A Well-Trimmed House

Baseboard, Molding and Other Finishing Touches

Over the years, houses tend to see a lot of changes. My own dwelling appears to have begun life as a double shotgun, with each unit running from front to back. At some point, the dividing line shifted 90 degrees, with one apartment in the front and another in the back. Today, it is a single-family home.

Through those radical renovations, there were ample opportunities to screw up the original craftsman-era molding. But the carpenters who worked on the house were generally good stewards, replicating the unique crowns over the doorways where needed and preserving a look throughout that is appropriate for the style of the house.

Recently, I had the chance to chat with my old friend Duane Arbo on this topic. Arbo has been a finish carpenter since the 1990s and currently serves as a construction superintendent for K.B. Kaufmann & Co. in Slidell. Over the years, he has run molding in more than 150 houses across St. Tammany Parish. Here’s a man who knows how to finish a house.

Arbo has spent most of his work hours on new construction sites, setting and trimming doors; running baseboards, chair rails, wainscoting and molding; hanging cabinets; finishing staircases; and building columns, archways, transoms, decorative supports, bookshelves, mantels and entertainment centers. Arbo’s work essentially entails taking the steps in a residential job to transform it from a construction site into a home.

But in recent years, due to the economic slowdown, more of his trim work has fallen into the remodeling arena. And that’s a more complicated game.

“When you start from scratch, you can do almost anything,” he says. “Retrofitting can be harder and can cost a lot more.”

Unfortunately, Arbo says, some people make it more complicated than it needs to be. Chronic do-it-yourselfers, in particular, can get out of their league. They set unrealistic completion dates and do work out of sequence.

Aesthetic issues also come into play. In the old neighborhoods of Abita Springs, Covington and Mandeville, for instance, the molding ought to pay tribute to the era in which the house was built. 

“If you live in a historic area, you have to do things in a certain way,” Arbo says. In a historic renovation, Arbo usually suggests sticking with the original trim. And whether the home is historic or brand-new, he says mixing moldings is a no-no. The style of molding should generally stay consistent throughout the house.

Proportions are critical, as well. For instance, Arbo recommends against tall baseboards and large crown molding in rooms with 8-foot ceilings. But rooms with 12-foot ceilings might benefit from large crowns so the room doesn’t dwarf its molding.

Then there’s the question of how flashy the finish work should be. Here’s where Arbo says some homeowners need to keep their decorators on a leash. Homeowners sometimes “let decorators talk them into something they don’t want.”

The result often costs more and doesn’t look good, Arbo says.  He recommends keeping the design of the woodwork simple and the color of the molding straightforward. The effect should be graceful, not distracting.

One question to consider is what to paint and what to stain. Although it was once popular, Arbo says staining baseboards and molding is “kind of a thing of the past.” But one of his favorite looks is a stained door against white trim.

Staining trim work, such as doors, mantels and built-in bookshelves, opens up the questions of what is the right wood and what is the right stain. If you’re using birch, mahogany or oak, for instance, you might select a stain that brings out the grain. Of course, “the more expensive woods are the prettier ones in terms of staining,” Arbo says.

At the other end of the trim material spectrum is MDF, or medium-density fiberboard. This manufactured wood composite has become popular for baseboards and molding because it cuts easily, it comes pre-primed and it’s cheap.

Regardless of whether you splurge or go cheap or whether you want something elegant or something Spartan, Arbo cautions against amateurs taking on trim work. He says it is a more involved process than most people realize. He recommends educating yourself on the appropriate look for your house but hiring a professional trim carpenter to do the handiwork. Years from now, someone living in your house will be grateful for it.
 

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