More money on moldings
by Gary Katz
|Back in the mid-1980s,
my brother and I were growing tired of installing 1 1/2
in. clamshell casing, and 2 1/2 in. streamline baseboard.
As finish contractors, after we’d installed the
doors and windows, that’s all we did on every job,
day after day. By then we’d nailed off miles of
small trim in thousands of apartments and hundreds of
single-family homes. The market was starting to soften
up about that time, and one of the contractors we worked
for needed an edge against other spec builders in the
same subdivision. We suggested upgrading the moldings
in one of his homes. Not the whole house, mind you, only
the first floor. We told him we’d do it for our
cost, just to prove a point.
We installed 3 1/4 in. casing on all the first-floor doors—the
entry, dining and living room passageways, the kitchen,
and powder bath doorways. And we installed 5 1/4 in. baseboard
everywhere downstairs. That house stood apart from all
the others and it sold quickly.
On the next job, we installed some crown molding, just
in the entry way. By then, realizing that moldings meant
quality to his buyers, the contractor was on board. Before
long we were installing crown in the living room and dining
room, in the kitchen, hallway, and even the powder bath.
These days, we install crown molding in almost every room
of every house we work in, along with coffered ceilings
in the dining and living rooms, wainscoting paneling from
the entry through to the kitchen, elliptical crown in
ceiling soffits, paneled archways, etc. Ialways wondered
why we weren’t doing that type of work all along.
homes are defined by moldings, from large
casing, baseboard, and crown molding, to elaborate
paneling and rich coffered ceilings. When
it comes to finish work, the profit is in
selling and installing top-notch moldings.
Moldings Make a Home Home
The simple truth is that moldings
add warmth and character to a home; they provide a sense
of comfort and ‘order’ to a home. In fact,
all of the moldings that finish carpenters install owe
their origin to the Classical Orders. What’s an
order? An order is nothing more than a post and a beam,
like a patio cover supported by a 6x6 post and a 6x12
beam; or a header and the studs that support it. The Classical
Orders are nothing more than posts and beams designed
a few thousand years ago by the Greeks (with some Egyptian
influence), then borrowed and modified by the Romans.
we use throughout a house was originally one piece
in an order (left). Baseboard comes from plinth
molding on the base of a column; traditional basecap
comes from the torus, cincture, and cavetto molding
above a classical plinth (below). Photography by
permission of the John
Brown House, Providence, RI:
from the tall almost waist-high pedestal found on
some columns, called a dado; casing comes from architrave
molding—the first element found on the bottom
of an entablature, just above the capital on a column;
and crown molding comes from the cornice on a classical
order. All of these moldings were used abundantly
for centuries, right through the Victorian period
and up into the early 1900s. (Illustration courtesy
of JLC Books: Finish Carpentry, by Gary
But before the second world
war, a wave new European architectural styles swept across
America. Reactingagainst Victorian excess, architects
in America, especially academic architects, adopted the
new International Style, where molding were not only discouraged
but derided. Today the International Style continues to
influence American architecture (below) with sometimes
magnificent results, but modernism isn’t for everyone.
Though traditional homes have returned to ‘ordered’
design, the most significant and lasting influence of
the International Style has been the degradation of the
moldings we use.
Architects practicing the International
Style believed that molding were unnecessary decorations.
Modernism continues to minimalize moldings, if they’re
used at all, creating beautiful streamlined homes that
are popular for some but not all homeowners. Ironically,
International-style architects proposed that the style
was less expensive because there were no moldings; furthermore,
they argued, craftsmen were no longer available to do
nice work! Humbug.
As moldings were reintroduced between the 1950s and the
1970s, the ‘purism’ of the International Style,
also called minimalism, resulted in the use of thin narrow
casings, like 5/8 in. x 1 1/2 in. clamshell, and thin
2 1/2 in. streamline baseboard. After several decades
of non-use and miss-use, manufactures, builders, and architects
had lost the history of molding design and usage. Rather
than use moldings to decorate a home and draw attention
to structural form, moldings were thought of as a way
to hide joints and seams. And they were designed to be
as invisible as possible. That’s what minimalism
was all about. These thin narrow profiles were made to
blend in with the wall, rather than emphasize the doorways
and windows, the floors and ceilings they surrounded.
