With the housing industry tightening up and the phone ringing less frequently, remodelers need to learn new business and marketing techniques so that they can develop more work from the customers they do have. Yes, that’s right, there’s more to the building business than driving nails. Knowledge and enthusiasm for the craft will encourage your customers to upgrade their remodeling projects. On a typical remodel, moldings are rarely given the attention they deserve, but adding crown molding, wainscoting and coffered ceilings, changing out baseboard, casing and chair rail, will not only boost the scale of a small project, but if done with careful design and quality materials, upgrading moldings can lead to a nice profit center and a specialty career.
What makes a Good-Looking Molding
This 18th century mantelpiece (left), in a historic home outside Philadelphia, is a perfect example of well-crafted moldings, and well-conceived composition, from the architrave molding to the crown molding. The moldings are deeply incised, but the real drama and impact are produced by crisp details and sharp edges.
I’ve watched a lot of 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. Notice how the edges around the egg-and-dart molding in the Cliveden mantelpiece are all sharp, 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 mantel shelf, and the chair rail that terminates against the architrave just beneath the crossette corner.
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 (reprint available from www.amazon.com) offers an excellent explanation of molding design and use. Walker writes at the very outset of his book:
“The value of moldings with curved profiles is . . . 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 are separated from it by a small bead or fillet.” (pp. 3-4)
Walker’s point is simple: Curved profiles must be separated by flat fillets and sharp-edge terminations; otherwise, the curves “slur” into each other. Unfortunately, moldings today often combine a multiplicity of profiles compressed into a small area, separated by eased edges. The results aren’t always satisfying.
Incorrect Molding Design
The casing on the left has four profiles at the butt end. All those curves, as well as the upper profiles, are eased one into the next. Several of the smaller profiles in the baseboard (center) are nearly lost, even in this closeup image because the details aren’t distinct. The crown molding (right) is simple, but because the edges aren’t sharp, the color tone on the molding is almost a single shade, without variation.
Correct Molding Design
The casing in this example is cut with sharp edges, the profiles aren’t compressed, and they are separated by flat fillets. The base cap detail is simple but handsome. The elliptical shape of all three moldings produces variations in tone or shading, especially in the crown molding. These are WindsorONE moldings.
When I was a teenager, my father used to drop me off on a jobsite, hand me a few sheets of 180 and 220 sandpaper and tell me to ease all the edges on the cabinets and doors, and on the baseboard and casing, too. “Otherwise the paint won’t stick!” he said. The truth is moldings can be milled with sharp edges, so the light breaks cleanly and crisply at each profile, but details like that cost a little more money. As Bill Shaw, a custom molding millwright for over 20 years, puts it (www.copemaster.com):
“Sharp crisp edges and profiles are harder to cut for several reasons. 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 because of increased tear-out. We typically ran moldings with radius edges at 30 ft. per minute (fpm), but sharp-edge profiles had to be run much more slowly, at 20 fpm or even less.”
Why combine Moldings
The three-piece cornice pictured (above right) uses a 4-in. elliptical cove set between two identical bands of ogee door stop. The picture molding, installed several inches below, creates the look of a classical entablature, if the wall space between is painted the same color as the moldings.
The next time you have a customer leaning toward the largest crown in the catalog, steer them toward built-up moldings instead. The result will be far more dramatic and pleasing, both to the impact of their home, and to the profit margin on your job. Many moldings adapt themselves well to buildups. Choose designs with simple profiles, broad elliptical curves and flat sharp fillets.
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 — frequently the measurements are even identical. You can always make more profit on per/foot labor installing the second and third layer of molding.
Making Money on Moldings
Develop a reputation for installing high-end moldings. Make sure your crew is efficient, neat and cares about quality joinery. In a tight market, it’s critical to make as much as you can on the jobs you do have. The more often you’re able to upgrade the moldings on your jobs, the more high-end molding work you’ll get. In future articles, I’ll cover specific ways to speed up molding installation, without sacrificing quality.