Copy lost details from scraps, photos, and other vestiges of the past

Sometimes it's the simple clues that yield the greatest results. A small piece of trim, a family photograph taken in front of a house, a neighbor with a good memory—all can offer information about how architectural details once looked.

Take, for instance, a 1983 picture of the house from the city's Historic Preservation Office. It shows a conical turret, and stepped corbels at the cornice—elements that disappeared when the city did emergency repairs after a fire in the 1990s. Homeowners can often find such old photos at local historical societies and tax departments, which take them for record-keeping. Previous owners, or even neighbors, may also have pictures that show the house in the background.

Danny Palousek, a preservation mason hired to restore the brickwork, blew up the photo to study the cornice's pattern. He and his crew dismantled nearly six vertical feet of wall and rebuilt the original profile. (They replaced broken pieces with a matching brick found on a salvaged building in, of all places, Kansas.) After weeks of work—and a new turret from the roofers—the restored section of the facade blends seamlessly with the original remaining parts.

For David Baldwin and the rest of the team from American Cedar and Millwork (ACM), a woodworking shop in Millersville, Maryland, there wasn't any worry about blending the moldings they created with what remained. By the time they showed up, even the two window and door casings left in the house had been demolished. All they could find was one paint-encrusted piece a couple of feet long. "We literally pulled it out of the Dumpster," says Baldwin.

Molding in profiles from 125 years ago isn't always easy to find, even at a well-stocked shop like ACM. But thankfully they're easy to copy, and the short salvaged piece was all the shop needed to make a duplicate. Many mills will reproduce a molding profile, from a scrap or even from a drawing, by honing new cutting blades to match. These "knives" come at a minimum cost (around $250), but once they're made, any shop can use them to cut the profile.

After stripping the paint off the scrap, the experts traced its outline onto thin metal that they shaped on a grinder. They used this template to cut two steel knives, then put the knives into the drum of a molding machine that shapes plain lengths of wood as they're fed past the cutters. The mill ran 1,000 feet of the trim—enough for all the doors and windows. But without remnants of any other trim, they used existing stock for rosettes, chair rail, baseboard, and crown, choosing profiles that fit the house's style and complement the new casings.

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