Molding modest rooms into elegant spaces

July 18, 1993|By Michael Walsh | Michael Walsh,Universal Press Syndicate

If you're looking for a way to dress up dowdy-looking rooms, hie yourself to the nearest lumberyard and take a look at the selection of ready-made wood molding. Affordable and effective, molding has an enormous capacity for adding craftsman-like detail to previously featureless rooms.

Molding does for a room what icing does for a wedding cake, what welting does for upholstery or what lace does for a dress: It adds detail, color, pattern, texture, shape, dimension and visual interest. Once a standard element in homes, moldings were rendered all but invisible in the tract houses of the 1960s and '70s. Door and window trim was reduced in size, and machine-carved or routed details were dispensed with. In recent years, though, home builders have responded to consumer demand for additional architectural embellishment by using more and more elaborate -- moldings.

It's a trend well worth encouraging, because architectural applique has a way of making a door, a window, a room, an entire home seem more substantial and better built. It imparts a sense of solidity and permanence. It also brings in an element of craftsmanship that evokes the history and heritage of built-by-hand houses. Even though most wood molding today is machine-carved, it still has the shapely dimensions and details once wrought by hand.

Wood molding comes in an enormous variety of ready-made shapes and sizes. Designs run the gamut of classic architectural styles -- Victorian, Georgian, Federal, Italianate, arts and crafts, art deco, Colonial, Tudor and more. If you have a house fashioned after a particular architectural style, chances are you won't have much trouble finding a compatible period molding to go with it. If you have a house without an architectural pedigree you can choose any molding style you find personally appealing.

Because their shapes, sizes and dimensions have been standardized, they exist as stock items at the lumberyard. Even if you add them to your home one room at a time, you probably can get matching pieces several years later.

Where to put molding? Where to stop might be an easier question. Almost any nondescript interior window or door will benefit by the addition of an attractive, substantial frame of wood molding. A hefty crown molding installed where the walls and ceiling come together can provide a pleasing transition between the two surfaces. A simple chair rail molding on the walls about 24 to 30 inches above the floor can help break up visually boring expanses of ordinary wall. A simple crown-style molding added to the tops of kitchen cabinets or built-in bookcases can give them a hand-crafted, fine-furniture character.

Start paying attention to the way molding is used in the rooms featured in decorating magazines and you'll soon begin to appreciate the potential of this readily available material. You'll also discover ways you can use it in your own home.

In the past, especially in grand old homes, molding was often made of oak, mahogany, cherry, walnut and other fine woods. Today, most wood molding is made of pine. But it can still be stained to mimic costlier woods or painted.

A home handy-person on speaking terms with a handsaw, a miter box (a device that helps you cut angles) and a hammer and finishing nails can install a simple chair rail, baseboards or window and door trim. Almost any bookstore will have do-it-yourself manuals that can show you how it's done. But many of the best interior trims consist of a combination of several kinds of molding, layered and fitted together.

The kind of precision required for elaborate trims is best left to a skilled carpenter. That's a costlier route, of course, but chances are you'll get a much more custom-made look that will be well worth the expense.

Two other alternatives to wood molding are worth considering. One is architectural molding made of synthetic materials, such as rigid foam, which, when painted, is all but indistinguishable from elaborate plasterwork crowns, corbels and ceiling medallions once found only in grand old mansions.

Synthetic moldings are also available through lumberyards, DTC home improvement stores and mail-order sources, as well as through interior designers, architects, carpenters and cabinetmakers. The other option is much more pedestrian, but every bit as effective for adding shape, color and dimension to a room: wallpaper borders that can be substituted for wood crown moldings and chair rails and which are far easier to install (or, when you tire of them, remove).

Whether wood, foam or paper, moldings provide a means for embellishing a ho-hum room with instant architectural detail. They let you overhaul a room without remodeling, without demolition and without enormous expense.

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