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.
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If you are inclined to think that the use of hand tools is outdated and no longer relevant, then your options are limited to what was delivered in the mill package.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 2: Vertical Transition
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:
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!