“Trim” New House, Old Soul – Ep.12
Foreword by Ian Thompson, Editor
Discover the lost art of moldings in building and how they can infuse an old soul into a new house. Join Brent as he explores the evolution of moldings, their impact on historical architecture, and the importance of following classical proportions. Let’s dive into the world of intricate craftsmanship and discover the beauty and storytelling capabilities of moldings.
Moldings have traditionally played a significant role in houses, separating door jambs and casings or plaster. They were based on a classical system that determines their size and placement. Over time, moldings and covings have changed, almost disappearing in new group home houses, with complexity and style diminishing. Why? mainly cost and perceived style. Modern houses don’t need covings and moldings right? Well, that’s a matter of opinion,, but for me as a designer I see many modern moldings and trims that enhance walls and ceilings in amazing ways, but it’s true, it’s a lost design art.
Brent believes good moldings are crucial for creating an old soul in a new house, communicating a story, and establishing hierarchy. The size and proportions of moldings should vary based on the room and its importance. Understanding the narrative behind different moldings helps in creating beautiful and long-lasting designs. Different types of interior moldings communicate differently based on historical periods. Exterior moldings are bigger and stronger, while cutaway moldings are softer and less bold. Shadow lines and soft moldings break up large spaces and add visual interest.
Intricate moldings and cornice Crown build up in a showroom sparked the opportunity to explore detailed craftsmanship. This opened doors to move beyond monotonous production-built homes and delve into more intricate moldings that have personality and tell a story. In a Georgian Revival house, we see scaled and balanced moldings that work in harmony with the overall design. Wainscoting, chair rail, and built-in cabinets contribute to the elevated and beautiful room. With attention to detail in moldings and architecture, every space can tell its own story.
Over to Brent.
Today, we’re going to talk about moldings. I feel like I could talk about moldings forever. It is one of the lost arts of building and is one of the things I care passionately about.
Build the original series hosted by Brent Hall, new house, old soul, sponsored by Stellar floors and the Unico system.
We have a reputation in Fort Worth that if you want a traditional house, you know with traditional moldings, we’re kind of the guys because I know so much about moldings and I think they are so valuable.
The history of moldings, right? When do we start using moldings? We’ve always used moldings. Going back even to very simple houses in the early 1700s, they were using moldings because they separate where a door jamb comes together with the casing or the plaster, there needs to be naturally a molding that closes off that connection, and so moldings have always been used.
The other thing about moldings is that they are based on a classical system, traditionally. That means the classical system of the pedestal, column, and tablature. You know, cornice, all of those different parts and pieces define, okay, at least historically what size your moldings were, you know what they looked like, where they went. And you’ve watched my videos for long, you know one of my pet peeves is the chair rail and putting it at 36 inches. Unless your ceilings are 15 feet or taller, your chair rail does not belong at three feet. So, if you take anything away from this video, know that chair rails don’t belong at three feet. I say that because it’s based on the classical system. Go watch my videos on that and go look at that because it’s very informative of size of door casing to hide the pedestal height, the base. All of those things were determined in that classical system, and it was a practice that was carried on into World War II, right? It’s only after as modernism creeps into building styles and things that we have a clamshell molding. There is no clamshell molding before 1950. This is a modern solution for a molding. It is a door casing that is meant to disappear in many respects if you look at the theory of moldings and how moldings are supposed to work. So, moldings have changed a great deal. I mean, if you just look at some of the ways we used to trim out things going back into the 1920s with a casing, an apron, a sill, and an apron, and just the number of moldings that used to go into how we would trim out a window or if you were looking at a door head, or even a mantel that we would build up moldings like this with your door casing, a pulmonated freeze, and then your bed mold, Corona, and cymation all over a door header. This is the way we used to build. And so we’ve kind of lost that art of building.
