Have you ever worked on an older remodel and needed a couple of sticks of trim to match but couldn’t find anyone who still stocked that profile? How about a piece to mate to a change in pitch on a rake run? Or have you ever had a designer draw something and then ask for a mock-up? There isn’t enough lineal footage (LF) to warrant having a knife made, much less the setup cost to run it. But there is an alternative—a good one. Make the moulding yourself. With a few moulding planes and some guidance, custom pieces can be made in the time it takes to find a millshop, explain what you need, and provide them with a scaled drawing!
Moulding profiles haven’t changed much over the years…or have they? Look at Thomas Sheraton’s or Asher Benjamin’s books on moulding and you’ll notice that moulding sizes are described in ratios—2 to 3, 3 to 4, etc.—but if you look at any router catalog, you’ll notice that nearly all are based on a 45-degree slope. A well-designed moulding is intended to reflect light and have shadow lines; the angle of the slope is influenced by its height relative to the human eye.
Asher Benjamin, in particular, was a proponent of the Grecian form of mouldings, which are based not on a single point radius but on an elliptical form. Elliptical forms are seldom seen in router bit catalogs. But moulding planes aren’t limited to cutting radius profiles. Moulding planes don’t have fences, bearings, or depth stops. A larger and smaller radius plane used on the same curve will produce an elliptical shape. They can be guided to produce any moulding desired—after all, these are the same tools with which mouldings were originally made.
Up until a couple of years ago, to cut a custom profile, I would trace a drawing on both ends of a board and then “work” my way towards the final result. It wasn’t particularly fast, but it was reasonably accurate, and I was able to produce what was needed. Awhile back, Larry Williams and Don McConnell came out with some DVDs. These programs were more for furniture-makers who wanted to do everything with hand planes. Still, it was from these DVDs that I learned some techniques which allowed me to increase my accuracy. But my speed didn’t change much.
|Then came Matt Bickford and his book, Mouldings in Practice.|
Although Matt Bickford makes wood-bodied hand planes, his approach is to use as many power tools as practical; then use hand tools only for things power tools can’t do. For me, the biggest change while learning Matt’s technique was to work off of rabbets made with a table saw instead of matching curves drawn on the ends of the boards. These two fundamental changes made creating moulding significantly faster and much easier to achieve.
|Matt recently spent the day at my shop to teach a few local contractors the use of wooden moulding planes to create moulding.|
|Once you understand how to layout the rabbets to create the shape you want, it’s just a matter of a few passes on the tablesaw to prep the piece, and then literally minutes—not hours—to achieve a finished piece of moulding.|
This article is not intended to be a substitute for Matt’s book, which is a well-written, useful full-length book. Consider this article a short primer.
How to Get Started
The rabbets are the critical first step. They act as an angle guide and a depth-gauge when making passes with the plane–almost like rails for the planes to ride on. The slope of the moulding is determined by the placement of the rabbets, which is why laying out the rabbets and cutting them correctly is critical. With the molding plane held against both rabbets, it’s easy to hold the plane at a consistent angle while making each cutting pass.
|You can predetermine the angle of the moulding by holding the rabbet plane so that it rests on the two edges of the rabbets to be worked.|
|By following these “rails” and observing the bottom of the rabbets, or the depth-gauge, you’ll develop a guide to check your progress from beginning to end.|
|You’ll notice there is still a portion of the rabbet remaining in this image.|
If you pass over just the portion, you can achieve the full depth without over-cutting the rest of the moulding.
All the mouldings in these pictures were made with three planes (after most of the material was removed with a tablesaw, of course): a rabbet plane, a #6 hollow, and a #6 round. You do not necessarily need a full set, but they can be obtained over time, much like the way we might develop a collection of router bits. Matt sells his planes a pair at a time.
Many people might be inclined to think that making mouldings is beyond their capabilities, so what’s the point in trying? Truthfully, the biggest hurdle is to take the initial step and attempt to make that first piece. It’s a lot easier than you’d think!
|After you have made a few simple profiles, it’ll be much easier to produce just about any moulding you encounter.|
One of the students at Matt’s workshop had never used a moulding plane before. He said, with a tone of disbelief, “I can’t believe this is so easy!” For the most part, it is!
|While making mouldings by hand is not without mishaps and mistakes, it’s not nearly as imposing as it might first appear.|
Lest I be accused of taking a romantic stroll down the golden lane of a yesteryear that never existed, time is money, and budgets need to be adhered to. If the moulding can be produced with one or more router bits, or if there is an off-the-shelf shaper cutter that will produce it, that would be my first choice. If not, then this approach can be a cost effective and time sensitive answer to obtaining or creating a particular moulding. One of the biggest benefits might be that you won’t be the one to tell a customer that “it can’t be done,” and hoping they never see a picture where it has been done!
I hope that this will encourage carpenters and woodworkers to try and make a piece of moulding. Being able to make a custom molding is distinctly gratifying—when the job calls for it. But keep in mind that this process is best suited for making feet and not yards of material!