Fortunately for finish carpenters and molding suppliers,
in the last few decades moldings have experienced a re-birth.
Now sales teams, builders, and installers have a lot to
re-learn. What makes one molding more dramatic than another?
What combinations of moldings work and what combinations
What Makes a Good-Looking Molding
|This eighteenth century
mantelpiece, in an historic home outside Philadelphia,
is a perfect example of well-crafted moldings,
and well-conceived composition, from the architrave
molding to the crown molding. (Photography
permission of Clivenden)
watched customers choose moldings for their homes. Most
often they’re attracted to the largest pieces
or the most ornate, whether it’s casing, baseboard
or crown. The sad truth is that most of those gaudy
profiles disappear once they’re on the wall, they
turn into mush. That’s because a lot of moldings,
especially big ones, don’t follow the basic rules
of successful design.
Fine moldings are the result of fine details: crisply
cut edges, deeply cut incisions, so that each curve
and fillet almost jumps off the composition. Notice
how the edges around the egg-and-dart molding in the
Cliveden mantelpice (above) are all sharp and clean,
the carving deep, so that the shadows around each detail
are well defined—thin dark lines of shadow. The
same is true in the simple crown molding on the mantelshelf,
and the chair rail that terminates against the architrave
just beneath the crossette corner.
Incorrect molding designs.
More than anything, moldings must be designed to work
with light. In this case, a picture is worth a thousand
words. Notice how the profiles in the accompanying photographs
each end in an eased edge: how the separations between
profiles—between one curved section of the molding
and the next curved or flat section, are rounded over,
so there are no sharp shadow lines defining each profile.
Correct Molding Designs.
Moldings can be milled successfully if the edges are cut
sharp, so the light breaks cleanly and crispy at each
edge and at every point where a curved profile terminates.
Crisp sharp edges create crisp sharp shadow lines. The
relationship between shadow and light is what defines
an attractive molding profile, one that can be seen and
enjoyed from up close or from a great distance (WindsorOne
Moldings: It shouldn’t come as
a surprise that we can learn the most about moldings
by studying historic homes. Books are useful,
too, but for real information on molding design,
you have to look for a book that precedes any
influence by the International Style. In The
Theory of Moldings (1926), C. Howard Walker
offers an excellent explanation of molding design
Any projecting lath-like
cleat gives a sharp shadow line, with clean cut
definition, but if used without the intervention
of mouldings with curved profiles, the effect
is dry and crude even if varying in widths, and
is like ruled lines of identical tones. The values
of moldings with curved profiles is therefore
the production of variations of tone, thereby
creating interest and distinction. …But
the curved sections must have their boundaries
defined or the shades they create will slur into
the surfaces of the planes to which they are related,
or into other curves. It is of the utmost importance
that these outer boundaries should be announced,
and because of this, curved sections either impinge
upon planes at an acute or at a right angle to
the plane, or separated from it by a small bead
or fillet. (Walker, pg. 3-4)
Walker ’s point is simple: strips of sharp-edged
square stock make nice moldings but they’re boring
without curved profiles. But the curved profiles must
be separated by flat fillets and sharp-edge terminations,
otherwise the curves ‘slur’ into each other.
Ironically, for the last few decades, sharp-edge molding
and millwork have been demonized.
