Bring Back the Charm
Sometimes beautiful old house details are swapped out for trendy design, and newly-built homes can lack the character of trim and custom millwork altogether. If the architectural details of yesteryear are what you crave, get the look for less with some DIY.
Putting up crown molding, installing beadboard wainscoting, and creating an archway may sound intimidating. But, we’ve got everything you need—including step-by-step instructions chock full of pro tips and advice, shopping lists, and tool lists—to help you get the job done with confidence. Before long, your home will be looking old again—just the way you like it.
Install Three-Piece Crown Molding
A common decorative flourish for traditional homes, crown molding enriches a space by forming an eye-catching transition between the walls and ceiling. But if your ceilings are high or your room has generous moldings around windows and doorways, a single strip of crown molding might get lost. To get the right effect, you could opt to use a large-profile molding, says This Old House senior technical editor Mark Powers. “But you’ll pay a hefty price for that,” he says.
To lower the cost without sacrificing aesthetics, Mark came up with a way to install a simple L-shaped half beam first, then attach crown moldings to the fascia and soffit for a handsome, built-up appearance. Recruit a buddy to help you make cuts and lift the bulky pieces into place, and in just a couple of days, you’ll have pulled off a room transformation that will draw all eyes upward.
For full step-by-step instructions, shopping list, and tools list, see How to Install Three-Piece Crown Molding.
Build a Mirror From Case Molding
Designers and decorators often use mirrors and reflective surfaces to add depth to narrow and small areas. A strategically placed mirror in a hallway or on the far wall of a cozy office can visually open the room, but the style and size of the mirror itself are just as important as where it goes. Unfortunately, a large molding-framed mirror can set you back hundreds or even thousands of dollars. It doesn’t have to, though.
To show you how to create a fresh yet traditional-looking mirror that won’t shatter your budget, This Old House general contractor Tom Silva pulled corner blocks and fluted casing, a precut mirror, and some sturdy mounting materials from the aisles of a home center. (Scaling up the design wouldn’t cost you much more.) See how he converts off-the-shelf items into a savvy addition and get the steps to do the job yourself in How to Build a Mirror From Case Molding.
For a room revamp that brings dimension and lasting value to plain walls, nothing beats a traditional wainscot of richly layered wood panels. How they’re put together may seem inscrutable to the average DIYer, but once you peel back the layers of this architectural onion, you’ll find that each step is plenty doable, if a bit tricky at times. You can get the look by layering stock lumber and moldings to produce the architectural element.
For full step-by-step instructions, shopping list, and tools list, see How to Install Wainscoting.
Install Crown Molding
Modern crown molding can be traced to the late Renaissance, when designers adapted elements of Greek and Roman architecture to ornamental plaster and wood cornices used to disguise and beautify the juncture of ceiling and wall. The molding used can be simple stock, like the single-piece crown installed here by This Old House general contractor Tom Silva, or elaborate pieces built up from separate lengths of various profiles.
Installing crown is only slightly more complicated than running baseboard. With our help, you should be able to make tight, long-lasting joints.
For full step-by-step instructions, shopping list, and tools list, see How to Put in Crown Molding.
Install Easy Crown Molding
Crown molding makes it to the top of most remodeling lists because it adds charm and value to a home—not necessarily because people enjoy spending an entire Saturday trying to get the corners just right. Want a quick fix? Luckily, there’s a simple way to beat miter-saw frustration.
Trimroc molding from Canamould Extrusions is a lightweight polystyrene foam coated in hard plaster. It cuts smoothly with a handsaw, and, as This Old House senior technical editor Mark Powers shows here, it goes up in a flash with joint compound. No coping, no tricky angles, and ragged joints disappear with a dab of mud. So in just a weekend, you can upgrade a plain room to an elegant space—and still leave plenty of time for the rest of your list.
For full step-by-step instructions, shopping list (including where to find Trimroc molding), and tools list, see How to Install Easy Crown Molding.
Install Wall Frames
We’ll let you in on a little secret: A lot of the fancy woodwork you see inside old houses is nothing more than deft layering, bits of simple molding combined to mimic ornate profiles. Consider, for example, the wall frame, the thin rectangle first used by the British in the 1750s to give the illusion of wood paneling after plaster walls came into vogue. If you have a plain room, you don’t need to hire a pro—or be one yourself—to get this bit of custom carpentry.
