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)
One of the best explanations I’ve ever read – the practical application of form and proportion is very well done, Thanks
I agree. I very good primer and reminder with excellent interior photos and graphics.
Excellent article. Thanks Brent, this will become a permanent reference.
awesome. In a time when so much of our work is cookiecutter, we lose perspective, literally. I have been on too many jobs where even the architect doesn’t have the vocabulary to speak to a design. This article though verbally weighty is so important to understanding balance and shape, style and design. Thank you for all the references, a great article.
You’re very right Thom, its not super common that modern architects know this depth of vocabulary or design logic, and in large part it’s not their fault. As a current architecture student I can confirm that architects today (and really for the past century) are not taught in any through way classical architecture, proportioning, or design. If a designer knows this language, it means they’ve unfortunately had to teach it to themselves.
Technical yet practical.
This is awesome, thanks a million for this article! I was just thinking recently “It would be great if Gary would get an article on mantles soon, we sure could benefit from one” :)
This is the best description and discussion of Classical architectural orders translated into American colonial interior construction I have ever read. Thank you for pulling it all together in simple, lucid terms. Very timely publishing….My December monthly inservice training for our team is going to be the first of three discussions of
American Interiors and Furniture: Pilgrim century to Art Deco.
What an invaluable resource you all provide
That was one of the most clearly explained and illustrated discussions of the bases of Classical order I’ve seen.
There’s something that’s always baffled me, though.
In your Phyfe mantle picture and also in the Lancaster room, the legs that are presumably representative of the columns supporting the mass of the ancient roof structure visually cut through the various members of the entablature to support a relatively thin band of cornice.
These examples are very beautiful and and give a sense of strength and order. However, when I’m working on the plan of a mantle with a client and we’re in the stage where we’re looking at photographs, I see many examples of mantles where the “header” is suspended disturbingly between the legs. One would never see a stone header between brick columns and before the use of metal hangers you’d never see wooden structure built that way.
I’ve built many mantles where the legs pop out from the plane of the frieze and I know it’s really about scale and execution, but it seems fundamentally not right.
Have you ever seen this discussed?
JW, Thanks for your comments.
I haven’t seen it discussed, but if I understand your example correctly, it sounds like you are looking at bad examples of design and/or execution. If you had specific examples you could upload, it may help the discussion.
This is a photo that a client showed me in the early stages of planning that she had found on a design site. It’s an extreme example of what I’m talking about.
Here’s a picture of what I ended up building. I based dimensions and proportions on a drawing of a house in Plymouth, Mass. built in 1698. I was constrained by the viewing height of the TV in the recess above and by the height of the brick hearth which was existing, and therefore had to make the call about what “looked right”. The frieze was somewhat narrower than the ideal, but widening it would’ve made the recessed panels in the columns too squat, IMHO.
In the one I built, the two halves of ply were pegged together and the joint v-grooved, as I hate the crack that inevitably shows up at the butt seam. When I set the columns and the architrave moldings it became clear that a seam mid-span in the frieze was antithetical to what the the frieze was supposed to represent—a structural member. Application of a continuous 1/4″ ply panel between the columns made a huge difference in how I felt about it.
In both examples and the Phyfe and Lancaster examples, the horizontal mass hangs between the columns. But really, examples of the columns traversing the entablature are everywhere in new and centuries-old work. In classical Greek architecture, I never see this ; the posts support the beams. (Admittedly, I don’t get out much and will stand to be corrected).
As I think about the design of a mantle or portico or doorway, I want to draw upon the logic of the Order. We can readily trace the origins of the classical elements. I’m just curious when we made what seems to be a fundamental shift from function to aesthetic form.
I appreciate that it could be my own windmill to tilt at!
I think I know what you’re talking about and it’s an interesting subject, too. I wish I knew more about it but what little I do know might help explain what you’re asking.
Until the Italian Renaissance, entablatures were just as you describe–trabeated designs with posts and beams, columns and headers.