But look even at an MDF base that you can get at the big box stores versus the three-quarter inch base that was standard right before 1940 before World War II before moldings began to change. If the purpose of moldings is to communicate strength, communicate placement, communicate hierarchy, different things like that, it’s very difficult to do it with these moldings because these lines are so small. By the time I caulk this joint, I’ve lost that sharp line. I’ve lost that detail. And after a couple of times of painting this thing, it just becomes a muddy mess. So small moldings are one of those last arts. You look at door casings as well. Here are two more modern door casings, these things that are just so small, about two inches wide by, you know, 3/8 inch tall. And then you look at an historic door casing, and it’s wider than two of them put together, and certainly, it’s thicker than two of them put together. Right? They are three or four of them to reach this dimension and this size. But this, a door casing around a window or around a door punctuates an opening. Now that is a classical concept in a classical way of thinking about how moldings are supposed to work. That you punctuate an opening, just like there’s a language to classical architecture, there’s even punctuation of finishing in an end. If you look at the historic pattern books, there was a relationship between the size of the opening and the size of your door casing. Those things were part of how you built, and those things have been lost. So if you want a new house with an old soul, there’s nothing that’s going to communicate that old soul like good moldings. So, if nothing else from this whole series, moldings matter, and size matters, and it really can make a huge difference in how your new house feels and looks. So, the classical system, if you’re not familiar with it, you can go to my YouTube page. I’ve got videos up there about the classical system. It was a way of building. If you’ve ever heard of the five orders of architecture, or an order of architecture, it was a proportioning system. Okay? It was a way of building. There was the Tuscan order, very thick and strong, very feminine. Ionic and Corinthian orders were based on a female body. But it’s all based on a human scale. Okay? So, the Tuscan order is based on a 1-to-7 relationship. Where did that come from? Well, my foot is 11 inches long, and I’m 76 inches tall. If I was 77 inches tall, it’d be a 1-to-7 relationship. No wonder that’s where they got it. They actually looked at the human body.
I use moldings on our projects to communicate a story. I use moldings to establish hierarchy. You go into the main room of a house, an important room, the moldings are very elevated. You go into a third-floor second-floor bedroom, the moldings are not elevated in that space. Even moldings between the first floor and the second floor change. So, if you’re building and thinking about a molding package for your house, you’re not putting 8-inch base downstairs and 18-inch base upstairs. In my mind, you’re doing an 8-inch base downstairs and a 5 or 6-inch base upstairs. Right? You are stepping down in size. Typically, ceiling heights are changing as well as you go to a second floor. You’re going into a private space. It’s not a public space, and so it’s not as important to elevate those rooms.
One great example to study historic precedent is to go to Winterthur. Winterthur is this magical place. H.F. du Pont, you know, a home where he began to collect American antiques in the 1920s. Not only would he collect antiques, he would actually collect the rooms they were held in. So if you had a Philadelphia highboy, you found a parlor from Philadelphia that was being torn down and bought the room, installed it into his house, and then installed all the furniture there so it would be in a period-appropriate setting. There are 175 rooms at Winterthur dating from 1640 to 1860. It’s an amazing place where you will see all kinds of precedent, all kinds of different rooms and different houses from Georgian and Federal to Greek Revival. You just see this wide swath from very rustic taverns to very high-style Philadelphia townhouses. It’s an amazing place that tells you a lot about historic architecture, historic precedent. Go and measure those moldings if you want to learn about how things were done historically. Go to Winterthur. I did a video recently on crown moldings, and sometime during the McMansion era, crown moldings became the fine art of moldings. I find it to be one of the great sins of moldings. Right? Where you see crown, crown, crown, crown, crown, built up as if four pieces of crown are going to make it look richer or make it look better, instead of adhering to those classical proportions and classical details. So just using more is not a way to make your houses better. Following historic precedent, following a historic narrative, finding someone who really understands what moldings should look like and how they should go together in order to get something that’s beautiful and long-lasting.
