More in Trim

Building Character

Whether its crown, casing, or simply the most basic trim, wood molding adds style to any room—and value to your home

wood planks
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A popular 18th-century building text described molding as the "alphabet of architecture." On the surface, these carved-wood pieces are mere decorative strips, but they have a more complex purpose. Through the play of light and shadow across their profiles, they soften the transitions from a wall to the adjacent windows, ceilings, floors, and doors. Considered together, they enhance a room's proportion and scale. And they echo a house's architectural style, often reflecting a building's era and the wealth and taste of its owners.

In the early days of American architecture, such ornamentation didn't come cheap; carpenters hand-planed their moldings. But after the Civil War, manufacturers used old munitions factories to mass-produce house parts, enabling builders to outfit even modest rooms from a catalog of affordable profiles. This trend climaxed with the high style of late-19th-century Queen Anne and Neoclassical houses.
A popular 18th-century building text described molding as the "alphabet of architecture." On the surface, these carved-wood pieces are mere decorative strips, but they have a more complex purpose. Through the play of light and shadow across their profiles, they soften the transitions from a wall to the adjacent windows, ceilings, floors, and doors. Considered together, they enhance a room's proportion and scale. And they echo a house's architectural style, often reflecting a building's era and the wealth and taste of its owners.

In the early days of American architecture, such ornamentation didn't come cheap; carpenters hand-planed their moldings. But after the Civil War, manufacturers used old munitions factories to mass-produce house parts, enabling builders to outfit even modest rooms from a catalog of affordable profiles. This trend climaxed with the high style of late-19th-century Queen Anne and Neoclassical houses.
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molding, remodel, renovation
Photo by Erika Larsen
Originally designed to mask cracks where plaster wall meets ceiling, crown molding bridges this seam diagonally, most commonly by tilting 38 or 48 degrees away from the wall. (This measurement is called the "spring angle"). The profile's more complex relief usually goes on the bottom creating depth at the ceiling. Adding molding above or below crown forms a more elaborate compound profile, while cove molding displays a simpler silhouette.
Such ostentation fell out of favor a couple of decades later, when builders in the Craftsman style hung simple molding as a display of the wood's inherent beauty. Still, without the frills, it was no less important. Craftsman-pioneer Gustav Stickley wrote that molding should "have each room so interesting in itself that it seems complete before a single piece of furniture is put into it." But after World War II, during the American housing boom, such decoration was scaled back or eliminated altogether with the minimalism of the Modern style. Molding was elective rather than essential.

With the passion for renovation of the past 30 years came a molding resurgence. From boxy to baroque, the options are endless, and homeowners clamor to add or restore decoration, bringing sophistication-and a higher resale value-to their homes. Hardware stores and home centers stock popular styles, and mills keep the different knives that cut historic profiles ready for the milling machines. Many will even grind new knives from a sketch or sample, the way American Cedar and Millwork in Millersville, Maryland, does. Their shop offers the profiles shown on these pages as well as thousands more. From their collection, or that of any custom mill, a homeowner looking to dress up a house can choose a set of pieces that give proportion and beauty to an otherwise naked set of walls.
 
 

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