rather than the architect’s scaled drawings.

    Reply
  5. Bob Scott

    Craig,
    To add to your last line about those older structures;
    The carpenter was the architect. His title was Builder and he designed, built and instructed.
    Today’s American architect is a modern profession and does not come close to meeting the standard of the original occupation.

    Reply
  6. Ed Bates

    “ease all the edges on the cabinets and doors, and on the baseboard and casing. Otherwise the paint won’t stick!” He actually believed that sharp edges wouldn’t hold paint. That’s a myth.

    You may laugh, but this is a complete revelation to me. I have eased off the edges of hundreds of doors for the past ten plus years. Often at the insistence of a Foreman “don’t forget to ease the edges”. Never again! I’ll send them to this website for the truth!
    Thanks!
    Ed

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Ed,
      Well….you still want to ease the edges of doors a little bit, so they don’t cut someone’s hand, so there aren’t any splinters (Douglas Fir doors are infamous for that!). But not so the paint will stick!!!!!

      Reply
      • Elias

        Gary, this is a great article. But I think there is another reason we break our edges. A corner with a slight radius or chamfer is much less likely to be marred and dented over time than a sharp and square one! I have rarely, if ever, heard someone mention this.

        Reply
        • Gary Katz

          Elias,
          I might agree on moldings that are within reach, maybe on a piece of furniture, but not on baseboard, chair rail, or crown, etc.
          Gary

          Reply
  7. Kraig

    Thanks for the enjoyable and well-written article, Gary.

    Would you say that an eased edge is appropriate for authentic Craftsman trim, or would you prefer only a sharp edge with that style?

    The Classical Craftsman collection by WindsorONE uses an 1/8-inch roundover eased edge for the base, plinth, casing, and stop mold.

    Unfortunately, I don’t have access to WindsorONE products, so I had to mill that style myself based on their drawings. I enjoy the final product in my home, but the eased edge added a lot of time to the project.

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Kraig,
      Sorry for the delayed response!
      Yes, I think an eased edge (but not eased fillets between profiles!) is best for the Craftsman style. And in some cases, that ‘ease’ is really a pretty large roundover, depending on the size of the molding, beam, etc.
      Gary

      Reply
  8. Jason Leeker

    Hi Gary,
    Thank you for sharing this article. You inspired me to order theory of mouldings book and i cannot put it down. This book is helping me to realize how much I truly enjoy the art of mouldings. Being a finish carpenter is the best job ever!

    Reply
  9. tim Hale

    I recently installed crown molding to rooms that had heavily textured finished ceilings. I took a painters 4 way putty knife, clamped about 3/8 of the end in my shop vise, heated it red hot with my oxy-acety torch and bent it over, more than 90 degrees. I then made a scraper guide from a 6 in x 18 in scrap piece of plywood. I notched out a 3 x 16 opening. The 3 in matched to distance the molding would be on the ceiling. I used the guide against the wall and scraped the texture off the ceiling where the molding needed to be flush to the old drywall. I got a good fit and didn’t have a very much caulk filling to do.

    Reply
  10. Bob Fankhauser

    Gary,

    I’m convinced that if you go waaay back, columns are just tree trunks- they’re fluted because tree trunks weather that way. The plinth is a flat rock to keep the bottom of the trunk out of the mud and give some bearing. The capital is another flat rock, acting like eaves for the trunk and again, giving bearing. Notice capitals often protrude beyond the beams, not something you’d do with a piece of wood- it would catch the water and rot.

    The frieze is just a nicely decorated beam and the cornice arguably functions like eaves. The dentils are the ends of the joists sticking out, like vigas in a pueblo.

    Of course, all this stuff got highly stylized when they decided the gods would look more favorably on marble temples. Originally, the form had function, but as time progressed, the form was maintained because, well, that’s what looked “right.”

    Framing squares are another example of form that was once, but is no longer, functional. Old framing squares are thicker at the heel than at the tip of the tongue and body. The manufacturer had to really go out of the way to do that- standard steel plate is a constant thickness- the plate used for framing squares was rolled thicker about a third of the way from one edge.

    Why would anyone go to that trouble? The only credible answer came from an old guy at Stanley Tool Works. Think about making a framing square in the age of blacksmiths- they didn’t have sheet steel- a framing square would be made by blacksmith welding two strips together, lapping them and forging the overlap out smoothly to the tips, which left the heel thicker. So everyone knew that a “good” square was thicker at the heel and wouldn’t buy those cheap ones stamped out of flat plate. At least, that’s the story I heard. Form follows tradition.

    Reply

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