How to Transform a Room with Crown Molding

Create a new look in a room by installing crown molding to bridge the gap between walls and ceiling.


+ enlarge image Crown molding bridges the junction between walls and ceiling.

You don't have to move walls to create a new look for a room. Thankfully, you can dramatically alter a decor by working with much more manageable details: moldings and trim. Along with paint color and window treatments, moldings represent the simplest way to add style and definition to any room.

Crown molding bridges the junction between walls and ceiling, a prominent location where the architectural accent can shine.

Home centers offer a variety of premilled molding materials. For the pure traditionalist, or if you plan to stain the trim, the solid wood trim available in many species is the best choice, albeit a more expensive one. If paint will cover your molding, consider finger-jointed wood, wood composite, or urethane trims to lower costs.

Urethane molding trim offers additional flexibility: It's lighter weight, can be installed with just construction adhesive, and generally allows you to use heftier profiles.

Custom milling can be done by local woodworking shops, but going this route will add quite a bit to your costs, especially if the shop has to custom design a cutting blade for the profile you want.

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Proven standard techniques and arrangements for moldings provide an endless array of design possibilities.

See our tips below with basic guidelines for the best results.

+ enlarge image This crown was created from four pieces of stock molding.
  • Keep a consistent scale from floor to ceiling. Although it's tempting to install an impressive wide crown molding and skimp on the base or casings, molding sizes should be balanced throughout the room.
  • Think ornate and layered for more formal or traditional looks; contemporary styles are best achieved with fewer, simpler profiles.
  • Never assume that two surfaces meet at a true 90-degree angle; adjust cut angles to eliminate gaps.
  • Invest in the proper tools to get good results; molding requires precise cuts regardless of the style or type. As a general rule, painted moldings make it easier to camouflage imperfect fits. Make practice cuts on some short sacrificial stock before you cut the longer pieces
  • Use corner pieces, plinth blocks, and other transition pieces where possible. They make for simpler installation than miter cuts, and joints tend to stay closed despite seasonal changes in humidity.

Here are the tools you'll need to cut and install molding. If some are too pricey to buy, pick them up as needed at a rental center.

Tools:

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  • Paintbrushes
  • Pencil
  • Electric miter saw or a miter box and hand-held saw
  • Tape measure
  • Stud finder
  • Coping saw with spare blades
  • Small flat and round files
  • Fine-grit sandpaper
  • Drill
  • Hammer
  • Nail set
  • Pneumatic finish nailer with air compressor (optional, but very helpful in place of the hammer and nail set listed above; available at rental stores)
  • Putty knife
  • Caulking gun (for painted moldings only)

Materials:

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  • Paint or stain and sealer
  • Finishing nails
  • Extra blocks for practice cuts of similar pieces
  • Patching compound or wood filler
  • Caulk
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When it comes to installing moldings, there's no substitute for learning-by-doing. Still, it helps to have a working knowledge before you get started.

If you're making your first attempt at installing crown molding, start with something simple -- a modest-size room with only four walls and square corners. Here are the standard steps to follow.

1. Take rough measurements. Measure the width of each wall along the ceiling. Remember that moldings may be sold in standard lengths, so purchase the size that requires the fewest joints for your room.

2. Prefinish the molding. Paint or seal, stain, and varnish the molding before installing; let it dry.

3. Locate concealed framing. Moldings should be nailed to studs or ceiling joists rather than directly to the drywall, so scan the walls and ceiling with a stud finder, and make light pencil marks (or mark with blue painter's tape) to indicate the studs and joists. Mark a few inches away from the wall-ceiling joint so you can still see your marks after you put the molding in place and need to nail it up.

4. Determine the installation sequence. Work from one point around the perimeter of a room. That way, you'll have only one closer piece that must fit precisely against adjacent moldings on each end. Generally it's a good idea to begin in an inconspicuous corner such as over the entry door to the room.

5. Decide on the type of corner joint you need. When two molding pieces meet at an outside corner, use miter cuts (cutting the pieces at 45-degree angles) at the meeting end of each. When moldings meet at an inside corner, irregular wall surfaces usually create a poor fit if you use mitered ends. Instead, cut one molding with a square end and the other with an inside 45-degree miter.

Then use a coping saw to cut along the contoured edge of the mitered molding removing the exposed end-grain stock. File and sand the cut until the contour fits snugly against the adjacent molding. Use extra blocks of molding to practice first, and make repeated test fits and trim cuts until you get it right. Touch up with caulk and paint or stain after you finish.

+ enlarge image Splice long runs of molding in as inconspicuous a place as possible.

6. Start driving, slowly. Nail each piece in place, but don't countersink the nails yet. If you are power-nailing with a pneumatic nailing gun, drive in only enough nails to hold the molding securely. That way you can remove molding with little or no damage to the pieces if needed.

TIP: If you're using a large crown molding, install a hidden nailer strip behind it to provide more surface area to nail into.

7. Splice long runs. When a long wall forces you to create a joint between two pieces of molding, cut a scarf joint (overlapping 45-degree beveled ends) for a less conspicuous joint. The exception for this is large crown molding. Making angled cuts in this stock is difficult, so pieces will likely fit better with square cuts butted against each other creating a butt joint. If possible, always start by precision-cutting one end of the molding and leaving the other end about 1/4 inch too long, then position it in place to mark the precise length to cut.

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8. Tidy up the details. After all molding pieces are fitted properly, finish driving and countersinking the nails. For nails near ends, drill pilot holes to prevent splitting the wood. Fill nail holes with wood filler or patching compound, then sand. Use caulk or wood filler for small gaps at corners. Touch up nail holes and corners with paint or stain.

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