Tip 1: Combine moldings for extra drama
I've installed miles of trim over the years, most of it in old
houses, where I've encountered every conceivable shape,
size and combination of molding. I've learned a lot in the
process, but I'm still discovering new tools and techniques that
make trim work faster, easier and better. Here are a few tips—some classic techniques and some with a modern twist—that'll
help you do a better job on your next trim project.
I love looking around old houses to see how moldings
are combined to create baseboards, casings and cornices.
I've even been surprised when removing old
moldings to discover more layers than I originally
noticed. The builders knew the advantages of combining
small moldings. In addition to allowing endless
possibilities for customization, smaller moldings are
easier to cut and install than large moldings, and
allow more flexibility on wavy or irregular walls.
Plus, you can often achieve a great effect for less
money by combining small moldings. I made the decorative
ceiling cornice shown above using moldings I
found at a home center.
The best way to plan molding combinations is to
get your hands on some short lengths of molding and
play around with them. Many full-service lumberyards
have molding samples available. At home centers,
you may have to purchase short lengths of each
molding you're considering, or ask for scraps.
Tip 2: Inspect before you buy
Moldings can vary quite a bit in looks and quality, so
it pays to examine them closely when you're picking
them out. It's not as critical if you're installing trim
that will be painted, but for stained moldings, there
are several things to watch for. Make sure moldings
that will be close to each other have a similar grain
pattern and that the wood is about the same tone (Photo 1).
Chatter from shaper blades is another common problem
to pay attention to (Photo 2). Although you can't avoid
chatter marks entirely, choosing moldings carefully
can keep them to a minimum and significantly reduce
your sanding time. Also watch out for “snipe,” gouge
cuts near the end of the molding that are caused by
the molding machine. That 10-ft. stick of molding you
need may not give you a full 10 ft. of usable molding.
Tip 3: Put the pinch on miter joints
I recently ordered four miter clamps and a special pliers-type tool to install them and am amazed at how
well they work. These handy little clamps are basically
bent spring steel with sharp points that grab the
moldings and squeeze them together. They're perfect
for holding small pieces of mitered trim together while
the glue dries and for clamping crown molding miters
while you pin them together. They're also great for picture
frame assembly. Our clamps are from Collins Tool
; about $29 for the four
clamps and special pliers), but other brands are available.
Search online for “miter clamps.”
Tip 4: Spice up your project with reveals
Like every other rule, this one has many exceptions.
But in general, when I'm combining moldings, or
adding moldings to plain boards, I offset the parts so
that the edges aren't perfectly aligned. The exposed
band of molding or board is called a “reveal.” Creating
reveals has two big advantages. First, it allows a bit of
flexibility, since the two edges don't have to be perfectly
aligned. Second, reveals look better in most situations.
The typical method of creating a reveal is to set
back the edge of the molding from the edge of the
board as shown here. However, an equally effective
method is to allow the molding to protrude. Some
reveals are set by tradition. Door and window casings,
for example, are usually moved about 3/16 in. from
the edge of the jamb. In other cases, you'll have to
trust your eye to determine the right amount.
Tip 5: Attach small parts with super glue
Mitered returns are tough to attach. They're
usually too small to nail unless you have a
micro pinner. I've tried attaching small parts
with wood glue, but often the moisture from
the glue causes the thinnest part of the trim to
warp before the glue dries. Here's a tip I learned from a trim carpenter. Get
some cyanoacrylate adhesive (CA) and activator, also known as “super
glue.” You may be able to find a kit of CA that contains an activator at
home centers, but a sure source is a woodworking store like Rockler. Go to
and search for “super glue” to find a wide variety. I like the
medium-body CA. Spread a thin layer of CA on one piece of the molding
and activator on the other. Then just press and hold for a few seconds. It
works like magic, forming a strong bond unbelievably fast.
No Framing—No Problem
Once in a while, you may need to
attach moldings where there's no
framing behind the drywall to
nail into. For example, if you're
making frames on your wall out of
moldings, it's likely that one of
the vertical moldings won't have
a stud behind it. The solution is to
apply a thin bead of panel adhesive
or construction adhesive and
then tack the molding to the wall
with a nail gun. For a better grip,
shoot a pair of nails next to each
other and at opposite angles so
they form a wedge. If nails alone
won't hold the molding, press it
tight with 1x2s wedged against
the opposite wall or the ceiling to
hold it until the adhesive dries.
Tip 6: Use nearly invisible nails
I was talking to John Frost, a local cabinetmaker,
about how he installs moldings. After giving me a
bunch of good tips, he said, “And of course you know
about micro pinners.” Actually, I didn't. John
explained that a micro pinner is a finish nail gun that
shoots super-thin 23-gauge pins. He uses a micro pinner
because the small-diameter pins leave smaller
holes that are almost invisible after you fill them.
Plus, the tiny pins allow him to nail very small parts
without splitting them as thicker pins might.
There are several brands of micro pinners ranging
in cost from $120 to $330. The more expensive models
drive pins up to 2 in. long. You'll find micro pinners
at home centers and online.
Tip 7: Add an auxiliary fence
I asked a cabinetmaker friend if he ever adds a fence
to his miter saw, and he said, “Absolutely, always”
An auxiliary fence has several advantages. It reduces
the gap under and behind the molding to only what's
needed for the blade to fit through. The small gap
helps prevent splintering on the back of the board and
keeps small cutoffs from dropping through the fence
and getting flung by the blade. You can also use the
saw kerfs in the fence to help you line up your cut.
An auxiliary fence needs to be accurate but not
fancy. I like to build fences from MDF because it's
straight, stable and inexpensive. Another good choice
is 3/4-in. plywood. Make the back of the fence as tall as
possible without letting it interfere with the motor
housing or blade guard. If you need several short pieces
cut to the same length, make the fence long enough so
you can attach a stop. Be sure the bottom and back are
exactly perpendicular and that you don't put fasteners
where the blade will cut. If you own a plate joiner, use
glue and biscuits to join the back and bottom—no need
to worry about hitting fasteners. Attach the auxiliary
fence with screws through your miter saw fence.
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Tip 8: Create original designs with SketchUp, a computer program
For this article, I worked on SketchUp, a drawing program from Google, to
design a fireplace mantel and simple wainscot and window trim. I used
moldings that I found at a home center and a local full-service lumberyard.
The SketchUp model and some of the building details are shown here. I've
been dabbling in SketchUp for a few years but still have plenty to learn.
What I like best about this versatile 3-D drawing program is how quickly
you can learn the basics and create useful drawings. You'll be drawing 3-D shapes in minutes, and be able to draw a simple bookcase with a few
hours' practice. I use SketchUp routinely to design sheds, build bookcases
or just work out a tricky building detail.
Get a copy of SketchUp by going to sketchup.google.com. Then click on
“Download Google SketchUp.”
Marble and wood mantel and surround
DIY Success StoryI built a new mantel and surround for the fireplace in my
den. I decided to combine a number of different design
ideas and customize it exactly as I wanted it. I used marble
tile, various size pine boards and several types of molding,
all from my local home center. The total cost was less than
$500. FYI, I'm not a professional woodworker or builder.
— Allan Shaw