But Italian architects, especially Michelangelo, revolutionized architectural design–perfect word because they were ‘revolting’ against rigid classical structure. Like Frank Lloyd Wright–who wanted to build without order (columns/headers), Michelangelo wanted to “burst the toils and chains” of academic Vitruvian rules. For the first time, Michelangelo used free-standing columns as decorative devices, and–in an inspiration that influenced so much of architecture to this day–he used architecture as sculpture: “Entablatures were broken, architraves and friezes omitted at will, proportions were modified, and a multitude of consoles were introduced” (Fiske Kimball, A History of Architecture).
So since the late Renaissance, we’ve seen entablatures that break forward above columns and pilasters, as if the column or pilaster is breaking right through the entablature, but its not, it’s just a decorative ‘sculptural’ device. Imagine how boring those entablatures would be if the crown molding and architrave molding didn’t break forward around the end blocks above each column/pilaster? Those outside corner miters are what really makes the cornice pop.
That’s also the origin of the three-part and the five-part plan, which you can even see in the floor plan of many buildings and plan view of many mantelpices. But that’s another subject.
That is exactly what I was wondering.
Seems there was a conscious shift away from strict structural representation. Pretty amazing that it can be traced back to Michelangelo, et al. It really opened up the ball, aesthetically.
Maybe Renaissance architects were reflecting the Greek and Roman elements as they found them in ancient ruins; as free-standing columns or broken pediments.
Anyway, thanks for the interesting Holiday Weekend conversation.
P.S. You guys must have SOME libraries!
Nice work on the mantel. I think raised hearths are difficult design obstacles that you have handeled well.
In support of Gary’s comments, the classical system is a language. It is a language to study and learn before you can speak it clearly. You must have a basic understanding of the rules so that you can speak more skillfully. The example of the mantel from your client has all the parts and pieces but their scale, proportion and placement are not right. It isn’t that i don’t understand what they are trying to say, but it isn’t poetic or clear or beautiful. Its clunky, jilted and childish.
In the photo of the Federal Mantel, the “Bracket” looks terribly out of place. It looks like a late day tack on.
I’ll also take exception to the idea that “because the classical model is based on a human scale” it makes us feel better. The “scale” of much classical architecture was not at all to “human scale” but was meant to let the human know what a minor character he was. Scale has many functions in architecture, it establishes the “feel” that is to be conveyed. Homey might be one of them but more often scale is used to impress. How did you “feel” the first time you walked in the Pantheon? Full of classical details, did you feel it related to the human scale? It was certainly designed to impress, I sure was. My favorite building, but I haven’t seen much of the world!
Thanks for the good course in terminology.
The Federal Mantel with the bracket might ‘look’ bad to you, but it’s definitely in keeping with Federal Style mantelpieces. That Rococo-inspired bracket was a very popular device during the Georgian period. In fact, you see it used so often that it’s almost over used–to decorate spandrels in stairs, to act as a buttress against pilasters, and to buttress cornices above doors and chimney’s, too.
And I take exception with the exception your take with Brent’s description of proportion and it’s relationship to human scale. Brent’s talking about a concept that dates back to Humanism, which is also a reflection of classical architecture, where proportion was based on the human form (Brent’s allusion to human scale)–where “man was the measure of things.” Brent’s not saying that a building is scaled to human size but human proportion… and yes, sometimes it’s colossal, but still proportionate. :)
Thanks Gary, that is correct. The classical buildings are human in scale, in that they are based around and according to proportions found in the human body; the fingers to the hand, the hand to the arm, the arm to the body are proportional and actually mathematically scaled. The golden rectangle is found all through the human body.
It was this system or “human proportion” that helped drive the design of classical buildings. It is not that these buildings are not huge but that we naturally relate to them like a child to its mother. We feel comfortable or right or proportionate in that space because we are scaled the same way. We are proportionate.
As to the bracket on the federal mantel, if you see it in place, it doesn’t “tacked on”. It is actually an wonderful decorative element that works.
