Picture a symmetrical Craftsman bungalow, a grand Colonial and a colorful gingerbread Victorian. What do these very different homes have in common? Among other things, amazing architectural details. These particular home designs are identifiable largely by the particular style of millwork and moldings characteristic of each one.
Simply stated, millwork refers to various functional and decorative house components, often made from wood and crafted at a mill shop. Moldings are mostly decorative linear bands traditionally made from wood or plaster. Most outstanding homes are considered exceptional, at least in part, because of elegant, ornate or intricate millwork and moldings. Even if your home currently lacks the architectural detail these elements provide, it’s never too late to incorporate these finishing touches into the style and design of your home. Millwork or molding suited to your home’s vintage and style is a relatively simple way to significantly add character and charm.
Where to Begin
Getting started can seem a little daunting. Where do you begin? What materials and tools are needed? How much will it cost? An experienced craftsman can quickly cut through the maze of options to the particular features and materials right for you and your budget. A professional can also spark ideas you may not have considered and provide the inspiration to get started.
Bert Allen at Sidney B. Allen Builders says that adding molding and millwork is one of the least expensive ways to increase the value of your home. “There’s a growing trend toward incorporating larger and more decorative crown moldings beyond the common rooms into master bedrooms and bathrooms,” he says.
A little information and imagination is all that’s needed to create outstanding architectural features. Some longstanding favorites are a great place to begin.
BASE MOLDING protects the walls from damage but also grounds the room. This draws the eye low then visually “leads” us around the room noticing other details and attractive features. Baseboards differ in height based on the period and style of a home, some styles much wider than the scant two- to three-inch baseboards in many homes today. This makes baseboards a great place to begin enhancing a home by adding height to the existing baseboard or adding a decorative cap.
CHAIR RAIL, also called dado rail, is applied about 36 inches from the floor or up approximately one third of the wall in rooms with high ceilings, and is very common in dining rooms, especially in traditional and colonial designs.
Chair rail molding can be shaped into square or rectangular frames and applied to the surface of a wall (or ceiling). This style is often called picture frame molding because it looks like a row or grouping of empty picture frames.
WAINSCOTING adds a more casual flair with a repetitive plank look using tongue and groove boards. It adds texture and interest to walls and can make an area feel more spacious. When the wall is covered to the desired height, a flat board or a narrow shelf is attached to the top of the wainscoting, or paneled wall, providing a clean, finished edge.
CASINGS are used to frame windows, door and entryways. They range from simple, low-profile moldings to wide ornate bands of wood. Casing seams can be disguised and adorned with blocks of wood or rosettes at all four corners.
To create a cohesive look throughout your house, be sure to remain consistent with the size and style of casings around windows and doors from room to room.
Front doors are the exception here. They are typically framed much more elaborately than interior doors, with deeper moldings, stately pilasters standing attention at either side and arched or triangular pediments perched regally on top.
CROWN MOLDING is a horizontal decorative element used where the wall meets the ceiling. It “warms” a room by softening the sharp ninety-degree corner angles and can be simple and understated or an elaborate multi-layered arrangement. Steve Marcus of Blue Ridge Molding, Inc. says that often a customer comes in looking for a basic crown molding for a room they are repainting.
“Then I show them some of the options available and they start to see the potential. I’ll place the crown molding of their choice next to a basic base molding and watch them get excited about how great the pieces work together. The impact is multiplied when they see it in their newly-painted room creating a greater sense of spaciousness and making the newly-painted walls come to life.”
CORNICES are often seen at the highest point of the exterior walls of older buildings, situated regally like a crown on the head of a monarch. Like crown molding, cornices can replicate a particular look from a bygone era. If period details aren’t what you are looking for, you can create an original, signature touch cornice for use in fireplace mantels, shelves, kitchen cabinetry, or furniture.
Pilasters look like supporting columns from the front but are actually flat at the back where they attach to a wall. They are often seen at the front entryway of the house on both sides of the door.
PEDIMENTS are often arched or triangular in shape, and sit perched above columns or pilasters.
NEWEL POSTS and balusters refer to the principal post at the foot of a staircase. The more slender posts that the handrail rests upon are called the balusters. Wood is shaped into many different profiles from simple, squared posts to intricately fashioned, beautifully curved pieces to support the handrail of staircases and porches.
CORBELS are a decorative and functional element made from stone, wood or plaster that is flat at the back and usually heavily curved on the front. It serves as a bracket to support a ledge, shelf, or mantle.
The materials available to today’s homeowners provide a plethora of options when it comes to adding architectural details to our homes. Wood is still the most poplar material used in millwork and moldings today. Hardwoods like oak, maple, cherry and mahogany are typically more expensive but beautiful when stained and polished. Softwoods like pine, poplar, or spruce are usually less expensive and can be either stained or painted. Another popular material is a wood composite known as Medium-Density Fiberboard (MDF). MDF looks like smooth wood, is primed for painting and requires little sanding. Other options include polyurethane, flexible vinyl and plaster.
The necessary tools and some of the materials are available at the local building supply if you want to tackle this as a DIY project. The most common difficulty isn’t the installation but rather in the cutting of the angles. Many crown moldings don’t actually sit against the wall at 45 degrees, and the corners in your rooms are rarely perfect 90-degree angles. This means cuts and miters have to be customized to fit properly. Another consideration is whether you will be working with wood that will be painted or stained. Barry Layne at D.S. Zechini Construction says, “Paint is more forgiving than stain so if you decide to paint the material, it might be a good DIY project. If you are using stainable-quality wood, however, consider hiring an experienced craftsman, specializing in millwork and molding.”
Eddie Ferguson of Grayson Ferguson Woodworking has observed a major trend over the last several years toward the “unfitted” kitchen where millwork and molding are seen as the star players. Crown molding, leggy pilasters, recessed bases and stylish feet are just a few of the elements used today to transform cabinets, considered the workhorse of the kitchen, into stylish, decorative, cleverly-designed kitchen furniture. Milled and molded freestanding shelves, or open units, are also incorporated to stand alongside cabinetry. The finish or stain on separate pieces is often different with the goal of blending (rather than matching) with each other, as well as with furniture in adjoining or open rooms.
Millwork and moldings are the elements that allow us to literally design unique, one-of-a-kind kitchens in a trendy, modern motif or to recreate a kitchen evoking warmth and comfort, perhaps reminiscent of an earlier, simpler time.
The Finishing Touch
Choosing millwork and molding for your home is as important as choosing the best frame for an expensive painting. If the molding is too big or gaudy, it becomes the focus of attention and dwarfs the room. Too small or plain and it lacks the visual presence and substance to achieve the look you are aiming for.
It is possible to have a molding you admired in a book, a magazine, even at the Biltmore House, customized to fit your home. Special knives are crafted to mill the wood, shaping it exactly the way you pictured it, but scaled proportionately to your home.
Our homes are where we display our personal taste and style through colors, furnishings and accessories. Millwork and molding provide a great opportunity to frame and accent our creative choices with just the right finishing touch.