Nothing adds character and depth to a room faster than trim. If you live in a lovely antique home with gorgeous millwork trim, I’m jealous. If you don’t, you might be wondering - Can I add trim to my home? Isn’t that cheating?
Trim falls in the broad category of architectural millwork which encompasses anything visible made of wood built into or attached to the interior of a building..… and nowadays it isn’t necessarily even made of wood - some trim is made of MDF or even plastic. I try to avoid plastic unless there is a compelling reason to use it, but MDF can be perfectly viable.
Back to the question at hand, no it’s not cheating! It’s a smart and highly effective way to improve the bare bones builder grade finishes often found in spec homes. Trim is something often skimped on to keep costs down, but adding it makes a HUGE difference in the substance and feel of a space.
There are MANY places where the addition of trim can have great impact, but today we’ll concentrate on just two: Wainscoting and Bathroom Mirrors.
Wainscoting is wall paneling that goes only part way up a wall. It will include a baseboard or shoe molding piece where it meets the floor and a cap at the top. Sometimes this cap is called a chair rail, especially if it is at the height where a chair back might hit it. Chair rails had the practical use of protecting the wall from being banged into by moving chairs which is why they are so often found in dining rooms, but wainscoting can be used in any room and is a nice addition to stairways as well.
Wainscoting heights can be at 30”-36” or up high at 60” or above - it depends on the look you want and the height of your ceilings. Proportion is EVERYTHING and doing a lot of research on historically correct proportions or getting some advice from a design professional about your particular room is advised. Letting your contractor decide is generally not, as unless they are also a design professional, they are often more concerned with expediency than design. The single biggest error is placement to halfway up the wall. This bisects the room and unless there is a compelling reason, usually looks wrong.
Wainscoting can be created any number of ways including raised panel molding, bead board, board and batten, or picture frame molding used to create boxes. This last one is an easy shortcut to adding interest without replacing baseboards - the wall becomes part of the wainscoting and is painted the same trim color and finish. The image below is a powder room progress shot where space was very tight so we chose to add picture molding trim so we could add elegance while keeping the existing baseboard. The wainscoting, and crown molding along with new beautiful wallcovering, lighting and accessories transformed the space without changing the flooring or fixtures.
NOTE: while it should probably be obvious, the vertical members of the paneling are always perpendicular to the floor, NOT necessarily the baseboard or handrail, as that is angled on stairways. I came across this picture in a real estate listing. Epic fail on the stairway wainscoting. The second picture is colored to show what the right wainscoting and a little paint could do for this stairway…a vast improvement, no?
The image below shows the various elements that make up wainscoting. The profiles and proportions of each part can vary, of course, to achieve different looks and levels of formality, and some designs forgo the base and add just shoe molding to the bottom rail. But this is a good primer for the vocabulary of the parts.
Bathroom Mirror Millwork
Bathroom mirror/vanity walls are another area where spec builders tend to be lazy. I have seen houses listed at close to a million dollars where the builder has apparently lost steam, no pun intended, by the time they got to the bathrooms and just slapped a sheet of unframed plate mirror on the wall and topped it with a generic bathroom sconce. Seriously?
You use this room every day - multiple times a day - it deserves some attention! At the very least frame out the mirror with trim or replace it with a more decorative framed mirror. But this is a chance to add tremendous character. If you have space, you can add millwork around and crown above the mirror designed with spaces to mount the light fixtures as part of the whole design. Touch latch mirrored medicine cabinets can even be framed into the design as we did in these bathrooms. The side mirror conceals a cabinet, and the millwork was designed to seamlessly blend it into the mirror array in each bathroom.
Other Trim Options
Here are some of the other areas that might be well served by an upgrade:
Hollow core flat panel doors switched out to raised panel solid doors. If you want the look but not the cost, you can even find tutorials to DIY your hollow flat doors with the addition of picture frame molding to imitate better doors.
Anemic baseboards and 2 1/2” colonial casing around doors and windows that went in EVERY builder home in the 70’s and 80’s in our area…often stained dark brown. Blech. At a minimum, paint it. Beautiful stained woodwork in Victorian and Craftsman style houses can be gorgeous, but this stuff? in your ranch or builder colonial? not so much. If you have the budget, upgrade to more substantial trim. Even a very simple profile in a larger size is an improvement.
Ceiling lines. Add crown molding (or moulding if you speak the queen’s English!) - this is the stuff that goes at the top of the wall to the ceiling. Nearly every room can be improved with crown molding. NOTE: if you have one of those horrid popcorn ceilings, that will have to go first.
Fireplaces are another opportunity to add millwork detail that highlights this focal point in a room. Unless you are opting for a contemporary fireplace look with a stone facade and no millwork, you can create a surround, add pilasters, and beef up an undernourished mantel with trim and corbel brackets.
Add paneled walls to either whole rooms, or accent walls. There are a number of different styles of paneling. and trim options similar to those used fo create wainscoting except these span the whole wall rather than just a portion of it, and they need baseboard and crown molding trim to finish the bottom and top. Just like with wainscoting, picture frame moulding can create the appearance of paneled walls.