Thanks Brent, this article is Beautiful and so informative. I must say that there are still dedicated woodworkers like you out there to transfer and decode the Ocean of knowledge from past to present.
Once again, a bundle of thanks.
I graduated from Humber College as a cabinet maker a few years ago. The building of furniture is only a hobby with me, but having a perfectionist personality and a need to understand everything I do, makes me reach out for articles such as this and collections of printed matter pertaining to all the periods of architecture. The school program taught us proper joinery methods but only touched on the world as expressed in this article. We built crown mouldings but without really being taught in depth history, etc. I am certain you understand what I am saying. I am sorry that the school does not extend the curriculum to include important design information such as this. The universities should offer a program that includes all the elements expressed as well as th practical leading to a master degree. I should think that it would be highly successful.
Age wise, I am in my seventies and have several graduate degrees and professional designations behind me. Most of my life has been spent is the business and/or corporate world in which I have achieved a modicum of success, although having slowed down in recent years. In a prior life, our family built up and owned a large chain of furniture and accessory stores until being purchased by a large public company who proceeded in the short term span of two years to bankrupt a wonderful company built up over two generations. I understood the classical styles from a viewing prospective, not a construction prospective. If only I had my life to liver over!
The wonderful thing about building and design is that we never stop learning. You could live 2 lifetimes and still have more to grasp. Good luck and thanks for your comments.
Good design is good design – no matter how old it is. The eye is quick to spot what’s good and what’s bad (the tongue is even quicker!). Just look at some furniture or architecture and you feel it’s wrong, you don’t know why it’s wrong, but it’s just wrong.
MY understanding is that DORIC column is based upon the male form (1:6 ratio Hercules?) – the sturdy male form – and they must have been chunky when you look at the armour they hefting about, whereas Ionian was from the Eastern/Persian side and based upon the female form (1:9 or 1:10 ratio) – look at the columns of Ephesus!
So I’ve done a less than scientific study, where I took the form of the Virtruvian man, a DORIC column, a gauge to represent 8ft (2.4M) and door height of 6ft 6 1/2ins (2M) and surprisingly (not) they match up…The Cornice matches eyes to top of the head, the Frieze matches Eyes down to the top of the shoulder and from the top of the shoulder to where the arms join the body is the architrave – I always thought the entablature was just the head!!! The capital mimics the breast bone, whereas the knee is the point entasis and the ankle nearly sets the height of the skirting (base) board. – Note this is for a column without Plinth.
By the way, in the UK the Chair Rail is known as the Dado rail, which stops much of the tiz regarding the height – though most are still set at 36″ which sort of look right on a 10ft ceiling.
Keep up the good work
Thanks for the feedback and visual. The only tweak I would make to your picture is that the male or female proportions are usually only associated with the height of the column and doesn’t include the entablature. Although it doesn’t suprise me you find a correlation, according to the classical tradition it is just the column.
Yep I know that the male/female proportions relate to the height of the column, however, I was told that the proportion of the entablature is the same proportion to that of the human head to the rest of the body. The distance from the top of the head to the eyes is the cornice, eyes to mouth the frieze and mouth to chin the architrave and that’s what set me thinking!!!
Then there is also phi which sets the entablature height for the Parthenon (with regard to the proportion of its height to base)
One thing that surprised me (and maybe it shouldn’t have), is regardless of order the heights of the entablature, column and pedestal are the same – for an 2.4M (8ft) room the height of the entablature is 390mm (1.28ft/15.37 ins), the column is 1561mm(5.12ft/61.47 ins) and the pedestal is 468mm (1.54ft/18.44 ins – your chair rail height) – this was really weird. Which again leaves in awe of the ancients (Greeks, Egyptian and Persians) – they really knew what they were doing, as did the 17th and 18th century craftsman – they produced works of art and in most cases we don’t know who they were, and I’m not talking about Adams etc here, I’m talking about the craftsmen who took a design and made it work. So thanks for your chair rail article and the entablature top up.
