Concept to completion: Having vision is half the battle
Like a lot of high-end jobs I work on, I’m sworn to secrecy about the clients. All I can say is, this job was on a pristine 7-acre waterfront property on Long Island’s Gold Coast, overlooking Connecticut and the Long Island Sound. The main house is about 7500 sq. ft. of new construction. It’s a to-die-for spot—the view was breathtaking. Even working on this job was incredible. The funny part is how I landed the work.
Several contractors had been up to the house, but none of them would trim a colossal oval ceiling recess, 35 feet up in the air—built up with all flex moldings.
I was recommended to the client by the local molding and millwork distributor—a friendship I’ve nurtured (to my great advantage) for many years. After several meetings, I really hit it off with the clients—they were impressed with my portfolio (created using iPhoto on my laptop during the slower winter months—money and time well spent!).
These days, I’ll admit that I try not to say “No” to anything, but I accepted this job based on the possibility of much more finish work coming my way, and the creative freedom the client allowed me.
That strategy has paid off: I’ve been working on this job, on and off, for nearly 2 years. The media room, where I installed a coffered ceiling, has been the largest onsite project to date. We’ve also installed custom-raised paneling in the entry, fabulous doorways, over a thousand feet of crown, base and chair rail, with custom mahogany & ipe details, curved stair treads, ceiling panels, wall panels, parquet floors, and niches of all sorts. We’ve even done some custom tile work because the clients felt we were more meticulous than any other contractors working on the project—they felt more comfortable with us doing the work.
I’ve always been a visual builder. I’m not very good with CAD or SketchUp. But I like to offer options to my clients and include them in the decision making process. Ironically, the subject, “How to include your client in their own project” wasn’t a part of the curriculum when I was an architecture student.
The only thing my client knew was that he wanted a coffered ceiling. Of course, in his mind it was really simple, right? Just nail a 2x to the ceiling and build down from there. Use some of the baseboard we already had on the job; add some crown molding. But I’ve been around long enough to know you don’t bite that kind of bait.
To get a better understanding of what he had in mind, and to show him more possibilities, I put together some simple mock-ups made from MDF and scrap crown we had on site (see photo, right). Whetting his appetite was a good strategy. He wanted depth and drama; I needed precise details and measurements. In the process we designed a ceiling he was very pleased with, something he’d never seen before.
We worked through the mock-ups, changing moldings and proportions, and finally narrowed the design down, coming up with profiles that looked right together. One primary reason the final design rang true to the house was because we used a highly detailed crown and casing—the same patterns that we used throughout the home.
While the patterns looked good on the ceiling, the walls needed a different treatment, a break in the thread. I wanted the walls to be sleeker—not as deep, but to share the same symmetry and balance of the ceiling. Numerous issues were overcome in preliminary layout stages as the room wasn’t square, or even a simple rectangle; the windows and mullions on opposite ends of the room were not centered; plus the closet and a corner fireplace made for some interesting challenges. At the very least, I knew I’d have to extend the closet into the room a bit more to give the ceiling more symmetry.
And symmetry was one of the biggest challenges on this job! The room—from the windows to the doors to the fireplace—was laid out without a coffered ceiling in mind, of that much I’m sure. Under the circumstances, I did my best. I started by centering a beam on the door, figuring that was a critical center point. Unfortunately, that beam just caught the edge of the opposite window! I also centered a beam on the side window to the left of the door, but that meant it didn’t fall on center of the opposite window—no, of course they weren’t installed symmetrically! From there I tried to divide the room as equally as possible, landing a beam on the corner intersection to the left of the door, which miraculously aligned with the pop-out of the fireplace to the right. All-in-all, I thought it was more chicken salad than the opposite.
There’s a base molding in my neck of the woods that we nicknamed “the pregnant lady.” The profile has a bulbous top and a projecting lower area. We used this baseboard throughout the home in a 7 1/2-in. size. I used the same molding for the bed molding—the sides of the beams—in each of the coffers, as well as the bed molding for the surrounding walls in the room. Then I chose a crown pattern that fit with the baseboard/bed molding, which resulted in a properly-proportioned beam with good reveals.
