Why Old Homes Have Thin Wall Molding Installed a Foot From the Ceiling

If you live in an old home, especially one built prior to World War II, you may have a thin piece of stock molding…

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If you live in an old home, especially one built prior to World War II, you may have a thin piece of wood molding that sits a bit below the ceiling.

Not as showy as crown molding, this thin strip is known as picture rail and it has a very utilitarian function.

So what exactly is picture rail?

Traditionally, picture rail is about 2-inches wide and is installed to run horizontally along the wall. Picture rails in an old home are especially popular in parts of the South and New England and are designed to hold a picture rail hook. These hooks were used to hang artwork and mirrors without damaging the wall.

Psst—speaking of old homes, did you know some of them have beds in the ceiling?

How to use a picture rail

While picture rails aren’t designed to hold heavy loads such as flat-screen televisions, art collectors can use the picture rail to hang favorite works of art. Just be sure to use picture rail hooks, not nails or other picture hanging hardware.

A benefit to using the picture rail to hang art in an old home is that you can easily shorten or lengthen the wire on the back of each picture to adjust the height. Also, you don’t need to hunt for a stud, potentially damaging the wall. A picture rail also makes it easy to swap out art for a new look.

Want to add a picture rail?

While the picture rail is generally found in old homes with plaster walls, you can add one for little money and with little effort. Just look for a piece of trim 1.5- to 2-inches wide and purchase enough to go around your room. Make sure you install the picture rail evenly parallel to the ceiling and attach it to studs so it’s strong enough to hold some weight.

Rachel Brougham
Rachel Brougham lived through a major home renovation in 2019, knows the ups and downs of home improvement, and loves sharing tips with readers. A veteran journalist of both print and television, she’s won several awards for her writing and has covered everything from the environment and education to health care, politics and food. She’s written for several publications beyond newspapers including Bob Vila, Taste of Home and Minnesota Parent, and she currently writes a weekly syndicated newspaper column. Her memoir, Widowland, about the sudden loss of her husband, was published in 2022. She specializes in everything from home decor and design to lawn and garden, product reviews and pet care. When she’s not writing, you can usually find her tending to her garden (both vegetables and native plants), playing with her dog, watching sports with her family or getting some exercise. A native of Michigan, she currently lives in Minneapolis. An avid user of Instagram, you can follow her @RachBrougham.