Regards TOM W
Thanks for sharing. Good stuff. I especially appreciate you celebrating and highlighting what the craftsmen and builders knew in the past. I am often stumped by the level of sophistication and detail in an Asher Benjamin pattern books. When you consider that his book, written in 1797, “The Country Builders assistant” was written for untrained builders and craftsmen, it is even more astounding.
Taking it a step further that the Greek and Roman builders were even more more skilled and and it is no wonder their buildings are still standing.
I have a question with regards to the trim. Where do you find trim like this, other than at Menards, Lowes or Home Depot? I have a Greek Revival two-story home that I am refinishing and I would love to use trim like this to really make the home “POP” to the eye holder. Thoughts?
Hi Richard. Not sure where your located. Good trim is hard to find at the big box lumberyards. They just don’t get it. Its also true that when moldings are classically designed they do “pop”. They are expressive. As for Greek Revival moldings i designed some moldings in this style for Kuiken Lumber (who advertise on this site) and my firm Hull Historical runs custom profiles based on a specific style. FYI. Thanks…
Brent, excellent article, which leads me to my suggestion below to Gary and the Katz Publication group.
The compilation of articles you have at this site are all better than I’ve seen anywhere, FineWoodworking and FineHomebuilding, to which I subscribe. Would you consider compiling your website articles into an e-publication (so that the videos are available also) and work with Amazon to publish a book I can get on Kindle or desktop?
I realize this might be complicated, the authors might want to be compensated or share in this venture, copyright and all that, but some of these articles should be compiled in a way that is available in a permanent archive for those who want to pass this wisdom down to future generations. Your website is awesome, but who knows in 15 years where that may be?
I have used programs like TechSmith SnagIt to download your articles and archive them in PDF files, under my Woodworking and Carpentry folders, but maybe you could just produce the whole thing in an e-book. A nice hardcover color version would be nice, but I don’t think the economics of producing that versus the market it might sell to would likely be optimal, but to those of us who follow your work and others, like when you present to groups and can offer a DVD for some price, etc., plus Kindle, might be attractive.
Anyway, just a thought, even if you don’t like the idea take it as a compliment, to Katz and all your contributors, these are just awesome! Nice work.
Gary has truly built a great site and his passion for teaching and training are obvious. I remember conversations with Gary years ago as we lamented that many of the top tier building magazines were becoming more homeowner and DIY centered. I hope that Gary does soon compile these articles and this information. I don’t know of anyone as commited to the job of training craftsmen like Gary. He is a hero for our trade.
Personally, I hope you will be on the look out for a new book from me next year tenatively titled “Building a Timeless House in an Instant World” I hope it can become a tool to help us all build, design and craft better.
Thanks for your comments,
P.S. For what it’s worth, I would include the comments to these in a book also (should this go that direction). Many times hearing from commenters, right/wrong/good/bad, also is invaluable in getting perspectives on how the working field sees the angles and dangles….
Great article and timely for me as I’m getting ready to design and replace a not-so-well-proportioned mantel in my house.
It is still unclear to me, however, as to how to properly proportion a mantel entablature. For e.g., if you are designing a mantel that will 60 inches tall, and you’re using the mantel height as the basis for proportioning and the 1/6 to 1/8 guideline from the Tuscan Order, then the mantel’s entablature should be ~10 inches at most — that seems wimpy to me. If instead you use the room height, say 10 ft or 120 inches, then you arrive at a mantel entablature height of 15-20 inches — this makes more sense to me.
I don’t have any examples of my own to share, but if you go to Gary Katz’s website and look at the front parlor mantel at Rowan Oak – from top of page, 11th and 12th photos – you will see what I think is a beautifully simple and well-proportioned mantel (http://www.garymkatz.com/OnTheRoad/rowan_oak.html).
