Moldings 101

Rich in history, decorative wall moldings remain in common use today.

Wall Moldings

Photo: flickr.com

By definition, a molding is simply a strip of wood (or, occasionally, of plaster or other material) that is used for finish or decorative purposes. It has regular channels or projections, and it may be flat, curved, or both.

Moldings are used as transitions from one surface to another. They can cover, for example, the joint between the wall and ceiling (these are termed cornice moldings); or the joining of the floor and wall (the baseboard or, in Britain, the skirting board). Since World War II, moldings have tended to be small, plain, and purely functional, but these decorative elements can represent much more.

In the past moldings were an opportunity for the builder, designer, or homeowner to make a statement. In a way that building big houses today conveys a sense of the owner’s wealth and standing, moldings were once the means of sending a message about the importance of a place.

Moldings can be an invaluable decorative element, so it’s useful to understand some of the terminology involved. The first distinction concerns a molding’s position. In addition to the cornice and baseboard, the terms picture rail and chair rail refer to where certain moldings are located on a wall. The picture rail is attached beneath the cornice and is used, as its name suggests, to suspend pictures, while the chair rail travels around the perimeter of the room at the height of a typical chair back to protect the plaster. The terms architrave and casing are used interchangeably to describe the trim around a window or doorway.

The shape or profile of a molding is another identifying characteristic. The trained eye can read profiles—the shapes and curves of moldings signify much about the age, origin, and character of a handmade house. Moldings in the great Georgian houses of the eighteenth century (see The Georgian House) were big and bold with gracious curves. During the early years of the American republic, builders in the Federal Style used fewer moldings but when they did, the profiles were smaller, more subtle, and featured elliptical curves. During the Victorian era, there was an eclectic variety of profiles and sizes—it was a time when people freely interpreted an ever-larger variety of historical sources, from classical Greece, Medieval England, Renaissance Italy, seventeenth- century France, and ancient Egypt.

In the early twentieth century, natural finishes on oak and other woods were common in Craftsman-Style houses and bungalows. Design came full circle with the Colonial Revival styles, including the Georgian, Spanish, and Dutch Revival houses that reprise the detailing of the Eighteenth Century. Recognizing which moldings in your home original, which reflect later changes, and where some have disappeared can be very helpful in planning your renovation.