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Understanding and using interior trim.

A few years ago, I did a remodeling project that involved installing new 3/4-in. x 7-1/2 in. baseboards in the living and dining rooms of a 70-year-old house. The project looked simple enough. However, the homeowner decided to have all of the baseboards painted in a faux marble style before installation. Worse yet, my clients insisted they didn't want any base shoe or quarter-round trim, which normally hides the irregularities between the baseboard and floor. The floor was their pride and joy, but it reminded me of a roller coaster. I spent three days scribing, sawing, planing and filing the baseboards to conform to the irregularities of this floor. I never appreciated the importance of that little 3/4-in. strip of base shoe molding so much as in those three frustrating days of tedious work.

Trim, of course, is not just for hiding gaps. It also provides decoration and protects wall surfaces.


We owe much of our use of moldings to the ancient Greeks and Romans. These civilizations originated many of the popular molding profiles we still use today to embellish our homes and public buildings. They used stone molding profiles to accent doorways and windows and divide rooms into pleasing proportions. In ancient buildings, windows and doorways were defined by actual posts and lintels (overhead beams) that supported the openings in the wall. Gradually, these supports became ornate with carvings. Present day window and door trim, although not structural, is a surviving design element of this building technique.

Moldings, whether stone or wood, were laboriously formed by hand tools until the 19th century, when the "sticker" or molding machine was invented. Until then, decorative wood moldings were too costly for the average home.

Throughout this century, molding use has changed from the very elaborate style used during the Victorian era, to the minimalist style used in the post war housing boom.

In the 1940s end '50s, the trend was to get away from the heavy look of molding and make the rooms feel larger and more open. The smaller rooms and lower ceilings in homes from that period just can't accommodate large-scale trim. A few other factors such as lumber depletion and higher prices also brought an end to the use of larger trim. Some modern-style homes have done away with trim altogether and rely on drywall corners to hide gaps.

In the last 10 years, larger, traditional molding has been showing up in new homes. Today's "nostalgic" or post-modern homes combine the use of traditional molding with modern design. Crown molding, wainscoting and chair rails are reappearing in many new homes.


Casing is the trim that wraps around the perimeter of doors and windows. Turn-of-the-century homes had wide casing around doors and windows for structural reasons as well as an ornate look. The casing in these homes often ranged from 4 to 6 in. wide. Modern casing is thinner and narrower, often only 2-1/4 in. wide.

Fig. A shows examples of flow casing was applied and two methods of trimming a window. The traditional-style stool and apron trim has become popular again. The other, picture frame trimming, is more common in modern homes.

Another trim piece used in older home was the plinth block (Fig. A). It was thicker than the casing to provide a larger edge for the baseboard and casing to butt into.

Corner blocks (Fig. A) are not only decorative; they perform a similar function as plinth blocks where the casing meets.

Baseboard was once called "mop board" because it caught the splash from rag mops and protected the base of the walls from dirt and damage. It also defined the transition between the floor and the wall. Old-style, 3/4-in. thick baseboards were 5 to 14 in. high and consisted of three pieces: the base, base cap and base shoe. The three-piece base (Fig. B) did a much better job of covering the irregularities of floors and walls than the modern, one-piece base. The base cap hides any gaps along the top of the base, while the shoe covers the floor gaps.

In contrast, modern, one-piece baseboard is thinner (1/2 in.) and not nearly as wide (3-1/4 in.). Modern baseboard can be nearly half hidden by thick carpeting! If carpeting will be installed in a room, many carpenters install this type of baseboard up to 3/4 in. higher on the wall to protect the walls from feet and vacuum cleaners.

Chair rails of today are often all that remain from old-style wainscoting (wood paneling on the lower part of a wall). Wainscoting (Fig. C) was popular in homes of the 19th century and before. It protects the lower wall and adds a sense of structure and weight. Used alone, chair rail visually divides the wall so it accents wallpaper or different wall color schemes. The height is often adjusted in dining rooms to protect the wall surface from the high backs of chairs. Chair rail in other rooms is often set at whatever height looks best. A low chair rail can make the ceiling look higher than a chair rail placed halfway up the wall. Cove and crown moldings ease the transition between the wall and ceiling. Traditionally, these were built up from a series of individual molding (Fig. D).

Coves are "scooped out" moldings with concave surfaces and derive from a Roman influence. Crown molding has a reverse curve (called an "ogee") inspired by ancient Greek architecture.


Traditional trim was made from solid wood, but now wood veneers, plastic and rigid foam moldings are finding their way into the home.

Veneered trim has a particleboard or fiberboard core with a thin veneer applied over the surface. While it's more economical than solid wood, it has at least one drawback. The thin veneer can't be easily sanded or chiseled away when you're trying to fit stubborn joints.

Plastic and foam moldings are available in either a wood grain or a smooth, prepainted finish. They can be nailed just like wood, but like veneered trim, they're not as forgiving during installation as genuine wood molding. Plastic trim can't be sanded or planed either. However, it's very stable and works well in damp locations such as bathrooms, and it has the advantage of being prefinished.
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Title Annotation:moldings
Author:Radtke, David
Publication:The Family Handyman
Date:May 1, 1996
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