I scaled off the mantel height (based on standard brick dimensions) and got ~60 inches. The mantel entablature, therefore, is ~18 inches or almost 1/3 the mantel height. A fraction of 1/3 would fail the Tuscan Order test if you proportion based on mantel height, but 18 inches would fall within the range of the perfect entablature height for a room with 12-ft ceilings!!
So the bottom line question for me is what do you base your proportioning on when you design a mantel – the room height, the desired mantel height, or what? Using the Rowan Oak example it would seem that the room height is the basis for proportion.
Great question. The parts and pieces of a mantel are generally proportioned to the size of the firebox and not the cieling height in the room. At the same time, in a well designed home, because the firebox is appropriate to the size of the room, the mantel also looks appropriate in that space.
As for Rowan Oak, you will notice that it is an 1848 building thus it is Greek Revival in style. Much of the trim in a Greek Revival home was made to mimic and inspried by stone. Thus the reason this mantel you are attracted to is heavy and bold.
The only caution I would give you is to make sure your mantle doesn’t overwhelm the space. This mantle works at Rowan Oak because the cielings appear to be at least 10′ tall, they could be taller. If you have 8′ cielings this mantel could be out of place.
Second, make sure a Greek Revival mantle will work in your home. Most pre-1940 homes had a “style” that was based in an historic precedent. If you have a split level ranch, or an English Tudor home, this style of mantel won’t work.
Thanks for this great primer on the classical orders.
I am adding moldings to a newer colonial styled house with 7 1/2 foot ceilings. I would like to use the classical orders for this project to bring a little bit of class to an otherwise fairly soulless building.
I was intending to install a cornice and frieze to the dining and formal living rooms, scaled to the height of the room. Unfortunately, the windows are mounted at the standard 6’8″ height, leaving only 10″ from the top of the window to the ceiling. Using classical orders, at 90″ overall my cornice/frieze would amount to about 10.5″, which is larger than the space available, even if I exclude the top of the window casing.
In your opinion, would I be better served omitting the frieze and having a 4″ casing, leaving only about 0.5-1.5″ of wall between the top of the casing and the bottom of the cornice, or should I omit the top casing and bring the frieze all the way down to the top of the window?
It’s so frustrating trying to design to classical orders with such a short ceiling because the classical elements just don’t fit right given the constraints. For example, the “rule of fifths” yields an architrave that is far too large to fit above any of my windows or doors. Do you have any suggestions for proportioning to small spaces?
For those who encounter Jason’s question:
There is a table on page 224 of Get Your House right that shows that for ceiling heights under 9′ you omit the frieze. With a ceiling height of 8′, the cornice (including crown) height is 6″, or just the crown alone would be 2 1/2″.
I realized I didn’t respond to your email. Sorry for the delay. This is a really hard room to fix. If you look at historic precedent, the classical rules are really bent and broken to make a room like this work.
In my book, Traditional American Rooms, the Dunlap room is an example of an early colonial room with low ceilings. In that case they do a simple decorative crown and no attempt at making an entablature.
I would consider yourself free from having to follow the rules and instead get inventive with moldings and come up with another way to tie the room together and make it look right.
I guess you may already be done with the project but if your not, please email me pics and i’ll be glad to suggest something.
Thanks so much for the reply! I picked up a copy of your book. It has a lot of great inspiration. I really envy the folks with the height to make the most of that amazing millwork!
The work isn’t complete yet. The project had to be put on hold to fix some water infiltration issues.
In the meantime, I have been doing more research into colonial and georgian woodwork. I found some excellent examples of work by a master joiner by the name of Isaac Fitch in the Jonathan Trumbull, Jr. House in Lebanon, CT. The cornice is handled similarly to the example of the Dunlap room. Fitch managed to skillfully capture hints of the full entablature through pilasters in the corners and framing the fireplace, while omitting parts of the frieze and architrave around the rest of the cornice to work within the constraints.
Between the examples of the Trumbull, Jr house and the Dunlap Room, I have some great ideas of how to compose the front rooms of our house in mid-georgian style that I think will really pop!
