Updated — Originally Published December 26, 2011
One of the things I think always makes a home look beautiful is trim work.
It’s all about personal taste, of course – but I find the classic look of decorative carpentry design with rosettes, fluted casings and shadow boxes/wall frames always seem to carry a certain elegance, and when you have kids running around the house you absolutely have to temper this with low-maintenance design considerations as well. This project took a few weeks, but realistically the time required was about 5-7 hours each weekend for about a month. I went with white shadow boxes all sealed with 3 coats of high-quality semi-gloss paint. The single color and high gloss finish assure ease of maintenance.
Just one warning: This is a project for the patient – you do *not* want to rush and the more meticulous you are, the better. I had to drink a LOT of coffee to stay focused!
Naturally, you don’t need to do the construction yourself either – you can always find a high quality local contractor to help. But even if you do hire someone, it’s always best to know what the job entails.
In the summary that follows, I’ll describe the design considerations and try my best to show the project preparation and construction steps as clearly as possible with many photos. I’ll also provide specific links to tools and materials that I used myself (or that I regard highly) to try to take all the mystery out of this. Every project is somewhat different, of course, but this type of work is incredibly gratifying and can truly change the whole “feel” of your home.
Design First: Stairway Trim Molding & Shadow Box Ideas
Before beginning any construction, you absolutely need to have an end-vision in mind – which, personally, I often find particularly challenging. But that being said, let me start with three photos of the finished entrance and stairway.
I’m happy to say, this was precisely the end-look I sought out to achieve, after much research and consultation with my wife, naturally…
Look around on-line for more ideas, and it’s well-worth investing in a few high-end/glossy books as well: they’re not terribly expensive and can give some truly terrific insights. You’ll know what you like when you spot it. I used two of the following three myself:
- Trimwork: Ideas & How-To (Better Homes & Gardens)
- Architectural Trim: Ideas, Inspiration & Practical Advice
- 1001 Ideas for Trimwork
Preparing for Your Trim Work Construction
To start bringing your design to life, you now get to draw on your walls – which frankly, I really enjoy.
I began with a level line (be sure to use a high-end carpenter’s level) at 28″ spanning all horizontal areas. On the stairs, you need to measure up at various points, and draw a solid line which will ultimately be parallel to the rise of the stairs
Once you have the top of your work-area marked-out (which for me denotes bottom of the upper chair rail), get your stud-finder and mark out vertical lines clearly indicating each of the studs. Be careful to note the spacing; it should be pretty uniform – with extra studs in corners and near doorways. If something jumps out as “breaking this pattern,” it’s possible you’ve detected a pipe – and you have to be VERY careful not to put a nail into a pipe.
Call me anal-retentive if you like, but I drilled a 1/8-inch pilot hole (very carefully) where I expected each stud to be. When I hit wood, I knew I was Okay. If you expand the picture below, you’ll get a closer look at all of the markings…
Regarding base moldings – I chose to rip my old ones off the walls. You don’t have to do this, but I wanted a high base molding. So, above you can see a work area with the top line, the stud mark-outs and the base moldings removed.
After getting this all marked out and cleaned up (removing the base moldings will make a pretty big mess), it’s almost time to start construction.
But there’s some additional preparation that really should be done beforehand if at all possible…
When you purchase your material, you’ll have some or all of the following: base molding (which sits on the floor), cap molding (which builds out the bottom of the base molding), chair rail (which I used for the top) and then there’s the more specialized trim you buy to actually create your boxes and/or designs.
The main point: Once you have all of your materials at home and you know what’s going where – consider giving the top and bottom moldings two coats of paint before even starting to cut. It just makes the later painting a lot easier, where you’ll be worried about hitting the painted wall at the top and the flooring at the bottom.
Construction & Tools – Stair Trim and Shadow Boxes
It’s now time to get out your miter saw and start making some very precise cuts.
Can you use a miter box? I guess so, but this is going to be a highly aesthetic project in the end – and you really want your cuts to be as precise as possible.
