Upgrading Basic Elements and Details in Your Home
Casings, crown molding, baseboards and other room-defining details can make a big impact
Make blank, boxy walls more interesting by using architectural moldings and millwork.
Most of us want our homes to have some sense of architectural character — Colonial, traditional, farmhouse, Victorian, mid-century, you name it — on the inside as well as the outside. Too frequently, however, this just doesn’t end up being the case.
Whether you bought or built your house for the location, the square footage or the price, you aren’t alone if you sometimes wish your house felt a little less builder’s-grade and boasted a little more charm.
Those blank, boxy walls can be difficult, time-consuming and expensive to fill with art, and you probably don’t want to wallpaper every room in your house. The easiest way to upgrade the look of your house is by using architectural moldings and millwork, first by beefing up your baseboard, casings and crown molding, and secondly by adding wainscoting or paneling here and there.
Begin at the Edges — Baseboards, Casings and Crowns
A word to the wise — always, always, always pay attention to the style of your house, and when in doubt, go for simple, clean lines (that is, unless, you have a Queen Anne Victorian or something similarly ornate). While many builder’s-grade tract houses and McMansions have no interior detail at all, others can come with a motley conglomeration of blingy trim that is way out of proportion and makes no sense at all. Better too little than too much.
Overall, moldings establish the scale and proportion of a space. The moldings at the edges of your room help create a sense of division between the room’s various planes — floor, walls and ceiling.
Installing casing around entries is a simple way to dress up and define the room.
A general rule of thumb for your baseboards is the 7 percent rule — they should equal 7 percent of the overall height of your room. So, if you have 8-foot ceilings, your baseboards will look best at around 7 inches high. If the more ornate, carved style of baseboards is cost-prohibitive, consider a flat panel and add a strip of cove molding to the top and half-inch, quarter-round base shoe to the bottom.
In general, vertical trim elements, such as door and window casings, should be smaller than your baseboards. Think 50 percent of your baseboards — in the above case, 3 ½ inches. Your crown molding should be scaled to be smaller than your baseboards and appropriate to the height of your ceilings. In lower ceilings or simpler-style homes, crown moldings may be entirely unnecessary. Lastly, don’t forget your entries transitioning between rooms — they can receive the same treatments as your doors.
In fact, depending upon the style of your house and the height of your ceilings, you can consider creating an entablature using a header frieze and cap at the top of your doors to create a sense of drama and lessen the space between the top of the door and the ceiling.
And Now for the Walls — Chair Rails, Wainscot and Paneling
When dealing with walls, the easiest way to get the proper proportion is to apply the rule of thirds, whether to chair rails, wainscoting or all-over paneling.
The simplest treatment you can add to your walls is a chair rail. A rail visually divides the room and instantly allows you to read the size and scale of the space. Its use dates back to the Romans and Greeks, who employed chair rails to divide walls into universally pleasing proportions. Unless you have 12-foot ceilings, a chair rail is generally placed at one-third the height of the walls. So, 32 inches for an 8-foot ceiling and 36 inches for a 9-foot ceiling. When in doubt, buy some trim samples and try them out at home.
A wainscot is decorative molding applied up to a rail. That rail can be at the lower third for an airier feel, or up to two-thirds of the room height for a more cozy feel.
Chair rails pleasingly divide the space. You can then do a bit more by adding wainscoting or paneling.
If you don’t want to spend the money or time on additional trim, simply painting the space in between your baseboard and chair rail the same color as your trim — most often white or ivory — will give the idea of a low wainscot without the extra expense.
Types of wainscot and paneling are numerous — raised panel, recessed panel, applied molding, applied flat molding, board and batten, v-groove, beadboard, shiplap … the list goes on. Though HGTV’s “Fixer Upper” has made shiplap and board and batten the style du jour, it isn’t appropriate for every house. Remember the 1950s? Well, I don’t, but my parents do. Knotty pine was applied in every house under the sun, regardless of style, and now many a wife bemoans her husband’s attachment to it. As always, let your exterior guide your interior.
A Beginning and an End
And I mean the “end.” All millwork needs a place to end, another piece of molding to meld into. I’ve seen crown molding or chair rails that run around a room to where the wall stops, leaving the moldings to hang there in mid-air and forcing them to turn back into the wall. If you have this situation in your home, maybe you shouldn’t be applying moldings at all. Celebrate what you have, and call it a day.
About The Author
Decorator and color consultant Amy Mitchell is the owner of Home Glow Design. Each week, she writes for Home Glow’s “Saturday Blog,” focusing on fresh twists on classic style, American craftsmanship and value and quality for dollars spent. The blog also features more photos from this story. She lives in Hopkinton with her husband and two boys.