Designing with a little help from my computer
A little while ago, a customer called wanting to do something in their living room to make it feel more formal, a bit “French country.” The homeowner presented me with pictures of rooms from design magazines. “Can you make my living room look like this?”
Sure I can!
The living room was 27 feet long, with a ceiling just under 8 feet. The molding around the windows was simple 2-in. colonial. The baseboard was 3-in. To make matters worse, someone had made a poor attempt at installing crown molding. The room felt like a squat blank box. Everything had to go.
I constructed a virtual model of the room in Chief Architect. Once the virtual model was done, I was able to work with the homeowner to refine her design. The program allowed me to work out the size of the mantel, and molding details before any money was spent.
The major elements of the redesigned room would be a new fireplace mantel, a ceiling medallion connected to built-up crown molding via four radial spokes, new window trim and baseboard, as well as shadow boxes on the wall.
The ceiling was just under 8 feet high, so the medallion could not have much depth. It would need to be flat against the ceiling.
Building the Ceiling Medallion: Layout
In all honesty, it would probably have been smarter to have a mill shop make the medallion on a CNC machine. But that would not have been as much fun, and I was up for the challenge.
Rough-sketching the medallion on the ceiling was the first step. This gave me and the client a chance to refine its size to fit the scale and feel of the room. I wanted to make the ellipse out of 1×8 poplar cut-offs left from the mantel and baseboard. (I just hate to throw out wood.) A CAD program made it very easy to layout the length and angle of each of the pieces that would form my final shape.
It was while I was figuring out the angels that I realized I didn’t have to layout an entire ellipse, I just had to do a quarter of it and repeat it four times.
Creating an Ellipse in AutoCAD
Drawing an ellipse in AutoCAD is easy, since the program allows you to enter exact measurements. All measurements are given in X,Y format from the origin. (Unless you are in “polar coordinate” mode, but that is a different article.)
To create the ellipse, you need to know two measurements: the major axis and the minor axis. In my case they were 90 in. and 60 in., respectfully. From these lengths, I derived the three points needed to form the ellipse: My starting point, simply (0, 0), the end of the major axes (90 in., 0) and end point of the minor axes, (45 in., 30 in.). 45 in. to the right of the starting point and 30 in. up the Y axes.
To start, activate the ellipse icon. Enter the three points of the axes as (0, 0), (90 in., 0) and (45 in., 30). That takes care of the ellipse representing the outside of our medallion.
To make the inside line, I used the “offset” function to create another ellipse 3.5 in. smaller. Entering the letter “O” on the keyboard activates the offset function. A prompt appears asking for an offset distance. In this case I enter 3.5 in., the width of the medallion. Click on any point of the ellipse, then click on the side where you want the new ellipse to be formed. Now you have the inside of the medallion.
The ellipse we just created represents the final form, after everything is cut and shaped.
Since the blanks I would use to cut out the medallion were 7 1/2 in wide, I formed two reference lines: 2 in. bigger, and 2-in. smaller (2 in. + the original 3 1/2 in. + 2 in. gives us 7 1/2 in. — the width of my lumber).
Starting at point A,
draw lines not quite tangent to the outside of the primary medallion.
This will determine the length of each segment. Continue this for the entire quarter of the ellipse.
Next, use the offset function to create the inside edge of each segment.
Lastly, I connect an intersecting line to form each block. The length and angle function of AutoCAD gave me the lengths and angels of each segment.
Trust me, you can perform the entire feat in less time than it took me to write this explanation. With one hand scratching my dog behind the ears…
…I still did the CAD layout in less than 8 minutes.
Time to ruin some wood
With measurements in hand, I cut all my blanks on the miter saw. Then I laid them out in the rough form of the finished medallion’s outline, making sure that all the cuts where right and the joints would be tight. My plan was to use pocket screws to clamp the pieces together.