I strongly recommend using a miter saw if at all possible. Cut in your base moldings and the top moldings – essentially framing-out the work space. I used a Porter-Cable 16 gauge finish nailer with 2-inch nails to attach to the studs, but you can also use a hammer and regular finishing nails – being sure to countersink each one. A finish nailer is one of those tools that can save you hours of tedious work, and it’s frankly fun to use.
I also applied a thin bead of caulk to the back of each piece to really hold tight to the walls. This is particularly important if your walls aren’t perfectly straight… like mine.
The stairs are definitely trickier than the horizontal areas – but again, just be as meticulous as possible and definitely don’t rush. If something comes out sloppy, rip it off and do it again.
Each of the countersinks should be filled with wood filler, and the miters should be finished this way as well. DO NOT use caulk for this as it will shrink. Use wood filler and sand it down after it dries to get the most precise look you can. It’s the details that make this project really come out nice.
Once all is framed out, it’s time to draw on the walls again – this time marking out guidelines for each of your boxes and perhaps even some fancier designs you may want to add. You’ll see for the stairs, I even outlined these boxes with masking tape. I wanted to be 100% sure I knew what this would look like when finished before I started the more complex cuts.
Now, the mitering gets really interesting – especially on the stairs. If you think stairs should be at a 45-degree angle, think again. Get a protractor and check explicitly. In my case, it was pretty close, but if memory serves, I had to deal with 41.5-degrees or something similarly ugly. Furthermore, the joints shown on the rise of the stairs are formed by both pieces of wood, each mitered partially. It’s tricky.
The way to do this is by testing on scraps and seeing how they line up on your guide lines. When you’re confident you have the miter saw set up properly, then make the real cuts and attach the moldings to the wall. Nail and sparsely caulk behind as before; if any caulk oozes out clean it meticulously.
Use wood filler on the nail holes and miters as necessary – and sand afterwards as well.
The following video shows the construction of a single shadow box, shot in my dining room – the miters are simpler (as it’s a nice rectangle), but the installation steps are identical:
I chose to do something a little fancy in a central box on the stairs.
You can see how I did this design – right on the wall again, and after the main boxes were all in place. To me, you need to be careful about overdoing it – but dressing up one focal area can really come out nice. There are accents (fancy wood designs) you can buy – but I chose to make a diamond out of a nice piece of decorative molding myself. This one diamond, designing and cutting – I would say easily took 2+ hours alone. (There’s actually a design etched into it and this had to match up as well.)
This is very slow and careful work!
When everything is finally on the walls, there’s one more step that I think makes a big difference. Don’t skip this. Get a brand new tube of caulk, cut the tip very fine and very carefully run a bead all along every piece of molding where it meets the wall. This really brings everything together, even though it seems very subtle. It essentially changes the work area from wood-on-walls to almost what appears to be a “custom paneling.” Not quite wainscoting, but a nice tight homogeneous look.
Trimwork Painting & Finishing Touches
Now, you’re finally ready to start the final painting – you can see a nice shot of the stairway work below right at this stage. Applying three coats of high-quality semi-gloss white paint is really no fun at all (at least not to me), but the finished project will make it worth it – and this is the home stretch.
Below are a few additional shots of some of the other final areas. These are worth a close look-over and as you really study the details of your project some of the other nuances you may notice:
- I added vertical fluted casing borders at the top of the stairs and entrance to the kitchen; I thought this sectioned-off those end-areas nicely.
- Having a coping saw handy is very useful for the base and cap moldings as you come to the corners of adjacent rooms. You may need to get creative here.
- You may find a chair rail, cap molding or base molding section sticks out a bit further when butt-up against an existing molding. (For example, this will almost surely be the case with your cap moldings when meeting up with existing doorway casings.) Miter the new moldings at 45-degrees to interface cleanly. In reality, this is a “fix” – but frankly I think it looks great. Look carefully at the first picture just below, and you’ll see clear examples of this…
I’d be particularly interested to hear any comments or thoughts on this topic – as some folks are true artists when it comes to decorative trim work, shadow boxes, wainscoting & pilasters. This is one of those areas where you’re truly limited only by imagination and creativity. Even the color schemes can be amazingly elaborate.
Any other shadow box ideas or trim work design suggestions that anyone can share below?