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Making 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.
  Traditional 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.
Every molding 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:

  Wainscoting comes 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 Katz).  

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 don’t?

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 by permission of Clivenden)

I’ve 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).

Studying 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 and use:

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!

Making Money On Moldings

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, and profits.

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