As This Old House senior technical editor Mark Powers shows here, all you need is a miter saw and a nail gun. Then, in just one weekend, you’ll be able to add timeless character to a house of any age.
For full step-by-step instructions, shopping list, and tools list, see How to Install Wall Frames.
Trim Out a Window
Whether restoring old houses or building new ones that just look old, This Old House general contractor Tom Silva finds finish carpentry the most satisfying part of the job. For this project, Tom installed window trim that has reeded side and head casings, plain corner blocks, a thick stool, and a dainty apron, all of which he copied from the original trim. “People often put in a casing that’s too small or a different style,” Tom says, “but I think it adds to the feel and the value of a home to keep to its original character.”
As with all finish carpentry, Tom says, successful installation begins with stable material—clear, kiln-dried wood or precast foam—and ends with precise measurements and cuts. The result is a seamless assembly with tight joints and no gaps between wall and casing. “Take your time, and always measure twice before you cut,” says Tom.
For full step-by-step instructions, shopping lists, and tool list, see How to Trim Out a Window.
Install Beadboard Wainscoting
“I love adding wainscoting to a home,” says This Old House general contractor Tom Silva. “I install it in pantries, hallways or anywhere walls could get damaged,” he says. “It protects the wall and looks great.”
Wainscoting has protected walls since the 1600s, when it consisted of wood panels framed by stiles and rails. With the advent of industrial milling machines in the 1850s, however, less-formal beadboard wainscoting became available. So called because of regularly spaced bumps along the edge of each piece, beadboard has hardly changed in appearance or installation: The tongue-and-groove strips are snugged together and nailed in place, one after the other.
For full step-by-step instructions, shopping list, and tools list, see How to Install Beadboard Wainscoting.
Despite their lowly position along the floor, baseboards are one of a house’s defining features. If they have stature, a room becomes regal; when they are skimpy, that same space looks dowdy. Baseboards were often three-piece affairs consisting of a flat plank, a decorative cap molding, and a rounded shoe molding to cover gaps along the floor.
In houses built after World War II, fancy baseboards gave way to cheap ones, and the vital floor-to-wall transition became the domain of thin, featureless one-piece trim. Fortunately, it’s easy to replace modern moldings with taller, thicker, two- or three-part baseboards.
For full step-by-step instructions, shopping list, and tools list, see How to Install Baseboards.
Install a Ceiling Medallion
If you want to add a touch of the baroque—without going broke—consider putting up a ceiling medallion. A decorative disk centered overhead can turn a plain expanse of drywall into an architectural focal point. And luckily, what was once made from heavy, fragile plaster is now available in molded lightweight polyurethane.
As This Old House senior technical editor Mark Powers shows here, installing a medallion means little more than a morning on a ladder with a tube of construction adhesive.
For full step-by-step instructions, shopping list, and tools list, see How to Install a Ceiling Medallion.
Install a Decorative Wall Niche
The interiors of homes built between the mid-1800s and early 1900s were often adorned with beautifully ornate plaster molding and millwork. Skilled plasterers worked on site to cast fancy cornices, large ceiling medallions and dentil crown molding.
You can capture the formal elegance of yesteryear with modern reproduction molding. Today, a handful of companies are reproducing traditional cast-plaster molding out of durable plastics and high-density urethane foam, like the beautiful niche shown here.
For full step-by-step instructions, shopping list, and tools list, see How to Install a Decorative Wall Niche.
Create an Archway
If you’re ready for a change—and a full-on renovation is out of your budget—a fresh coat of paint or new window treatments can go a long way. For a more dramatic impact, consider adding some architectural interest to the rooms in your home with small upgrades like this one.
Here, we transformed an ordinary rectangular cased opening into a beautiful elliptical archway featuring fluted columns, and an arched header with keystone accents. On day one, we prepped the existing opening. On day two, we completed the installation and painted.
For full step-by-step instructions, shopping list, and tools list, see How to Create an Archway.
Hang a Tin Ceiling
So you’re soaking in the tub, you’ve got the candles going, you look up, and what do you see? A plain, white ceiling. If you had nicely decorated copper panels overhead, that dancing candlelight would look all the better, wouldn’t it?
As This Old House technical editor Mark Powers shows here, you can turn your blank ceiling into an architectural showpiece of pressed metal—with plenty of time to spare for a Sunday soak. You can also install these above kitchen cabinets, or take a classic Victorian-era pattern and paint it white to make a lacy canopy in your bedroom.