If you’re still interested in looking at some pictures, let me know and I’ll send them along.
Thanks for the help on this!
Thanks for reading my book. I’m assuming you mean Traditional American Rooms. I’m always interested in seeing pictures. :) Please send them along when you have them.
Another great source for historic architectural interiors are 3 books called Colonial Interiors. They are divided into series; the first series is colonial and early Federal, the second series includes southern interiors and the 3rd series is Federal and Greek Revival interiors. They are all black and white pics but great examples with some drawings. I find myself returning to these books again and again for millwork, stairs, and mantel ideas.
Very nice description. I am doing some DIY improvements, and want to make the living room of my house feel grander. This text is a great resource, for example, I want to copy the idea behind the pillar with entablature and continued cornice, displayed in Hapton room. I also like the idea of the pulvinated frieze. Can you please advise where to buy such pulvinated frieze moulding? I looked at various decoratorupply stores and moulding stores, but cant find it over internet. Thank you!
Thanks for the note. I’m glad you liked it. Unfortunately, the pulvinated frieze is hard to find. It isn’t used very often, and thus most company’s don’t have it in stock. We make ours, and depending on your skill level, I would recommend the same.
This can be done by taking a 1 1/2″ or 2″ board, cutting it to width and then rounding over the face. I would take the majority off with a table saw and then sand the rest with a belt sander.
You can go to a custom molding shop, but by the time they cut a knife and charge you for a set up, it will be at least a few hundred dollars.
Good luck, I assure you, it’s worth the trouble.
Sounds like it will be worth a try. Thanks again.
How about a video or images to show how to make pulvinated moulding? What do you use to round over the face?
I am a big fan of your molding /trim articles, and I found them extremely helpful when we had to replace some interior trim in our house due to water issues. Our house just looked so much better when we installed the proper proprtion vs the very small original 1950s molding. We got many compliments so thank you.
However, I havent seen any articles of yours that talks about exterior trim. Do you have any advice in that area you could refer me to? We need to replace some exterior trim on our house, and I was thinking maybe we should replace it all to improve curb appeal. However, I am not sure the contractors really understand proportion etc on the exterior either so I wonder whether their recommendation is the best. Any thoughts – our house is 1950s garrison colonial and a previous owner expanded it to include a front entrance with the columns & dentil molding as well as a room over the garage with the railing detail. It is vinyl siding with brick just in the front bottom half. Also, if this question is more something you consult on remotely & for a fee, please let me know your rates. I would be happy to send more pictures, any measurements, etc. I am open to all ideas to improve curb appeal, and if you don’t advise on exterior trim but know someone who does you could refer me to, I would appreciate that as well.
Thanks for your questions. I’m glad my articles have helped. Generally exterior trim is not as standardized or as easy to generalize. Architectural styles, like your colonial-ranch are often interpreted in different eras. The colonial revival home has seen iterations in the 1890’s, 1920’s, 1940’s, 1950’s and even today. In each generation, this style is reinvented with different moldings and exterior details. A Victorian version is quite different from your Ranch version.
Your house, good news, actually could carry the traditional colonial details better than most ranch homes. I don’t think it is necessarily “moldings” you need as much as highlighting and encouraging certain architectural features. For one, your windows are too small, and they are the wrong proportions.
My thoughts are more than can be contained in this post and I’m happy to consult. Email me for my more information and we can talk by phone soon.
Hope that helps,
Thanks Brent for your response. I absolutely agree that the window size / proportion especially on the 2nd floor is not quite right. I would be interested in discussing your ideas further. Please let me know how best to reach you.
I’m so glad I stumbled onto your article. We’re building a home and want to do classical mouldings.
The challenge I’m running in to is that our windows are so tall they stop just 12″ below the ceiling in a 10′ room. I don’t have a picture of the interior wall elevation, but below is an exterior elevation to give you an idea.