I’ve installed coffers with completely flat, as well as the traditional, U-shaped beams, and with 1/2-in. and 3/4-in. reveals on the bottoms. But on this job, neither one appealed to me. Earlier during the job, in the master bedroom, we created a non-traditional look for the entryway by casing the doors with a large crown profile. We installed the crown between the casing and a deep paneled backband.
I liked that detail and thought it would be a nice change, something you rarely see on a coffered ceiling. The backband added depth and a nice mitered detail on the bottoms of the beams, and it provided a tight termination—without any reveal—for the inverted baseboard. To make the beam width easy, we used a stock 1×6 for the beam bottoms.
Of course, we built mockups so that we’d have exact measurements for laying out the ceiling and walls, and we made sure the customer approved the design before we proceeded. In this example, our client wanted to “see” the difference between using the backband molding at the bottom of the beam or dropping the sides of the beams. If I had to do this over again, I might try and find a backband that measured a full 3/4 in. thick. Because the material was only 5/8 in. thick, we had to re-saw backing for the whole ceiling (see below).
|But laying out the beams was only half the preparatory work. The walls would be paneled and toped with crown molding, too, and in some cases the crown would break forward, requiring additional soffit depth at the ceiling.|
|While our final mock-up didn’t include those popouts, I made sure to calculate that extra depth into the perimeter soffit.|
|I laid out all the corners, too, both the inside and the outside corners, just to be sure we’d have room for every layer of molding.|
We checked the ceiling for flatness quickly, using a rotary laser level, and found few problems. We included a good reveal between the crown and the baseboard—minor dips or bellies wouldn’t show, so we didn’t even bother to string or shim the beam bottoms.
After snapping out the lines, we calculated how many U-shaped, T-shaped, and X-shaped hollow backing pieces were needed. We cobbled together jigs on a workbench to make assembly faster—1x stops that held the pieces in place while we assembled the hollow backing.
|Because I don’t have a shop, all my work is done onsite. On this job, we were fortunate enough to work in the project room all winter. To keep accuracy up and dust down, we used the Festool Kapex miter saw and vacuum on a custom-made table.|
All the beam joints were glued and spliced with 1/4-in. MDF splines for strength. We used a 1/4-in. slot-cutter in a router and ripped 1/4-in. MDF to 1 1/8-in. strips for splines. Not knowing who would be finishing the woodwork, we sanded all the flat stock down to 180 grit prior to installation. Before installing any of the running molding, we skinned the ceiling with 1/4-in. birch, which made it very easy to cut and fit.
Coping or Mitering?
The crown on this job was predominately coped. Why? It was easier for me, especially after I tried to preassemble several coffers and it just wasn’t working. Don’t ask me why, but coping the baseboard and crown was much easier, especially after I picked up a Copemaster coping saw.
Bill Shaw (copemaster.com) was kind enough to invite me to his shop and give me a crash-course on how to use the machine. I’d seen it at several building shows and thought it was just too expensive. When I saw one advertised locally by a retiring contractor for half the retail price, I jumped on it, and, man, am I glad I did.
With some quick math, I knew how many “long” left hand copes and how many “short” left hand copes I needed for the entire job. I first butt-cut all the longs and shorts. Then I flew through coping them with that miracle machine. By the time the coffers were complete, I’d even perfected the dreaded double cope. There were a few corners I mitered, especially the acute angles that were 69 or 70 degrees (measured with a Starrett protractor—another tool that works great for me since I’m not good at translating math numbers to my miter saw).
We used the Kapex for nearly the entire project. The family was living in the house, and they allowed me to cut and sand everything inside the home, but we did our best to control dust. Unfortunately, the Kapex couldn’t cut everything, at least not nested in position. For the acute angles, I brought out my old and trusted Dewalt 708 sliding miter saw and a homemade acute-angle jig. With a little tweaking, the extreme miter was “butters,” as my colleagues and I like to say.
The Paneling Layout
The paneling on this job wasn’t that complicated (well…the matching “his and her” 50-in. TV screens weren’t easy), but I still mocked-up every detail, especially since the paneling intersected with the ceilings. Without mockups, there’s just too much room for error, which not only slows you down, but trips you up, too, and saps enjoyment from the job.
