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The crowning touch: Moldings span a range of styles, materials and prices

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By Maryann Haggerty
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, June 12, 2010

Look up toward the ceiling. You may notice that it's ringed by a strip of crown molding along the top of the walls. This sometimes simple, sometimes ornate strip of architectural embellishment represents a mix of classical Greek aesthetics, Victorian sensibilities and modern ingenuity.

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While molding has some utility -- it can disguise a careless paint job or less-than-plumb surface -- its main purpose is decorative. It's available in a range of natural and man-made materials, and a zillion designs. Whether a house is built with it is a matter of style and cost. Adding it can be an inexpensive weekend project for a do-it-yourselfer, or a costly operation for a team of master craftsmen.

"It's pretty magical when the moldings are done right," said Brent Hull, who, as the author of "Traditional American Rooms: Celebrating Style, Craftsmanship, and Historic Woodwork," is understandably enthusiastic. His Fort Worth company, Hull Historical, provides custom millwork for homes new and old, including Winterthur, the mansion-museum near Wilmington, Del. The size and placement of molding determines how a room's size and shape are perceived, he argues.

At the base of a wall, you'll find base molding separating wall and floor; other types of molding delineate windows, doors, fireplaces and more. (While the Brits and some manufacturers call it moulding, Americans generally spell it without the "U.")

Period pieces

The aesthetics hark back to the ancient Greeks. The main parts of a Greek column -- base, shaft, capital -- were strictly defined, as were the layers of a well-designed building. The bands separating those layers are molding, not in strips of wood, but in stone. Look at Washington's Greek Revival public buildings and you'll see the designs that have inspired residential woodwork, such as the dentil trim -- a series of rectangular blocks resembling teeth -- along the cornice of the Supreme Court building.

The architectural styles popular in the United States in the 17th and 18th centuries each had characteristic molding, according to Chris Hofmann, whose Hofmann Joinery makes custom cabinetry and millwork in a Hanover, Md., shop stocked with antique and contemporary woodworking machines. Georgian-style homes, popular before about 1780, had "a lot of big, heavy molding." Federal-style homes (1795-1820) had "sparse crown moldings." Greek temples inspired the Greek Revival style that followed.

But it took the Victorians to go nuts with molding. Those 19th-century houses have "all the dripping leaf, overly ornate" styles of molding, Hofmann said.

Historians point out that much about Victorian life, including elaborately decorated houses, can be explained by the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution. For instance, it took a steam-powered saw to economically produce the gingerbread that adorns Victorian exteriors. These advances also fostered a middle class that aspired to elegance.

Today, molding remains aspirational. Home shoppers like crown molding because it gives a sense of luxury to a home that otherwise might not feel luxurious, said Joseph Himali, principal broker at Best Address Real Estate in Northwest Washington.

Although molding is a plus for home buyers, it isn't a must for home sellers, Himali said. "There will never be a time when the actual cost of crown molding will be covered in the eventual sale," he said.

In addition, "It's a rare, rare bird that will come into a house and not buy it because of lack of crown molding."

In 2008, the National Association of Home Builders surveyed home shoppers and buyers to determine which features would affect their decisions. Twelve percent said crown molding was essential, 51 percent said it was desirable, 32 percent were indifferent and 5 percent said they didn't want it.

At Smoot Lumber in Alexandria, both builders and homeowners buy custom millwork from a choice of hundreds of profiles, or designs. Speculative builders tend to buy relatively simple molding, according to Michael Brannon, who runs the mill shop at Smoot. The most popular is probably a 2 1/4-inch-wide colonial casing used around doors and windows. "It's readily available; it's pretty inexpensive. . . . If you saw it, you probably wouldn't even notice it, it's so universal," he said.

But when people renovate or expand the region's older houses, they often need to match existing woodwork, Brannon said. There are three or four profiles he regards as Capitol Hill styles, suitable for the older houses there, while houses in Adams Morgan or Cleveland Park require a more colonial style. Throughout the suburbs, neighborhoods built by the same builders, or even by the same construction crews, tend to have similar molding, he said.

Fancy molding need not come from a custom shop. For instance, White River of Fayetteville, Ark., makes more than 2,000 styles of carved or embellished hardwood moldings. "Even though you are seeing a lot of people saying, 'Simpler, simpler, simpler,' we're still selling it every day," said Joan Johnson, the company's president.

"If people are in an area where ornamentation is established, it's hard to build houses without it," she said.

Choosing materials

When people plan to stain molding, they generally use solid pine, said Troy Dally, merchandising vice president for millwork at Lowe's. Oak, maple and other hardwoods also have decorative possibilities; Hofmann generally uses solid poplar for his custom work, much of which is for designers or architects. Molding that will be painted is usually finger-jointed pine, Dally said; that is, a long strip made of shorter lengths jointed together. Many manufacturers also make molding from MDF, or medium-density fiberboard, a less expensive, engineered wood product.

Plastics are also available. Fypon Ltd. of Archbold, Ohio, makes fancy moldings of polyurethane. It's lighter than wood and holds up to the elements, the company says. It can be more expensive per foot than wood, but installation requires less labor, so the company sells its products to builders as an economical means to impressive results. "Trim houses, not margins" is one slogan.

Fypon is marketing a miterless corner system, which allows its complex moldings to be installed without the carpenter having to perform tricky angled miter cuts or, for inside corners, coping joints. "I have it in my own dining room, and I absolutely love it," retail product manager Tina Mealer said. "I used the miterless corners and did it myself."

DIY angles

Is installing molding a do-it-yourself job? It depends on a homeowner's skill levels and tools, said Johnson, of White River. A simple chair rail takes very little in the way of tools. Crown molding calls for the right saw and the patience to use it correctly when cutting fiddly corners -- a little mistake can spoil a whole strip of molding. Especially in an older house, where straight lines and right angles are rare, installation can involve a lot of shimming, plumbing and caulking.

Nonetheless, many homeowners take on the job themselves. The molding aisle at Home Depot in Capitol Heights, for instance, stocks scores of options, in just about every material. Prices range from about 85 cents per linear foot to about $5 per linear foot. The cheapest materials look cheap up close but might not be obvious mounted nine feet up on the wall.

The store stocks plenty of corner blocks and other devices to help homeowners avoid those difficult joints. The chain also sells what it calls Perfect Cut molding, which has a two-sided profile that lets the weekend carpenter make just one cut, then turn the strip over and have two perfectly matched pieces, thus halving the chance of messing up.

At Lowe's, a similar product is called Flip Face. Dally said molding can be a suitable project for beginners, especially those who have the patience to measure everything carefully. "Generally, we see that someone comes into a house, they already have baseboard and casing. The way they personalize the house is with crown molding. . . . We feel that customers don't want their house to look like everyone else's."

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