I’d love to follow the proportions you outline, but that would mean the windows would cut right through the frieze.
How do you recommend handling this?
Your plan is very elegant, I think it is a great start. I think you can and should have classical moldings but there are some things that should be tweaked and moved around. For instance, I think your Palladian window is too small and should interrupt the entablature/cornice. If you want to contact me I’d be happy to share my suggestions. I’m curious too who did your plans.
Thanks for the comment and let me know,
Thanks for all the great info. I’m in the middle of renovating a room that will be used as a Den in my home built in 1900 in Wakefield, MA. The room is 14×12, has two windows, and a 6′ pocket door. The ceilings are 9′.
The windows and doorway have nice entablatures using dentil molding buildup that ties in with the exterior of the house. It also has what I think are oversized baseboards at 6.5″ tall, but we’d like to keep those since the rest of the house has the same.
I bought some 4 5/8″ cyma recta crown molding, but we think it looks too big and fights for attention with the entablatures. the molding is 3 3/4″ vertical.
We’re thinking about sizing down to a 3 5/8 molding which would be 2.95″ vertical. Do think this size is more appropriate? How do the entablatures influence sizing of the crown? The original crown in the room had very small moldings, maybe 2″ vertical. It seems small, but maybe it was intentionally taking a back seat to the entablatures?
We plan to use the same crown in the adjacent dining room and possibly add picture rail to dress it up.
Thanks a lot,
Yes, the 4 5/8″ crown is WAY too big. Please don’t. 2″ sounds right to me. The historic precedent is usually the best way to go.
What do you think about matching the crown with the door entablature cornice molding? Our entablatures over the doors and windows use a dentil molding. Is cyma recta ok for the crown molding or should it match?
Yes matching the moldings is appropriate, I would just alter the scale so that the door and window moldings are smaller in scale than the crown in the room.
I am desperately trying to do the math for my home with 8 ft ceilings, but things are not adding up. According to the article you wrote on the chair rail the pedestal height would be 18-19″ and the column height 93″. That only leaves 3″ for my entire entablature, which according to this article should really be closer to 12-16″. Obviously I have missed something. Can someone help me figure out the proper sizes for moldings and their placement in a home with 8 ft ceilings. I will be installing baseboards, chair rail, and crown. Thanks for setting me straight.
Also, when designing the mantle how do you know how wide the supporting columns should be? Do you use the room’s column diameter as a guide?
I am an interior design student at the New York Institute of Art and Design.
I found the information in this article to be very informative.
However, I am very interested in knowing the classical rules re’ decorative panel and picture frame molding. I am implementing these moldings in my final two projects for school.
I was going to draft the molding in the elevations.
Need to calculate scale, proportion and correct placement.
Can you recommend a reference guide, book etc.
And Now I Know.
Great Help Indeed.
This is really amazing that you have shared all this knowledge in such detail. Thank you!
I do have one more question… Now considering that the base is the defining rule for the chair rail. What system would it correspond to if you were to add paneling below the entablature and below the chair rail? How would you scale or know how much to keep on each side (of the raised panel, normally I see people use 4″, but is there a system this corresponds to? ) and how much spacing between each raised panel? Would the size of the raised panel horizontally be equal to column spacing? If so does this mean raised panels should be treated as mini architraves?
I’ve read a countless books and by far your explanation of the orders is the most effective. Its as if you have let out the secret language of the orders!
Amazing article, your publications have been a huge help in establishing my understanding of classical elements as I move through my architecture class. One question, you said that the dentil should not end up in the frieze, but presently it is my understanding that the triglyphs in the freeze represent the ends of joists and the dentils represent the ends of joists, so why shouldn’t the dentil be used in the frieze?
P.S. I shared your website with my architecture teacher so she can distribute it to the class at some point in the semester. Now everyone will be able to identify remnants of Greco-Roman design scattered about our homes and museums!
Excellent post. I will be in touch with some questions on a Greek Revival renovation.