Character Building: A Case for Moldings

By Gale Steves | Updated Feb 7, 2018 2:42 PM

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I live in an old house that was virtually stripped of its moldings in the 1970s. It was an act of modernization, ever so popular back then when it was the style to simplify. My house, however, was built in 1867, when trims were considered the finishing touches to a room. It would have been considered bad taste not to have a fancy wooden or plaster molding crowning the upper walls.

On the parlor floor, where the public rooms of the house are located, crown molding survives only in the dining room and library. It offers a glimpse of the well-conceived decorative trim that once dressed the 12-foot walls. The adjacent room—which we plan to use as a small family sitting room—had some insignificant 2-inch trim that looked very out of place by comparison. Upstairs, it appears that moldings were never installed, making the 10-foot-high ceilings look naked.

Before I could find a suitable molding profile, I needed to educate myself on a variety of fronts and turned to the folks at Good Millwork to help me understand the four terms that are bandied about in millwork selection: height, width, thickness and projection.


Next, I needed to learn some basic rules:

Rule 1. The width of the molding depends on the height of the ceiling. If your ceiling is 8 feet tall, look for crown moldings that are 3 to 5 inches wide. If your ceiling is 9 to 10 feet, consider moldings that are 5 to 7 inches wide. Over 10 feet—you can choose moldings up to 12 inches wide.


Lexington Crown Molding from Century Architectural Specialties

Rule 2. Select the right material for your budget and your project. Many moldings are still made from hard woods, wood veneers and plaster (more expensive choices). Others, less expensive, are constructed from fiberboard, soft woods (such as pine) and high-density polystyrene. I selected the latter because of its moisture resistance, something of interest to a newly minted Southerner.

Rule 3. Find a design that complements the other features in the room. For my 12 foot high ceiling, I needed something important but not too ornate. I looked at historical profiles of molding but none seemed as simple and elegant as what I had in the dining room. I was loath to climb up 12 feet just to sketch the details of the existing molding, so I looked online for possible sources. After a day of total immersion in crown molding designs, I found something just right: a simply layered look called “Lexington” from Century Architectural near Atlanta. This profile is designed to bring the eye up and over as it extended to the ceiling. It is 4 -5/8 inches high but projects almost 9 inches onto the ceiling. Perfect!


Monticello Crown Molding from Century Architectural Specialties

Finding the right moldings for the two bedrooms should have been simpler, but I spent just as much time looking for something that would complement the fireplaces and window trim (Hint: This is another good way to start thinking about molding—simply mimic the window trim). Since the ceilings are lower in the bedrooms, I decided to focus on a heavier wall molding that would bring the eye to the ceiling. Each molding adds a lot of character to the respective rooms.

And here is what I purchased—a subtle change of design on the same dentil theme with “Monticello” (4-5/8 inches wide and a 4-3/8 inch projection) for the master bedroom, and “Manchester Dentil” (4-7/8 inches wide and a 4-7/8 inch projection) for the guest bedroom.

I could not have made these decisions without some guidance from an expert—Barbara Duncan of Century Architectural Specialties. She was patient with my endless questions and offered a number of  creative solutions for me to consider. In the end, the process was a learning experience for me and a character-building one for the house.