So moldings narrate, moldings communicate, moldings are a language, and let me show you how that works. I’ve got three moldings right here. Got a Federal casing, a Georgian casing, and a Greek Revival casing. How do I know? Well, within each period of time, there was a story that caused this molding to look like this. This back band with this bulbous quarter-round is Georgian. Why is it Georgian? Well, first of all, it’s based on a circle, and second of all, during the Georgian period, a lot of the interior moldings were run like exterior moldings, and they end up being big and strong because this kicks out. It projects, right? It comes into the room and it reads as much heavier and stronger. By contrast, this molding has been cut away. We see a cutaway there, we see a cutaway there because it’s been diminished, because it’s been cut away. It’s softer, it’s not as bold, it’s not as in your face, and then these little cuts, okay, these little details right here, communicate shadow lines. And so there are shadow lines and there are moldings that are soft, and they break up this large space into things that we can read and remember. Each different period was looking to the past. The Georgian period was looking to Italy in Rome. The Federal period had discovered the things in Pompeii and Herculaneum, and so they were much daintier and lighter. And then the Greek Revival, obviously, studying the Greek culture and seeing the shapes and the details that were used in the original Greek buildings, and they changed their shapes again. So each one of these is driven by a historical period, each one is driven by an historical story, and each one communicates differently. The whole idea of the Greek Revival period was to mimic Greek temples, to mimic Greek design and stonework in particular. So we have very strong, unlike moldings in the Greek Revival period because that’s the way they were building them back then.
I want to go talk to Richard, Finish Carpentry TV. Some of you follow him. He’s the master trim carpenter, okay? I think he would say that learning how things were done in the past elevated his game, not only the type of things he does but his craftsmanship as well. So let’s go talk to him.
You’ve done a lot of work for us now, and you were doing that trim for homeowners, doing a lot of MDF. Now you’re doing trim, especially at that Staub house. You did a great job in that room putting up real moldings. Yeah, tell us what’s the difference? You know what are you finding? What are you learning? What’s going on?
Well, the thing I think is the most interesting is I always come back to that first building in Brews when I actually met you in your showroom here right off the studio that we’re standing in. You have all these moldings, all these intricate things, all these cornice crowns, build-up things that are just something I’ve never seen before. So for me, seeing that, I saw an opportunity that really just sparked like a childlike emotion in me to be like, “Whoa, there’s a whole another world out there that I have never even seen before.” Because I spend a lot of my time in these monotonous production-built homes, you know, and those guys that build those houses, the architect, they’re missing out on opportunities that they could be getting into some of this more detailed stuff. And that’s the opportunity I keep talking about.
There’s a personality to the moldings, there’s a story, there’s a narrative that’s being told. You know, just not only could the quantity of moldings increase, you know, especially based on historic precedent, but the size of the individual moldings can increase and the beauty can increase as well. Those moldings are not just put there so we spend more money. They’re there to communicate a story. They’re there to communicate hierarchy and punctuate a door opening and, you know, do stuff that matters.
I remember talking to you one time early on when we first met. You’re like, “Well, a lot of these lumberyard moldings, they’re just like bumps and bruises on the board.” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s stuff I’m putting in.” And then I get into the Staub house and I get to install historically period-correct moldings, stuff that was basically… You guys took down what was there because you remodeled this thing that we’re copying the past. You took down the profile that was there, opened up some walls, so therefore, Hall & Millwork had to remake these moldings. They made them all in Poplar. They’re crisp, they’re clean, they’re definitive, and we had the glorious opportunity to put them up.
If you want to learn more, want to see him actually installing these moldings and doing that stuff, follow him on Finish Carpentry TV’s on YouTube, easy to find. But he and I are working a lot together and building beautiful things together. Now I’m going to take you over to a house we did a few years ago, Colonial Revival house, Georgian-style house, designed after a house in South Carolina, which is completely awesome. So let’s go check it out.
When you’re talking about trim, you’re talking about architectural details, you’re talking about things that tell a story. You know, one of the things that we did in this Georgian Revival house is we wanted to have Georgian moldings. We wanted to have the proper moldings, the proper scale of moldings. Now, at the same time, we were trying to balance it with that Georgian moldings can be really heavy and strong. And so we’ve actually got the scale of Georgian molding but kind of used a Federal semblance of personality.
Basically, Georgian moldings are thick and bulbous, right? They’re strong, they’re projected. Federal moldings are often cut away, so they’re relieved. So, you’ll see this relief in this molding that we’ve got here. But we also are off the wall, you know, two and a half, three inches. If you look at that cannon, the classical things from the pattern books, catalogs from the 1750s, 1760s, moldings were huge. This is only probably a 4.5, 5-inch molding. Sometimes those moldings were 6 and 8 inches wide. We didn’t do that. We wanted to dial it around, but we have communicated and, especially if you come into here, we’ve communicated this story of this mass and boldness but done it with a slight twist. Because typically, if these were Georgian panels, they’d be raised panels, but these are flat panels. They’re not as projected and strong.