When I was a teenager, my father used to drop me off on
a jobsite, hand me a few sheets of 180 and 220 paper and
tell me to “ease all the edges on the cabinets and
doors, and on the baseboard and casing. Otherwise the
paint won’t stick!” He actually believed that
sharp edges won’t hold paint. That’s a false
rumor. Probably spread by modernists! But that’s
not the only reason that today’s moldings, in opposition
to Walker’s advice, have so many eased edges. As
Bill Shaw, a custom molding millwright for over twenty
years, puts it (www.copemaster.com):
“Sharp crisp edges and profiles are harder to cut
for several reasons. First, it takes more time to sharpen
the knives. In order to get a sharp edge you have to have
a very square edge on your grinding wheel—it must
be dressed to a point. And the wheel must be redressed
as it breaks down, which happens with greater frequency
when cutting sharp-edged moldings. Second, the section
of the knife that forms the point or sharp edge heats
up more quickly, so the knife must be sharpened more frequently,
and the molding can’t be cut at the same rate of
speed. We typically ran moldings with radius edges at
30 feet per minute, but sharp-edge profiles had to be
run much slower, at 20 fpm or even less. The speed is
also affected by tear out, which is a problem at sharp
intersections, requiring an even slower rate of feed.”
Shaw helps us better understand the real cause of molding
design degradation—a combination of economic and
stylistic influences. As moldings were reintroduced, manufacturers
were glad to follow the rules of minimalism, in fact they
preferred to ease edges for faster production.
Why Combine Moldings?
|As I mentioned earlier,
some clients mistakenly choose the largest
moldings available, ones with the most profiles.
But if the profiles aren’t separated
by fillets, then they don’t create identifiable
interest. Instead, avoid busy patterns and
create variety and interest in molding installation
by combining simple profiles separated by
wide fillets. The result is a molding of significant
size yet the separation necessary to create
depth and interest in each profile.Many moldings
adapt themselves well to build ups.WindsorOne
combines a beaded crown with a simple 1x2
for their Greek Revival style (right).
|Windsor adds an ogee
door stop pattern to the top and bottom of
the their Colonial Revival crown molding,
which creates a emphatic cove, over 7 in.
deep (right). The striking beauty of the Colonial
Revival and Classical Craftsman patterns is
achieved through the use of a picture molding,
about six inches below the crown (on higher
ceilings the picture molding can be even lower!).
Be sure to paint the wall space above the
picture molding the same color as the moldings,
so that the entire ‘combination’
will resemble an entablature.
Sure, installing a two or three-piece
crown pattern requires more labor, but the second time
around the room is much faster than the first time —the
scaffolding or ladders are already set up, the saw is
right there. And frequently the measurements are almost
identical. You can always make more profit on per/foot
labor for installing the second and third layer of molding.
If you’re courageous and attempt to combine your
own molding patterns, remember one rule that C. Howard
Walker states empathically: “In all structures there
is an acknowledgement of the law of gravitation which
concedes that the lower part of a vertical structure should
apparently be thoroughly capable of supporting the upper
part” (Walker, pg 4), so never put a heavy bed molding
on the ceiling, and keep your dentil blocks down low!
Not far from my home are two
stores that sell moldings—one of them sells nothing
but moldings, the other recently started selling windows,
doors, and hardware, too, so they could serve their finish
contractors better. Though both stores specialize in moldings,
they don’t sell small stuff. You won’t find
any 1 1/2 in. casing in their racks, and they don’t
stock any mdf moldings either. For one simple reason:
though the mark-up is high on moldings—40-60%, the
gross isn’t, especially on inexpensive profiles.
The money in finish material is made at the high end:
larger wood moldings with great profiles that have a higher
price point. In that market, with a 50% markup, you can
make real dollars on moldings.
And if your yard has an installed sales program, that’s
where the real profit lies. Installation prices for high-end
moldings are at a record rate. The highest earners are
companies with reputations for craftsmanship and quality,
with crews that are organized, neat, and clean, who get
in and get out quickly and completely. Developing or improving
your molding sales and installed sales programs can have
tremendous benefits, whether your yard serves the new
construction or the remodeling market. The first step
in improving molding profits is upgrading the quality
of the products you sell. From the lessons provided in
this article, yard sales teams should have an easier time
upgrading their customers, explaining the difference between
cheap moldings and quality profiles.
In future articles, I’ll cover specific ways to
improve molding installations—quality, productivity,
||Supported by corporations who care about education in the construction industry.