clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

12 DIY Projects to Add Old-House Charm

Coffered ceilings, beautiful newel posts, wainscoting, and other beautiful details

What's New is Old Again

Photo by Stephen Karlisch

Original details. Some houses have 'em, some don't.

If yours is among the latter—meaning that it wasn't born with architectural elements like carved wood balustrades or embossed metal window latches, or if some of those enhancements were lost over the years to misguided remodeling—take heart. With a little sweat equity, you can add your own. Read on for a dozen homeowner-friendly projects, from crafting an ornate pier mirror to swapping out hardware-store-variety metal doorknobs for vintage glass sparklers, that are sure to add classic character, whether you live in a 1970s ranch or a turn-of-the-century Colonial Revival.

1. Coffer a Ceiling

Photo by Stephen Karlisch

Ceiling coffers came into vogue during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when American architecture went retro with a revival of classical house styles. The hollow wood-panel grid was originally used during the Renaissance to dress up beams. Today, a handy homeowner can easily create coffers. The trick, says This Old House general contractor Tom Silva, is to build U-shaped beams on the floor to minimize overhead work.

How to Coffer a Ceiling

Illustration by Joe McKendry

Map out your grid pattern on graph paper, using your room's dimensions to determine the width and number of beams. Next, find the center of your ceiling, and snap two intersecting chalk lines, one spanning the length of the room and the other its width. Measuring off those centerlines, snap a series of subsequent lines to match the grid pattern on your graph paper. These lines represent the centers of the beams.

Now start building the U-shaped beams: full-length ones to span the width of the room, and smaller ones to fit in between, forming the grid. Rather than using plain boards and trimming them out later, the design below calls for baseboard molding with an integrated decorative cap for the side walls. The center is a 1x board that's recessed between the sides to create a reveal. For the full-length beams, use tall baseboard moldings. For the small intersecting ones, use shorter moldings so that where the beams meet, their decorative caps will be offset, eliminating the need for complex mitering or coping.

Lift each full-length beam to the ceiling, sleeving it over 2x blocking that's been centered and fastened along your chalk lines. To secure the beams, drive nails through the side walls into the edge of the blocking. Install the small lengths in the same fashion to complete your grid.

2. Upgrade a Newel Post

Photo by Julian Wass

The staircase is front and center in the entry of most homes, and the newel post positioned at its end is what greets your guests. Given such prominence, it's a shame newels typically have little more detail than a baseball bat. By swapping in one with intricate turnings, though, you can instantly upgrade first impressions of your home.

How to Upgrade a Newel Post

Illustration by Joe McKendry

You'll find the most ornate newels at salvage yards, starting at around $150. Choose one that's about the same height and type as the newel you plan to replace. The one below is a "rail-to-post" type, meaning that the handrail secures just below the newel's finial top.

To attach the newel, you need specialty fastener kits. At the base, use a two-way Sure-Tite screw ($16 at Stair Parts USA), which has wood threads on one end and machine threads on the other. Drill a pilot hole in the framing of the stair where the newel will sit, and twist in the wood-thread end. Drill a corresponding hole in the bottom of the newel, and fit the post loosely over the fastener's projecting machine threads like a sleeve.

The handrail is fastened much the same way using a rail bolt ($4.40 at Stair Parts USA), which has wood threads that go into the newel and machine threads that go into the rail.

To tighten the assembly, twist a washer and nut on the machine thread end of both fasteners. Access these through drill-outs in the side of the newel and underneath the rail, and hide the holes with wood plugs.

3. Install a Lincrusta Wainscot

As time-honored as it is earth-friendly, Lincrusta is a sister to linoleum, the hard-wearing flooring made from linseed oil. The difference is that Lincrusta, with its intricate embossed patterns, is used for walls. Capped with a chair rail, it creates a stunning wainscot in high-traffic foyers and stairways.

See more wainscoting ideas

How to Install a Lincrusta Wainscot

Illustration by Joe McKendry

Determine the height for your wainscot, and snap a level chalk line. Be sure to factor in the height of your existing baseboards with that of the Lincrusta panels (shown: Gothic Dado 36-by-22-inch panel, $300 for a box of five; Wallpapers Plus). Coat the wall below the line with an oil-based primer to seal the surface, and let dry.