Mock-ups also help me sell and up-sell a customer. I am not a “sales” kind of guy, but part of my job is offering clients options, like the backband idea on the coffers. And sometimes those options help make a job more profitable. Mock-ups not only help my clients visualize a finished room, but they allow me an easy way to explore material and labor costs. I can help the customer decide which options can be done quickly and inexpensively, and which ones may take additional time, labor, and expense.
While playing with mock-ups, I try to look at everything—and I mean everything—from light switches to ceiling lights; from window and door locations to heights off finished floor; from stile reveals and flanking doors to wall outlets and heating and A/C ducts. As I tell my customers: I let the room and its characteristics speak to me, ultimately helping in my layout and design choices.
Vertical and horizontal lines are what make a good design. If a door or window has mullions or muttin bars, I try to incorporate those lines into my design. Mock-ups let me do that quickly and efficiently. Mock-ups also allow me to get final approvals from my clients. Sometimes I’ll have them sign the mock-up itself! That way, if there is any disagreement later, the mock-up becomes a great insurance policy.
His and Hers TV Screens
When my client requested his and hers matching flat-screen televisions, I thought he was kidding. But he wasn’t. Apparently, he and his wife could never agree on what to watch. I’m not a marriage counselor, I’m a carpenter, so I try to give people what they ask for!
Fortunately, the television wall was non-bearing and framed with 2x6s. Once the clients selected the specific televisions, we opened up the wall and re-framed for the matching niches, relocated AV chases, and ran the wiring and cable. Framing the openings allowed me to incorporate the two niches with the ceiling beam layout, and also allowed me to tie the niches into the wall paneling/crown molding design.
Pre-assembly wins hands down
|Because the casing was so thick, we built the face frames around the casing, tightly clamping the stiles and rails to the back of the casing.|
|In some cases, like the frames around the niches, we had to split the frames and assemble them right on the wall. We used dominoes to ensure strong, well-aligned joints.|
Anyone can hang crown, but I try to think about the design, too. I add bump outs—like speed bumps for the eyes—so people will slow down and look more closely at the scenery, instead of mashing the gas pedal to the floor and missing all there is to see. Bump outs and returns are subtle queues that reflect the care and craftsmanship I put into my jobs, details that differentiate my work from that of other carpenters.
|We pre-assembled the molding on the mantelshelf using Collins Spring Clamps.|
In case you haven’t guessed already, I hate doing cookie-cutter stuff. I try to add some sizzle to the steak—sometimes that’s what sells your next job. Since the mantel-shelf is the focal point of the room, I knew that adding some extra dimension would help it stand out a bit more (see photo, left).
A few years ago, I read an article somewhere about how you can make base molding look like it grew out of the wall by softening the return, using a 22 1/2-degree mitered return rather than a 45-degree miter. Ever since reading that article, I’ve been hooked on the technique. I use that detail on chair rail, crown, even base molding, because it’s an elegant, soft, and subtle way to terminate a run.
|Even though the height was restricted, I used the same panel-design in the hearth, to help tie the fireplace to the walls.|
Ken Barone studied Architecture in the late ’80s. Upon graduating, couldn’t find a decent-paying job, and ended up in consumer electronics. More than 10 years passed, and after losing his father to Lou Gehrig’s disease, Ken realized something was truly missing from his life. His passion for building, designing, and working with his hands full-time, wasn’t being satisfied. After working with several “high-end” carpenters, Ken founded “Spotless Contracting Services” (http://www.spotlessgc.com/), which specializes in interior and exterior renovations.
Ken truly enjoys working with molding and trim work. His company’s tag line is: “Paying attention to every last detail,” and it shows. A true believer in education, Ken takes every opportunity to educate himself and his clients on new trends and techniques.
When Ken isn’t behind the saw, he’s thinking about being behind it, or at least what tools he can acquire for his next project. Ken can often be found helping out on friends’ projects, or even a friend of a friend’s project, giving advice and sharing techniques he’s picked up along the way.
Ken loves spending time with his wife and three young children, and takes every opportunity to be at his daughters’ dance recitals or his son’s hockey games. Occasionally, he and his wife can be found enjoying some time together riding his Harley or old convertible to the east end of Long Island’s wine country, or the beaches and restaurants of Montauk Point.