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Architectural Trim


You recognize it as soon as you enter the door: the house that exudes character. But what are the defining qualities of such a home?

Part of the equation would have to be the architectural details of the interior. It’s what makes historic houses so appealing with their bold molding, their cozy wainscoting, and inviting doorways.

“Trim immediately defines the space and how it’s supposed to feel. Without it, it’s a blank canvas,” says Vincent Tague, president of Tague Lumber, which specializes in creating trim and moldings of all kinds.

Custom home designers lavish a lot of attention on this kind of detail. Yet many of today’s homes have only minimal molding. A quick inventory of the rooms in your home will reveal how your trim measures up. Here’s how the professionals use this design element to create dimension and interest in a room.

A balance of form and function

If you hand a piece of trim to an architect, he might tell you when the house was built, the design of the house, the scale of the room and whether the molding was machine made or hand-crafted.

“Architects think of moldings as being an integral part of the house,” says Kennett Square architect Wayne Simpson. The style and size of the house guide the trim choices, but it’s more than just a decoration.

“Trim is functional,” Simpson says. “It covers the joints between dissimilar materials—wall to floor, wall to ceiling, and wall to doors. Chair rails were originally used to protect plaster walls when chairs were pushed back from the table.”

Architects use trim to manage how we experience a space. Scale is a key consideration. “As a room gets larger, one would expect moldings to be larger and more ornate,” says Simpson, who partners with his wife, Colleen, an interior designer, in designing custom homes.

Trim: what it is

Trimwork encompasses all the woodwork that is part of a room: baseboards, door and window trim, chair rails, and crown molding at the ceiling. Items such as built-in bookcases, mantels, and wainscoting are also categorized as trim. Trim options are endless—just Google “architectural trim” or, even better, visit a home store or lumber yard. Tague Design Showroom in Malvern has a huge selection with displays of trim and moldings grouped by style. Moldings come in lots of standard “profiles”—the three-dimensional design cut in the face of the wood. Samples of each are available to take home and try out in place.

Last year's Oxford Arts Alliance show house featured generous amounts of trim.

“We have over 500 designs in stock. And we can match any historic molding,” says Tague, whose great-grandfather started the family-owned company with a lumber yard in 1908. Today their mill shop supplies custom trim for some of Philadelphia’s most historic structures.

Tague says they opened the Design Showroom two years ago so that homeowners, architects, and builders could choose everything from doors and windows to kitchen designs under one roof. But lumber and millwork remain the company’s core business. “History and architecture play a big part in the type of molding you put in your home. It’s my favorite part of the business,” adds Tague.

If you want to re-create the mantel in your grandmother’s Victorian living room, the Design Center’s millwork specialists are on hand to guide you. They can help you match or complement existing trim as well.
The crafting of an elaborate molding has changed dramatically thanks to computer technology. Hand drawings were still being done for custom work when Chris Kelly became manager of Tague’s mill shop 11 years ago. Now they scan molding designs and then custom-grind steel knives that cut the raw wood into a finished trim profile.

“It’s very precise,” Kelly says. “We can make anything—a lot of what we do is one-of-a-kind.”

One trend gaining wider acceptance is the use of engineered wood, a wood-based fiberboard, for applications such as wainscoting. Instead of creating a wainscoting panel with separate pieces of wood, a computerized CNC router cuts a fiberboard blank into a solid panel with raised design. Kelly says the painted, finished product looks virtually identical to the millwork version and costs less.

A Stylish Past

Photo courtesy of Home Trim Moldings.

What makes trim such a dynamic decorating tool is its style. Volumes have been written about the beautiful designs created by craftsmen who raised trimwork to an art form. Think of Victorian houses with their fanciful trim designs. Or the classical proportions of 18th-century Philadelphia houses with their intricately carved interior trim. And thanks to the 19th-century Greek Revival period, we have towns such as West Chester where banks and civic buildings look like Greek temples.

“Molding profiles are very specific to the era,” says Wayne Simpson, who also does historic restorations. If the style of your home is Colonial Revival, then the trim is most likely of that design.

When adding trim to your home, you need to take into account the existing trim. If you are a purist, go with a trim that matches or complements the architectural style of your home. If your heart is set on a Victorian mantel as the focal point in a minimalist contemporary setting, make sure the scale and size do not overwhelm the room.

Be Inspired by the Best

Armed with your knowledge of trim basics, it’s time to go see the real thing. Private home tours and house museums are wonderful sources for ideas. Visit Nemours in Wilmington, the houses in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, or revisit Independence Hall to see how the millwork is integral to the room and building design.

The architectural detail gives new meaning to trimming the tree. Photo courtesy of Winterthur.

One of the great connoisseurs of architectural detail was Henry Francis du Pont, who transformed the family home Winterthur into a museum. He set the stage for his furniture collection by salvaging and preserving some of America’s most distinctive architectural interiors in the rooms of Winterthur. Touring the rooms provides a lesson in how American interiors evolved from the 17th to the 19th centuries.

Sandy Brown of Winterthur Design Associates says she continually walks through the museum when working on design projects. “It inspires me every day,” she says. Some of the millwork designs in the museum are licensed for reproduction or adaptive use.

Brown says the architectural trim should be one component of a total design. She quotes Henry F. du Pont’s approach to decorating: “No one element should stand out when you walk into a room, your eye should see the room as a whole.”