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Organization is key to cornice moldings

In the course of nearly 40 years of furniture making, I’ve made moldings and molded edges in just about every imaginable way. I’ve made them with a shaper and a router. I’ve made them with molding planes and bench planes. I’ve made them with a molding head on my table saw. I’ve even made moldings with the rip blade on that saw by feeding stock diagonally over the blade to produce a cove. I’ve made moldings with scratch stock. I’ve made them with a scraper (rounding an arris to create a radius). I’ve also made moldings by combining two or more of these fabrication methods by, for example, using a bench plane to reshape one side of a cove made on the table saw in order to change that cove into an ogee.

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Creating specific shapes is a straightforward process. Less straightforward — at least for me — is the process of deciding how these individual shapes could be combined to create moldings that are aesthetically coherent when installed, particularly when they are installed in complicated arrangements to form large cornice moldings.

Eventually, I realized my approach to this process had begun to organize itself in my mind without any conscious effort. At that point, I sat down at my computer to articulate my thinking so I could consciously make use of these ideas in organizing future cornice moldings.

Obviously, not all of the ideas in the following list apply to every problem in cornice molding design, and they certainly can’t be applied retroactively to every cornice molding found on classical period furniture. But they do provide me with a concrete method with which I can begin the process of bringing organization to the cornice moldings I construct for my period work.

Six suggestions
• Experiment with molding planes: These offer the cheapest and the most diverse vocabulary of shapes available to the modern craftsman. The number of molding-plane profiles available on eBay, from antique tool dealers and at mainstream antique events, is many times greater than the number of profiles offered by any modern vendor of router bits.

The hand plane approach probably isn’t workable in a production shop where economies of scale mandate a machine-based approach, but in a one-man shop like mine in which there is rarely a need for more than 8' or 10' of a particular profile, it can actually take less time to produce this short length of molding using hand planes than it would using machinery. This is because a molding plane requires no setup. There is no cutter to install because the cutter is always in the plane. There is no fence or depth stop to set because both are built into the plane’s sole.

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(This is true in the case of a dedicated molding plane, the iron of which is ground to the desired profile. If, however, I’m creating a period profile for which I don’t have a dedicated plane, the process is a little trickier, one requiring some drawing and the use of a variety of hollows, rounds and snipe bills: three types of molding planes created for such work. However, the process of using these planes is probably no more time-consuming than the process of grinding special knives for a machine molder.)

• When you’re creating a cornice molding for a specific piece, consider all the shapes made by the profiling tools at your disposal. I recently finished a Queen Anne highboy on which the molded edges of the drawer fronts were created with a router bit, while the waist and cornice moldings were fashioned with molding planes and — in the case of one small radius — with a bench plane.

• Keep molding samples stored beside each of your molding makers. I keep a 5" to 6" length of molding stored by each of the planes in my collection, identifying the profiles cut by each of these planes. These samples make it easy to mix and match shapes when devising a cornice molding.

• Consider repeating a profile in more than one location on a particular piece to unify that piece. In the case of the kas (or kast, a 17th century Dutch wardrobe) built recently, I used the same plane for one element in the cornice molding and for one element of the base molding.

• When designing a cornice molding, think of the cornice as having three sections, each of which might be made up of more than one shape. The top third should include a bold form along with one or two pleasing shadow lines. The bottom third should also include a pleasing clutter of shadow lines, and the middle third should be a wider and less cluttered transitional form. For example, a simple cove or ogee.

• When devising a cornice molding, the general arc of the molding’s profile should lead the eye down into the piece.

Applying the ‘frosting’
A wide cornice molding can be tricky to install because on the sides of the many cases (highboys, for example), the grain direction of the molding runs perpendicular to the grain direction of the material to which it’s attached. While moldings can be nailed to the case — in that manner avoiding the perils of cross-grain gluing — nail holes are unsightly.

I use a different method of attachment that allows me to sidestep cross-grain gluing without the filled holes indicating set nails (without also the risk inherent in swinging a hammer at finished moldings).

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Underneath the cornice molding, I attach a thin (about 1/4" thick) piece of wood wide enough to provide a backing for the entire width of the cornice molding. The grain of this backing material runs in the same direction as the grain of the molding I’ll later apply, which is perpendicular to the grain direction of the case side. At the front of the case, where the miters in the molding will meet, I’ll glue this thin strip to the case side, but along the rest of the backing material’s length, I’ll tack it to the side of the case with 10-15 small nails. I then glue (press-fitting for a 60 count) the elements of the cornice molding to this backing material.

The glue under the front 2" to 3" of the backing material keeps this material (and the moldings glued to its face) in place at the front of the case where the miters meet, while the nails fastening the rest of the backing material’s length allow cross-grain movement.

Sometimes I hide the full width of this backing material under the cornice molding. At other times, I cut a profile on the bottom edge of this backing strip, incorporating it into the cornice molding.

The language can be vexing
Molding maker terminology can be confusing. In part, this is a result of the inadequacy of language in the tricky business of providing accurate and useful nomenclature for often subtly different molding profiles. Consider planes for cutting beads, for example. The Sandusky Tool Co. catalog of 1925 lists a variety of “astragals” (planes for cutting semicircular beads with a fillet on either side). It also offers a number of “side-beads” and “center-beads”. “Side beads” are planes that produce a semicircular bead along the edge of a board, cutting a “quirk” (narrow groove) on one side of that bead to separate the bead from the adjacent stock. “Center beads” are unfenced planes designed to be used against a batten, in this way permitting the semicircular bead — set off by a quirk on either side — to be cut anywhere across the width of a board. The catalog also lists planes designed to cut “torus beads” (elliptical beads of less than 180 degrees) of several sizes. Things get even more complicated in the realm of the ogee shape, which is based on the cyma curve — one of the most important constructs in the field of moldings. The 1925 Sandusky catalog offers “common ogees,” “reverse ogees,” “Roman ogees,” “Grecian ogees,” as well as combinations of these like the “Roman reverse ogee.” And if that terminology isn’t confusing enough, during the heyday of the molding plane, there was disagreement among toolmakers about what term(s) should be used to identify a particular profile. For example, in the Edward Preston and Sons Ltd. tool catalog from 1909, the profile indicated as “scotia” in the 1925 Sandusky catalog is identified as “oveloe” (an English-ism for “ovolo”). And the disagreement was even more pronounced in the case of complex molding planes that united several different simple shapes on the same cutting edge. (In his book, “The Wooden Plane,” contemporary writer John Whelan offers a perfectly rational method by which the naming of molding planes can be standardized, which offers some hope for furniture makers and tool collectors who value these tools.) Even today, a term that means one thing to one toolmaker can mean something a little different to another. For example, the “ogee fillet” router bit currently offered by Amana Tools and the “ogee fillet” router bit sold by Rockler Tools have related, but not identical, profiles. Each features a small fillet above an ogee shape, but those ogee shapes are expressed in significantly different ways. The Amana version is narrow and compressed, while the Rockler version is wider and more expansive. This means that when you’re buying molding makers — whether those edge tools are planes or router bits or shaper cutters — it’s best not to rely too much on molding-maker terminology. Instead, before buying, look at the cutter itself and imagine the negative shape that cutter will produce.

 This article originally appeared in the December 2008 issue.

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