For full step-by-step instructions, shopping list, and tools list, see How to Hang a Tin Ceiling.
Make a Doorknob Coatrack
At the home of This Old House features editor, Amy Hughes, coats tend to pile up on dining room chairs and get put away only when dinner guests actually need to sit. “I have a coat closet—two, in fact—but after a long day at work, I hate messing with hangers,” she says.
So for a salvage project using vintage metal doorknobs, a toss-and-go coatrack seemed just the antidote. Amy had six knobs and their matching rosette backplates; all she needed was a nice old board, like the salvaged chestnut trim shown here, to mount them on.
For full step-by-step instructions, shopping list, and tools list, see How to Make a Doorknob Coatrack.
Build a Wood Mantel
The humble fireplace has come a long way. Once merely a means of cooking up grub and keeping rooms warm, it’s now a ceremonial focal point that symbolizes the cozy comforts of winter—and a wood mantel gives the hearth even more warmth.
Though there’s no shortage of pre-made mantels on the market, we’re DIYers at heart, so we set out to build one from off-the-shelf lumber and stock moldings.
We opted for a traditional-looking design that goes with many types of decor. Made of ¾-inch veneer plywood, our mantel is layered with elegant pilasters that are wrapped with stock moldings and baseboard, and topped with a trimmed-out shelf.
As with any fireplace project, safety is paramount. National codes require at least 6 inches of clearance all around the firebox and an additional 1 inch for every ⅛ inch a mantel protrudes from the surface; local codes might be stricter. So tailor your design or pick your product accordingly. A cardboard template can help you determine whether a mantel is the right size and scale for your space.
For full step-by-step instructions, shopping list, and tools list, see How to Build a Mantel.
Build a Wall-Mounted Pet Organizer
It’s a routine every dog owner knows: Fido’s itching for his morning walk while you’re frantically hunting down his leash and a few plastic bags before you’ve had your morning joe. This handsome organizer, made from beadboard, crown molding, stock lumber, and a leftover tin ceiling tile, keeps all the necessities within arm’s reach. Make one for yourself, and you’ll be out the door with your pooch in record time.
For full step-by-step instructions, shopping list, and tools list, see How to Build a Wall-Mounted Pet Organizer.
Make a Window Box with Vintage Trim
All you need to build a cottage-style window box is a few feet of 6- or 8-inch-wide trim (choose straight baseboard or casing, rather than angled crown), one 2-by-2-foot sheet of ½-inch exterior plywood, water-resistant wood glue, and a shallow plastic planter to cradle the soil and flowers. Because most old trim is covered in toxic lead paint, either remove the finish with a wet stripper or seal it under a clear top coat. This is an easy one-person project, but it’s more fun with a helper.
For full step-by-step instructions, shopping list, and tools list, see How to Make a Window Box with Vintage Trim.
Turn a Cornice Into a Garden Tool Holder
With its deep ledge, this 19th-century terra-cotta cornice was perfect for the top shelf of a rack that This Old House features editor and salvage expert Amy Hughes wanted to build. All she needed was an old piece of wood to attach it to and a handful of hooks. “Scrounging in the TOH editorial closet, where we store props for photo shoots, I found just the thing: a beat up beam with the carpenter’s saw marks still visible on one side,” she said.
After searching in vain at three different salvage yards for five matching wrought-iron hooks, Amy ordered reproductions from House of Antique Hardware. You can recreate this handy storage accessory with your own salvage finds.
See full step-by-step instructions, shopping list, and tools list, in How to Turn a Cornice Into a Garden Tool Holder .
Install a Lincrusta Wainscot
You may not have heard of Lincrusta, but we bet you’ve seen it before. In its heyday, during the Victorian era and the early 20th century, this ornate wall covering was a popular addition to upscale homes, including well-known examples like the White House and the John D. Rockefeller mansion.
Pioneered in England in 1877, Lincrusta been made the same way ever since: A mix of linseed oil, wood paste, and other natural products is fed through rollers that emboss a pattern on the surface. Because it’s as durable as it is delicate looking, it’s well suited for walls in high-traffic areas like hallways—or for a wainscot, as we’ve done here.
Follow along as senior technical editor Mark Powers installs Lincrusta panels and gives them a two-tone paint job that highlights their handsome texture.
For full step-by-step instructions, shopping list, and tools list, see How to Install Lincrusta Wainscot.