While the medallion was still laid out, I marked where I wanted the pocket holes to go on each piece. This would help me avoid cutting the holes on the finished side. I also put reference marks on the pieces so that I would know how to put them back together.
|The Kreg Foreman made quick work of the pocket holes.|
|I glued up the pieces of the blanks and used the pocket screws to clamp them together.|
I had four quarters of a roughed-out ellipse. Time to create the final form.
A trammel, or ellipsograph, is a device used to draw or cut an ellipse. It consists of an arm with two pivot points “trammeled” in channels that are perpendicular to each other.
There must be a hundred articles and YouTube videos on how to build a trammel. My trammel was inspired by, if not outright stolen from, Jim Chestnut’s website. (I also feel the need to give some credit here to my 9th grade geometry teacher, who first showed me a trammel.)
To create my trammel, I cut a 1/4-in. rabbit 3/8 in. deep in the center of two 1 x 4s.
The 1 x 4 formed the rails of the trammel. I screwed a 1-in. x 4-in. x 5-ft. board to the base of my router to form the trammel arm, and drilled two 1/4-in. holes into it for the pivot points. The first hole, closest to the router, corresponds to half the minor axis of the ellipse (30 in.) and the second hole corresponds to half the major axis (45 in.). I pushed 1/4-in. router bit spindles into these holes. A good coat of butchers wax on all the parts allowed me to move the arms smoothly. I screwed the ellipse blanks to my work table and made some reference marks to their exact location, so that each of the four blanks would be cut exactly the same.
I like to let the router do the work and take my time. I discovered (the hard way) that pushing the process only leads to mistakes. The edges were a little rough with router marks, but a spindle sander made quick work of finishing them off. I stacked the parts, and used screws to clamp them together. Sanding all the parts together in a stack helps to average out the imperfections.
I laid out the ellipse on the floor again to make sure that it really was an ellipse, and that the four quarters lined up.
Applying trim to the edge
The design called for an OGEE trim around all the elements of the ceiling—the top of the crown-molding, spokes, and the medallion. I considered many strategies for making this detail on the medallion, including using different router bits, and cutting the ogee edge into the blanks, or even buying the curve molding attachment for the William-Hussey molding machine. In the end, I settled on the idea of gluing the molding to the blanks.
|Once taped, I fed the stack through my William-Hussey Molder, which cut the profile.|
|The resulting strips of molding were easy to bend and form around the blanks.|
I quickly discovered that I could not glue all the pieces to the medallion at once, as the clamps crushed the small outside edge. So, instead, I glued up the first two strips of each molding piece, and used every clamp in the shop (see photo, RIGHT). The next morning, I removed the clamps and glued the final edge strip. This piece was so small and flexible that tape worked instead of clamps.
The last step was to fill and sand any imperfections.
With hindsight, I should have cut some gluing blocks in the shape of the arches. This would have made the gluing process much easier.
I assembled the medallion in the field with dominoes, and nailed it to blocks I had set behind the drywall. Lastly, I installed the radial spokes and OGEE molding along the spokes and crown.
Other than a check, the few things I walked away with from this project were: first, a greater reliance on CAD for layout and planning of even a small job. And second, the knowledge that I can make flexible molding with my overhead molding machine.
Bill Hillman is the owner of William Hillman Carpentry LLC in suburban Philadelphia. His company specializes in both major and minor home renovations, and custom finish carpentry.
Bill is a fourth generation carpenter who likes to joke that he bleeds saw dust. “As a baby, I didn’t have a rattle, I had a hammer; and it wasn’t a toy hammer!” After graduating from Penn State University in 1991, with a degree in Labor and Industrial Relations, he worked for a political consulting firm running political campaigns. It didn’t take long before the smell of wood pulled him back to his roots and he reformed the company he began in college.
Bill’s work has won several awards from his area NARI (National Association of the Remodeling Industry), and has been recognized by the local newspaper’s annual awards. He has also been a guest on the local Fox TV News affiliate, discussing home renovation projects.
Bill lives in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, with his wife Teresa, their boys, Billy and Jack, and their dog and cat. In addition to his work, and being a husband and father (and T-ball coach), Bill enjoys fishing, biking, and grilling.