We have communicated this story of this mass and boldness but done it with a slight twist. Because typically, if these were Georgian panels, they’d be raised panels, but these are flat panels. They’re not as projected and strong. So that we have, you know, a molding, we notice from our wainscot, it’s about, you know, 30, 31 inches. Notice that it ties into the chair rail. There are some classical architectural tricks or methods that we can use to highlight and build things up. Notice over the doorways we have cross-headed corners. That’s another, you know, classical detail that kind of elevates this trim. We wanted to elevate this space. We’ve got a wainscot that goes around and, of course, everything ties back into this chair rail, the built-in cabinet pieces on the other side, and of course, the mantel. So a beautiful room made more beautiful because we’ve got moldings that communicate the story of the house. Moldings that contribute and build on the architecture that was already taking place.
So there’s an elevation and a hierarchy we’re trying to do here. The fact that we have a pedestal that we built out, this wainscot, and a pilaster on top of it goes across and beams this ceiling. This space has now been broken into three spaces. We’ve got small, small, and then big in the middle that invites you from that front door all the way out to the back of the house over the pool. And then back here, we’ve got a Georgian room also told in a different manner. This is not an attempt to be historically pure, right? This is an attempt to play with and be inspired by the past.
Historically, what you had on these houses is you had, in a Georgian room, you had full panel rooms, right? We didn’t have a full panel room in this house, and we decided to make this our full paneled room. We’ve got kind of this funny structure of this cornice above with that fretwork dental. We’ve got this idea of the triglyphs coming through here and then these large panels that are, you know, flat panels, not raised panels as I said, but we’ve got a full paneled room in this house. It’s very appropriate to this architecture, tipping our hand to our love for classical details. But again, notice the scale, the size of the moldings. Notice that these panels are not just done with cabinet shop panels, but that panel sticks out from the wall, what, an inch and a quarter? It’s really big and strong so that it communicates that these walls and these panels are much heavier and stronger than they should be. All I’m doing, guys, is I’m taking moldings and I’m stretching their sizes. I’m playing with the scale and proportion of them so that it communicates a story. I don’t think anything communicates a narrative as well as moldings do. There are things you can do like this in a room like this.
I hope you enjoyed the new House, Old Soul, the Molding Edition, right? Well, one of the products I want to talk to you about is Sashco. Sashco is like the Cadillac, the Lexus or whatever great car you think it is. It’s that car of the world. The one you’re maybe most familiar with is Big Stretch. Big Stretch and you think about it on jobs where we’re putting in molding and millwork, where sometimes you have paneled walls and paneled rooms, there’s a lot of wood movement that goes along in those spaces. And having a good like Big Stretch is a big deal because once you go through the hot Texas summer and a cold winter, you know, there’s a lot of wood movement that’s going on as the wood settles into the house.
So having a product like this means that we have fewer callbacks because it lasts a lot longer. It doesn’t show up like the cheap stuff that just kind of cracks and breaks apart. They’ve got an amazing product called Lexel, which is like a silicone-type product. It’s paintable. If you take a strip of Lexel versus a strip of silicone, if I pull the silicone, it snaps. If I do the same thing with Lexel, you’ll see, look how that stretches out. Right? It means it’s more expandable. We use it on our 100-year window we’re setting the glass and these things. We know that it’s not going to get stiff over time. It’s a much more expandable product. And it’s paintable. They also have, speaking of paintable, this exact color where you can actually take your car, take your paint, mix it together, and, you know, in some of those rooms like we were looking at for this video where you got the greens and the blues and those different colors, you know, having a paintable like that, you know, saves a lot of time. So these guys have thought through all that stuff. They’ve got stuff for mortar. They’ve got stuff for concrete. Sashco is an amazing company. I like being associated with them because they care about quality, and they’re really putting out a great product that makes us look better. This is the kind of product that is going to really help you sell that new house, old soul, the quality, the level of execution, all those great things that go into this type of house.