Northwest Renovation Magazine

A Home Improvement Magazine

Scan the real estate listings in the Sunday paper, and the importance of moulding is clear. Terms such as boxed beams, wainscot, plate rail, built-ins, crown moulding, or elegant mantel are evocative of a home brimming with character, whether it’s new construction or a vintage house. Real estate agents recognize that millwork — which defines the style and personality of a home — sells.

Casing and Base
Chair Rail
Plate Rail
Crown and Picture Rail

For centuries, moulding was of great architectural significance. Around 1900 the complicated patterns of the Victorian era were gradually supplanted by more classically inspired colonial revival mouldings and the solid, geometrically based profiles of the Arts and Craft Movement. In the late thirties, the influence of Modernism shifted emphasis away from heavy millwork in favor of thin, clean lines; by the sixties and seventies moulding had been reduced to the nearly universal 1 1/2″ sanitary casing. In the 1990s, however, lust for moulding resurged as homeowners — tired of sheet rock boxes loaded with space but lacking character — craved substance, detail, and charm.

A lack of moulding in your home is no reason to despair. With the hundreds of moulding profiles available through specialty millwork stores once again, and some careful planning and research, you can install in your home the beauty and character you desire. Below are four moulding projects that the typical homeowner with basic carpentry skills can tackle over a few weekends.

Casing and Base
Whether you are restoring an older home or enhancing a blasé ranch or newer spec house lacking in character, there is no more important moulding decision than your casing (around doors and windows) and baseboard — the key to a successful and harmonious interior. Ideally, casing and base should complement the architectural style of your home, not conflict with or detract from it (e.g., fluted casing with corner rosettes designed for tall narrow windows and high ceilings of Victorian era houses looks incongruous in a low-slung ranch house with sliding patio doors and picture windows).

If you have an older house, in which the interior trim has been modified over time, the safest choice is to return to what was or could have been there originally. Each period style has a unique moulding vocabulary corresponding to such things as ceiling height, window and door shapes, etc. Moulding in a sturdy bungalow, for example, is characteristically stout, while trim in a vertically oriented Victorian is accordingly tall and soaring.

Although there is nothing inherently wrong with the narrow sanitary moulding so popular in the last half of the twentieth century, which suited the flowing horizontal lines and broad expanses of windows characteristic of modernist homes, many homeowners have a craving for something more substantial. Stepping up from a 1 1/2” to 3 1/2” or greater casing and base produces a dramatic transformation, without comprising your home’s integrity. Wider moulding with clean lines and a correspondingly simple base will create an Arts and Crafts or contemporary look, while a detailed casing will give a more formal, traditional ambience. For a more architectonic quality, typical of bungalows or colonial revival houses, combine a backband (a thick notched moulding) with a flat or profiled casing together with a flat baseboard and cap moulding.

When dealing with casing and base, be prepared to tackle the whole house. Unlike other mouldings (chair rail, crown, or wainscot), which may vary from room to room, casing and base should be relatively consistent throughout. Given the potential magnitude of this project, you may wish to undertake one room at a time. Remember, it’s not just cutting and installing the moulding that takes time, but the sanding, puttying, priming, and painting required to finish it: a big job, but one well worth it.

Chair Rail
Perhaps the simplest moulding addition one can make is a chair rail, which typically involves only straight cuts abutting directly into the casing. Chair rails are most frequently found in dining rooms, though they can enhance virtually any room or hallway. Traditionally positioned about one third of the way up the wall, it makes the ceiling seem higher, and provides the opportunity to explore more color and design options (to avoid the chair rail looking like a racing stripe, paint the lower portion of the wall the same color as the moulding).

Chair rails need not be formal, but should correspond to the style, thickness, and width of your door and window casing. Ideally, look for pieces that are slightly thinner (leaving a reveal), comparable in width and with compatible shapes (coves, ogee curves, beads, etc.). Many single piece chair rails are available, but for rooms with casing wider than three or four inches, it may be more appropriate to build up a chair rail out of two or three mouldings, to achieve the desired width. A simple combination for a classic, larger chair rail is a flat board (1X2—1X4) with a panel mould running above and below. Another easy combination is to surface apply a panel moulding to a larger casing or base moulding. The chair rail is typically beveled back slightly where it intersects with the door and window casing. When using an asymmetrical chair rail, whether a single piece or one comprised of several mouldings, always position the thicker portion at the top, tapering towards the floor.

For added interest and a more formal look you can surface apply panel mouldings directly to the lower portion of the wall (if relatively smooth), creating the effect of a paneled wainscot.

Plate Rail
Frequently found in homes before ca. 1930, plate rail is a perfect addition to a dining room, kitchen or child’s room, providing architectural interest, as well as a place to display dishes, pictures, keepsakes, or toys. Plate rail is usually positioned about two-thirds of the way up the wall, allowing for furniture placement below and better viewing of the items on display. It may stand alone, or serve as the cap to a paneled wainscot, a more complicated project not to be further outlined here.

A plate rail is built up out of a minimum of two pieces, and may be quite involved, depending on your home’s style and the desired effect. A simple combination, one ideal for bathrooms or kitchens, where only a small ledge is needed, is a lintel moulding mounted to a broad casing or to a piece of dimensional lumber with a panel mould below. Add a plate shelf above the lintel and this simple combination is now suitable for a dining room or area where larger items will be displayed. Typically, the lintel mould or top shelf is notched to overlap the casing slightly, while the crown moulding beneath is given a mitered return.

For a heavier look in homes with substantial moulding, position corbels (small wooden brackets) beneath the plate rail with straight pieces of complementary crown moulding running between. Use dimensional lumber or a tall flat base board for a backer, and embellish with additional panel mouldings, as desired. For a child’s room, kitchen or coat room, add shaker pegs to the backer board for hanging coats, hats, or cups.

Crown and Picture Rail
A crown moulding is one of the most traditional and elegant ways to enhance a room. In selecting a crown moulding, however, most people are too timid. A rule of thumb is that the crown equals or exceeds the base moulding in size, regardless of the ceiling height (e.g., a 5 1/2” crown is appropriate for a room with 8’ ceilings, provided the base is at least 4 1/2”). For small rooms, such as bedrooms or baths, a one-piece application may suffice. For a more substantial effect a crown moulding may be combined with a picture hanger moulding, placed immediately below. For rooms with a heavily textured ceiling, where crown moulding is impractical (or for those daunted by the challenge of angled miters) a single picture rail, set about 1/2” below the ceiling provides a significant and practical accent.

Large rooms with a broad expanse of flat ceiling space, generally require a more substantial treatment. In living rooms, dining rooms, and other formal spaces ceiling mouldings are often built-up of three or more pieces for greater richness of effect. A classic combination is to position a large crown or cove moulding between two pieces of baseboard or casing mounted to the wall and ceiling. A picture rail may be added to the wall below for greater height, and a panel moulding applied to the ceiling for greater breadth. The possibilities are practically endless, dependent only upon your personal taste.

Before running out to your local millwork shop, your first step is to ask: “What type of moulding project makes sense for my house?” Get to know the style of your house, and choose projects that will remain in keeping with the original character, or which may enhance upon it.

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