This article is a follow-up to “The Misused & Confused Chair Rail“, which I wrote for TiC a couple of years ago. It generated a lot of positive and negative feedback, and hopefully it challenged your ideas of how to use a chair rail. That article also led to many questions about other trim elements. One question that continues to come up concerns how to build mantels.
The secret to building mantels is actually the same one used for successfully designing other classical elements in a home, including door headers, crown molding, and columns.
The secret to beautiful built-ins and case work is hidden in the orders of classical architecture, captured in the magic of the entablature. If you can wrestle through the concepts and ideals of the entablature, the quality of your designs and your ability to build well-proportioned architectural elements will immediately improve.
Many people are surprised to learn that there are any rules for trimming out a house. In fact, I get a lot of arguments when I suggest carpenters should follow classical rules of building. Don’t mistake rules for dogma. Remember, classical rules are more like guidelines—they are markers along the road that steer us towards better design. They are not like mathematical formulas you follow to calculate the perfect molding. Today, the classical method of building contains clues for the size and placement of door casements and chair rails. These clues may once have been clear-cut rules, but over the last seventy years, those rules have been lost. That’s why, today they come to us as secrets—the lost tricks to building. Learn them and you will see an instant change in the quality and sophistication of your work.
The reason the classical methods work is simple—these are time-tested, centuries-old rules for the proper use of moldings and trim; like being in nature, they help people feel better in a room. I have literally had clients tell me how their friends and family love their living room where we installed the trim, but they can’t figure out why. We feel immediately comfortable in a classically designed space because the classical model is based on a human scale—the molding, cabinets, and doorways are all designed to “fit” with human form and size. By introducing human scale to your work through moldings and trim, you will bring new and lasting value to your projects.
It’ll help to study the following illustration and familiarize yourself with the terminology of classical architecture and how it relates to the moldings used in a home’s interior.If you are at all serious about putting up trim, you should understand the parts and pieces of the classical orders so you can teach this to your boss, your employees, and your clients. Don’t be afraid to share, and don’t hog this information—yes, these are secrets, but they shouldn’t be. Nothing will help you to learn this material better than teaching it to others.
The Big Picture
Let’s remember that all of the moldings we use on the interior of our buildings derive from the classical system. The chair rail is derived by the height of the pedestal; the base, crown, and picture mold all derive from the classical proportioning system. Although there are a number of elements in the classical system, we’re going to focus on the entablature in this article. The illustration below demonstrates the theoretical origin of the Doric order‘s entablature.
The entablature is essentially the horizontal build-up that is supported by the column. It is made up of three parts: the lowest is the architrave, next is the frieze, and it is topped by the cornice. Don’t be too intimidated by the terms. They have understandable origins and usually relate to the original timber structures before they were built later, in stone. If you study the illustration above, you’ll notice that triglyphs and guttae are thought to mimic the wood beams that were original timber elements of the earlier buildings. (Another great resource for origins and information on classical design is Calder Loth’s blog, Classicist.org. Much of the language I use comes from one of his posts.)
The cornice is the top part of the entablature. It consists of three sections: the bedmold on the bottom, the corona in the middle, and the cymatium at the top. A quick glance at the above illustration of the origins shows that the cymatium represents the gutter, the corona represents the fascia which covers and protects the rafter ends, and the bedmold represents the top of the wall structure supporting the roof.
The cymatium is your top-most piece and often has an S-shape, called a cyma recta. Common crown molding profiles, like an 8010 or 8012, include the cyma recta shape.
The corona is the flat space that separates the bedmold and cymatium. Again, this important flat spot helps us read the moldings and provides a crisp shadow line, defining and separating all the elements.
The bedmold (bed molding) is the bottom molding of the cornice and is one of the few moldings to still retain its classical shape. Bedmold is traditionally composed of two molding profiles, a quarter-round and a cove, separated by a fillet. When a dentil is used, it belongs between the quarter-round and cove. This is one of the rules of classicism that can demonstrate great sophistication, and it illustrates why classical rules are important. Like the proper use of a semicolon, don’t let the dentil end up in the architrave or the frieze—it belongs in the bedmold.
The frieze is the middle, flat area between the architrave and cornice. It is sometimes adorned, but more commonly left flat and plain. In the Doric order, the triglyphs show up in the frieze. During the Federal period, the frieze was often widened or enlarged to allow room for decoration with swags, urns, and other typical neo-classical details. The frieze can also be pulvinated, meaning it has a convex face. We will see examples of these elements later in this article.
The achitrave is the lowest section of the entablature and it represents the main beam, which supports the roof. Arch-, in its Greek root, means chief or ruler. Trave– comes from the Latin word for timber; thus chief-timber, or supporting beam. The architrave is usually broken into two or three faces, or steps. It is topped by the taenia, which is thought to represent a board that historically sat on top of the support beam.
Before 1880, “architrave” was the common name for door and window casings. Most pattern books used the term. But this was back before simple mitered casing heads became ubiquitous, back when most door and window openings were finished with a full entablature. But imagine if you placed an entablature on a door or window—it is only natural that the architrave spanning the opening would then wrap down the sides, becoming the casing legs we know today.
Entablatures are commonly used in a home’s interior in three main areas: to frame an entire room, as a door header, and as a fireplace mantel. Its primary use is to bring order, designate hierarchy, and elevate the design of a room. A number of the examples below are pictures from my book, Traditional American Rooms. In writing this book, I studied approximately thirty-five historic rooms at the Winterthur Museum. I have picked out some key details to help us understand how these rooms are put together and how the moldings are organized.
The following image is a great starting point—it demonstrates the power of the entablature in its three most common uses.
In this case, we see the frieze is pulvinated in two ways: fully convex over the pilaster and S-shaped over the door and mantel. We also see the full entablature expressed over the pilaster, and only the cornice wraps the room. We’ll dig into each area in detail, but this picture captures the potential magic of the entablature.
