Replacing Period Molding

Scott Gibson, Contributing Editor

We've just bought a house that was probably built in the late 19th century. Some of the molding doesn't seem to fit the style of the house, and some of it is missing altogether. We'd like to bring it all back to something that would be authentic, but where do we start?

Molding gets short shrift in many houses these days. Modern architecture has a minimalist look, and even period reproduction houses may be skimpy on this important detail. Molding today too often looks like an afterthought.

Builders pulled out all the stops in many period American houses--look for that if you want your details to be authentic. Door and window casings, baseboard, crown molding, and chair rails all were opportunities for creativity and elaboration. It's all the more amazing when you consider much of it was made by hand.

Styles varied widely, from plain to ornate, depending on the type of house and the materials and budget that builders had to work with. A good starting point is to decide what's right for the house. That is, what the original builders would have used.

Take a sample to your lumberyard

If the house still has some of its original moldings, you're in luck. All you have to do is figure out how to recreate them. Big box retailers carry a variety of standard molding profiles, but you might have more luck at an older (non-chain) lumberyard, the kind of place whose dusty outbuildings and lumber racks hold stock even the owners may have forgotten they had.

If you can't find a single pattern that matches what you have, you may be able to combine two or more standard profiles into something that approximates the molding in the house.

For instance, a square-edged 1x8 paired with a 1 1/8-inch base cap has much more presence than the bland 4-inch clamshell that now passes for baseboard. You can create a surprising number of molding possibilities by layering stock patterns. However, you may have to content yourself with a less-than-exact match. For that you may have to seek out a local wood products company and have your molding custom made.

Working with a sample that you provide, the shop will grind a set of molding knives that duplicate the profile precisely. They can run off as much as you want in whatever wood species you want to pay for. For paint grade material, poplar is a good choice.

If you're starting from scratch, hit the books

If the house has been completely stripped of its original molding, start with a trip to your local library or historical society. Reference books, such as Virginia and Lee McAlester's A Field Guide to American Houses, can help you identify the architectural style of your house and offer general clues about detailing. Historical groups often have wonderful collections of old photographs, a good starting point.

You may find clues in the house itself. Look around door and window openings for shadow lines outlining the profile of original molding. Mudrooms, closets and other forgotten corners of the house may still have bits and pieces of what was there.

In the end, your efforts will be worth it. When it's right, molding makes a room sing.

About the Author
An accomplished woodworker and carpenter, Scott Gibson is the former editor of Fine Woodworking magazine, and a former editor at Today's Homeowner and Fine Homebuilding magazines. He also is former managing editor of the Kennebec Journal, a daily newspaper in Maine.

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