Sponge the back of the Lincrusta panels with warm water, stack back-to-back, and let sit for 30 minutes while they absorb the moisture. This prevents future expansion that could cause the panels to buckle at the seams.

Wipe the back of the first panel dry, and brush on a clay-based adhesive ($28 per gallon; Wallpapers Plus). Starting at an outside corner of the room, set the panel in place. Work from the top down, and use the chalk line and a level to check alignment. Run a felt roller over the panel to remove air pockets, and wipe away excess adhesive before moving on to the next panel. At corners, fill gaps between panels with linseed putty (Crawford's Painter's Putty, $12.50;

Once the panels are installed and the adhesive has fully cured—about 24 hours—top with chair-rail molding. Last, prime and paint your new wainscot.

4. Build in a Pier Mirror

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Before electric lighting, mirrors served a purpose we don't usually think of: brightening rooms. Installed between windows in front parlors, tall pier mirrors reflected natural light. In entry foyers, they did double duty as a spot to primp on the way out the door. Today, a pier mirror is a welcome addition almost anywhere in the house.

How to Build in a Pier Mirror

Illustration by Joe McKendry

Make your pier mirror's back, built-up frame, and bench supports out of ¾-inch stain-grade veneer plywood. Use solid stock for the decorative moldings, bench seat, and 1x stile-and-rail paneling.

Start by boxing out the U-shaped bench supports, which secure to the mirror back via blocking. Clad the supports and the space between them with 1x stiles and rails. Rather than routing a curved bench seat, make a rectangular one out of 5/4-inch board, or use a salvaged mantel shelf. Support the seat with a carved bracket.

For the mirror frame, rip narrow plywood boards for the sides and bottom, and a wide board for the top. Secure the frame to the back and hide its outside edges with 1½-inch trim. Apply 1x stiles and rails to the frame sides to form pilasters. Trim the pilaster tops and the frame's entablature with crown and decorative moldings. Skirt the pilasters and the bench with baseboards. To add shadow lines to the bench, apply panel molding to the inside edges of the stiles and rails.

Last, coat the back of a beveled mirror with adhesive, fit it inside the frame, and trim its edges with panel molding.

Install Runner Rods

Photo by Dominic Blackmore/IPC Images

Before pneumatic carpet nailers, handsome metal rods secured stair runners.

Similar to shown: Zorrods Standard Stair Rod in oil-rubbed bronze, about $19; Floors and Surfaces

6. Make Doors Sparkle

Photo by Wyatt McSpadden

Glass knobs replaced brass and bronze ones during World War I, when metal was in short supply.

Shown: Salvaged originals in a range of shapes and colors, starting at $75 each; Discovery Architectural Antiques

7. Wire up a Sconce

These electric fixtures imitate the elegant wall-hung gaslights that came before them.

Shown: Wings sconce in a crackled-gold finish, about $240; Horchow

8. Swap Switch Plates

Photo by Brian Henn/Time Inc. Digital Studio

A lustrous metal cover has a lot more style than a plastic one.

Shown: Omnia Beaded Toggle plate in polished brass, about $21 and satin nickel, $25; MyKnobs

9. Hang Interior Shutters

Photo by Kolin Smith

Traditional wood louvers can let in light and air while also screening the view.

Custom sizes and finishes, starting at $300 per window; Horizon Shutters

10. Add Color to Cabinetry

Photo by Nathan Kirkman

Earthy greens, browns, yellows, or reds will evoke late-19th- and early-20th-century paint palettes.

Similar to shown: Behr's Premium Plus Ultra interior semigloss in Moss Print, about $25 per gallon; The Home Depot

11. Deck Out Windows

An upgrade over your plain—and likely paint-splattered—sash locks, embossed latches were a Victorian-era staple.

Shown: Solid Bronze Floral Design sash lock, about $18.50; House of Antique Hardware

12. Glue Up a Medallion

Photo by Paul Whicheloe

Once made from heavy plaster, ceiling medallions now come in lightweight polyurethane and need only adhesive to hold them in place.

Similar to shown: Symettria medallion, about $303; Fypon, Ltd.