The Entablature in a Room
In the Lancaster Room at Winterthur, we can see the full entablature as it runs around an entire room:
If we compare the Lancaster Room to the Entry Hall (below), we’ll see the expression of two different orders.
As you may remember from my article on chair rail, there are five classical orders, and each order is expressed differently. In the Lancaster Room, we see the Ionic order; in the Entry Hall, we see the Doric order. It’s not often that you have formal rooms such as these, where the entire room is wrapped with a full entablature. However, you need to see it expressed fully so that you know how to do it, and so that you understand the parts.
The Entablature in a Door Header
Door headers are easy to build if you realize they are just mini-entablatures. The proper time to use a door header is when you are trying to elevate an opening or create hierarchy in a space. A built-up door header does not belong over every door and window in a house. However, in important rooms, or this entry hall below, it makes sense—it elevates the importance of the opening and the importance of the room.
|This is a “before” photo of an entry hall. When you compare this photo to the following, you’ll see the door header’s ability to change the look and feel of a room.|
Here is a very elaborate door header with a broken pediment from the Philadelphia Hall at Winterthur:
This level of decoration would have been appropriate in Philadelphia, since it was the wealthiest American city in 1760. Some of you might recognize the Chinese influence in this design—a popular style for a period when trade with Asia was first peaking American interest in Chinese culture. You can also see how the header breaks through the entablature that wraps the room.
Mantels are also mini-entablatures. However, mantles often bend the design rules, and are sometimes difficult to interpret architecturally. Mantels either have an entablature like a door header—with an architrave running down the side (as seen in the photo, below)—or they have an entablature that is supported by columns or brackets on both sides. Mantels also tend to express a higher level of decorative art, often broken up with blocks or other added pieces, for more flair.
This second mantel is a typical Federal mantel, with a frieze that is captured by corbels on each side:
The cornice is very ornate and the dentil fretwork in the bedmold is exaggerated and large. The frieze is also widened to allow for the panel mold design. There is no architrave in the wood. Instead, the marble face (not seen) acts as the architrave and finishes the composition.
Finally, on this Federal mantel, columns reach up to support the frieze:
Notice how the composition of the entablature still lays out correctly over the firebox, and the frieze pops forward over the columns. The cornice is reduced in scale (bending the rules), but is still very attractive.
The Tight Opening
When you are dealing with moldings for door headers or mantelpieces in tight spaces, sometimes the pulvinated frieze can help. In the photos below, you can see that the pulvinated frieze allowed us to put a door header over this formal opening in the dining room without crashing into the china cabinets on either side. The pulvinated shape and swoop add a lot of drama to the work as well.
Hopefully, you can begin to see the power and magic of the entablature with this short article. I’d like to finish with some quick tips for putting together entablatures, whether they’re over doors, on mantels, or in a room. Remember, these are just general guides and starting points! The goal of this article is not to establish a bunch of rules, but to provide a framework for designing and working with moldings. If you look at a lot of Colonial era millwork, you will see a great deal of inventiveness by the craftsmen. This “knowledgeable” inventiveness is what I would like to see us get back to today.
For those readers interested in learning more about the Classical orders and their different proportions, I encourage you to pick up a copy of The American Vignolaby William R. Ware. It is an excellent resource with very detailed illustrations.
- Don’t forget the frieze. The frieze is critical—it provides a proper stage for the architrave and cornice. Too often, I have seen carpenters leave out the frieze because it appears so unimportant. In truth, that plain, flat space allows the pause that helps develop the entire composition.
- A quick way to size an entablature for a room is to simply use 1/6th or 1/8th the room height. Here is where the rules become guidelines, and you should really mock it up or draw the details to hone in on the proper size. However, using the 1/6th or 1/8th rule, a 10-ft. room would have an entablature of approximately 15 in. to 20 in. tall.
- To break out a simple entablature, using the Tuscan order as a general guide, start by dividing the entablature height into seven equal parts, and use a 2-2-3 pattern for sizing. In other words, a 20 in. entablature breaks into seven 2 7/8 in. parts. This 2-2-3 pattern means that your architrave and frieze both contain two parts, which are each 5 11/16 in. in height, and the cornice is 8 9/16 in. in total height. Realize that each order is a little different. For instance, the Doric entablature is broken into eight parts and it has a 2-3-3 proportion.
- A simple break down of the cornice using the Tuscan order would consist of dividing the cornice height into eight equal parts, using a 2-3-3 order: the bedmold is two parts and the corona and crown are each three parts. Since this cornice example rounds to 8 ½ in., and is broken into eight parts, each part is 1 1/16 in. Using these guidelines, the bedmold is 2 ¼ in. in size, and the corona and crown should both be around 3 3/16 in. This proportion system is a fresh way to think through molding sizes. It also challenges the 8012 crown, which is just too big in many cases (especially in today’s typical homes, which have ceiling heights of 8 ft.).
- Use a picture mold as an inexpensive way to imply a frieze. A picture mold 6 in. below your crown implies a 6-in. frieze—the picture mold is acting as the taenia of the architrave. Based on the height of the room, you can adjust the spacing between crown and picture mold to inexpensively imply more of a built-up entablature. But to pull this off, be sure to paint the implied-frieze the same color as the rest of the cornice and picture mold.
- We can determine the size of a door header by simply using the same 2-2-3 entablature breakdown as a guide. In this case, the door casing is acting as the architrave, and it’s also the basis for the proportioning. Assuming our door casing is 4-in. wide and represents two parts, each part is 2 in. in size. Since your door casing is 4 in., your frieze will also be 4 in., and your cornice will be 6 in.
(SketchUp drawings by Wm. Todd Murdock)