This Old House TV: Manchester house project
Looking at historic photographs of our Manchester project house, you can see that it was once virtually dripping with bright white painted wood trim. Balusters, railings, fascia, crown moldings, finials, pillars perched on paneled boxes, and various architectural flourishes that can only be called whimsical decoration — all were part of its Colonial-Revival look, and all were gone when we started this job, casualties of a 1970s strip-down modernization.

That renovation was done to the design of a contemporary architect from Chicago, whose vision for the building no doubt had little use for the trim work's historical look. But, beyond its esthetic, there was the issue of the trim's condition. Seventy years by the sea had probably taken its toll, with cracking, checking and rotting all accelerated by the wood's tendency to expand and contract, thus breaking the paint's protective seal. Constant maintenance was the only cure, and only the most fanatical (or wealthy, or both) of homeowners could beat back the ravages of time indefinitely.

Now, some may accuse our homeowners of a certain fanaticism, given the lengths they're going to to restore the historic look of their old house, but one thing the McCues won't have to worry about is their new trim work falling apart. From the elaborate crown moldings of the music room to the restored porch railings, nearly every piece of exterior architectural detail on the house is molded urethane millwork.

Molded urethane doesn't absorb water, so paint won't blister or peel. It doesn't expand and contract as much as wood, which keeps paint intact as well. Insects don't eat it. Our millwork consultant on this job, Jay Harman, says that on urethane pieces that have been up in seaside New Jersey since the early 1980s, the paint has simply faded away, performance he's also experienced with molding on his own house. "Eleven years, and the only reason to repaint is to refresh the color," he smiles.

For his part, Tom Silva gives urethane molding a thumbs-up. "We've been using it on our projects for a few years now, and I've really come to ike it. Of course, it takes a little getting used to at first, but there's a lot to like. It's lighter than wood, it cuts very smoothly, and although it dents easier than wood, you can repair it quickly with a special filler. Also, it's easy to tweak. When you've got a tricky miter, for example, with wood you might need to take the piece down and cut it again on your compound miter saw. With this stuff, you can fine tune it in place, with a file or a rasp. It's easy to remove a tiny amount."

Since latex primer is used as the mold release when the pieces are poured in the factory, all of it comes pre-primed, another nice feature. Should the paint surface be sanded away for some reason during installation, it's a simple matter of re-priming it to restore its integrity.

As for cost, Jay points out that the more complicated the profile, the more cost effective molded urethane becomes as compared to wood or plaster, which often require multiple pieces to achieve complex shapes. For simple 1x10 fascia boards, however, clear pine is about half the cost. "But," he points out, "you have to remember that you don't get any warping, cupping or bleed-through with the urethane. The pieces are all 16 feet long, and, especially if you're putting it up against masonry, it will not rot."

One more thing. Every piece of exterior trim has been held in place with ring-shank nails and a special urethane-base adhesive. Subsequent renovators of the McCues house take note, especially those who might be interested in doing another strip-down: This house will fight you every step of the way.
Ask TOH users about Painting

Contribute to This Story Below

    More in Painting & Finishes