Building Character With Crown Molding
Whether its crown, casing, or simply the most basic trim, wood molding adds style to any room—and value to your home
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.
Shown: Mills keep stock molding on hand, organized by 4-digit numbers (visible on the end grains of some of these samples). Many of the profiles and their codes haven't changed since they were introduced in millwork catalogs in the late 19th century.
Considered together, crown and trim 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.
TOH Tip: The moldings in a room should complement one another, but assembling a coordinating set can be daunting, given the catalog of choices. Rather than try to match the exact profile, look for one consistent curve or motif, such as the semicircle of an astragal (third from top) or the elongated "S" of an ogee (fourth from top).
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.
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.
Shown: Casing originated as a method to hide the cut edges of door and window jambs and bridge the gap to the adjoining wall. Some taper inward toward the door or sash to create a light-catching frame. Fluted casings found in classical-inspired house styles mimic Greek columns. Casings on front doors can come with many embellishments, from sidelights and transoms to a header of crown molding that forms a complex reveal.
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.
Shown: Typically featuring a pronounced round element, chair rail moldings protrude to prevent chair backs from scraping against the walls. They sit about 36 inches from the floor, where wainscoting would end and the upper wall, or field, would begin. The chair rail partitions the wall into pleasing proportions, giving it a sense of order and stability from the "foundation" beneath the unadorned field.
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 in this gallery 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.
Shown: Baseboards camouflage an awkward transition between the butt ends of flooring and the wall. Anywhere from 2 to 12 inches high (or more, in the formal front parlors of grand houses), baseboards might sport shoe molding at the bottom (designed to keep dust out of the floor-wall joint) and base cap on top. Either can be an integral part of the base itself or attatched as separate pieces.
Convinced you can add distinction and stature to your old house with crown molding? Check out How to Install Crown Molding for TOH general contractor Tom Silva's step-by-step instructions, tools lists, and shopping lists you'll need to get the job done in 6 to 8 hours.