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Installing chair and picture rails

MATERIALS: Chair or picture rail, primer or varnish, finish color, wood putty, caulk, finishing nails

TOOLS: Paintbrush, level, tape measure, power miter saw or handsaw and miter box, stud finder, electric drill, hammer, nail set, caulking gun

BUY FROM THE SAME BUNDLE - Buy molding from the same bundle to make sure the pieces are as identical as possible. The molding profile changes as the cutters wear down. Make finishing nails less conspicuous by driving them at an angle into a crevice in the profile.

Chair and picture rails dress up a room and help define period and style. Originally used to protect plaster walls from damage, chair and picture rails also establish a border between two different wall treatments, such as a wallpapered lower section and a painted upper section. Chair rails also provide a transition between paneling below and paint or wallpaper above. Even if a chair rail isn’t intended to be functional, it should still be placed at a height that will protect the wall from damage from chair backs. Depending on the chairs in a room, the rail should be placed between 32 and 36 inches from the floor. Adjust the height as necessary to avoid awkward meetings with the bottom of window frames, as well as to suit rooms with ceilings that are unusually high or low.

Picture rails are usually installed from 10 to 16 inches below the ceiling line, depending on the height of the wall. Follow the same procedures for installing picture rails as you would for chair rails. Picture rails should be mounted securely to the wall whether they are intended to carry the weight of hanging objects or to be used as purely decorative elements. Chair rails protect wallpaper and paint from damage done when the back of a chair slides against the wall. Picture rails can be used for hanging pictures or as a decorative detail. You can apply any combination of paint and/or wallpaper you choose above and below the chair rail.

Installing picture rails - Picture rails protect walls as chair rails do. They allow pictures and other objects to be hung without hammering nails into the wall, and they add visual interest or historical pedigree to a room. Picture rails have a cove along the top edge to hold specialized hardware from which pairs of wires descend to support pictures. If the trim is purely decorative it can be nailed in place. If it will be used to hang pictures, however, screw it to the studs, countersink the screws, cover them with putty, and paint or stain to match the rail.

WHAT YOU SEE IS WHAT YOU GET - When installing molding around a room, lay it out so that you start and end in the least conspicuous corner, such as above the entrance door. It will be easier to hide small errors.

LEVEL ALL AROUND THE ROOM - Use your level to check that the layout line on one wall is level with the layout line on the abutting wall. Start a couple of feet from the corner and put one end of the level on the line. Put the other end of the level on the line on the other wall. It's OK that only the ends of the level touch the wall. If you get a level reading, the lines are level. If not, redraw one of the lines.

1 PRIME THE RAIL. To prevent warping, paint, stain, or varnish both sides of the rail before installing it. If you plan to finish the trim after it is nailed on, apply a coat of finish to the back now.

2 DRAW A LAYOUT LINE. Determine the height of the rail. Mark the wall at that height, and use a level to extend a horizontal line for the top edge of the rail.

3 MAKE MITER CUTS AT CORNERS. Moldings with simple profiles can meet at 45-degree miter joints for both inside and outside corners. Complex moldings meet better at inside corners if joints are coped.

4 MAKE SQUARE CUTS AT DOOR AND WINDOW CASINGS. At doors and windows, end the molding with a square cut. If the molding is thicker than the casings, make a transition by cutting a bevel on the portion that protrudes. Along walls that can't be spanned with a single length of rail, scarf two or more pieces.

5 NAIL THE CHAIR RAIL. Locate the studs with a stud finder or by tapping a nail through the wall where the holes will be concealed by the trim. Hold the chair rail in place and transfer the stud locations to the rail. Drill pilot holes at each mark and attach the molding with finishing nails. Countersink the nails, putty the holes, and smooth outside corners by sanding the exposed edges.

Cutting molding returns - In most rooms, moldings go along the wall and end when they run into door or window trim. The termination looks neat and clean. But what do you do if there’s no trim on the door or window? Or what if the molding is thicker than the trim it meets, leaving the end of the thicker molding partially exposed?

Sometimes you can solve the problem by rounding the end over with sandpaper or by slightly beveling the exposed end. Professional carpenters, however, handle this situation by cutting what's called a molding return. A return is a small mitered piece that allows the profile to turn (or return) back to the wall, much the way it wraps around an outside corner. This eliminates abrupt endings and exposed end grain.

1 CUT A 45-DEGREE MITER ON THE MOLDING THAT RUNS ALONG THE WALL. Cut it a bit short of the door or window. Nail the molding in place.

2 CUT ANOTHER 45-DEGREE OUTSIDE MITER ON A SCRAP PIECE THAT WILL MATE WITH THE ONE ALREADY CUT. When fit together, they will form a 90-degree angle. Make a square cut as shown above that frees just the mitered section of molding from the rest of the stock.

3 DAB WHITE OR YELLOW GLUE ONTO THE MATING SURFACES AND PRESS THE PIECE INTO PLACE. Do not use a nail. Hold it for a few seconds or wrap masking tape around it until the glue sets. Lightly sand as necessary to clean the joint.

TUNING UP A POWER MITER SAW - Having spent a few bucks on a miter saw, you may think it's ready to plug in and use. And it may be. But it also may have spent a few weeks getting jostled during shipping. The saw that was perfectly aligned in the factory may now be slightly out of whack. If so, the problem is easy to fix, but do so before you begin your first project. Start by unplugging the saw and removing the guards so that you can get to the blade.

Put a speed square between the fence and the body of the saw blade. (Speed squares are the triangular ones that carpenters use and are more reliable than combination squares because they have no moving parts.) Turn the saw blade, or push the saw down slightly, so that the square isn't resting against any saw teeth. If you see a gap between the saw fence and the square anywhere along the length of the square, your saw is out of alignment and needs to be adjusted. The details vary from saw to saw, but it's usually a matter of adjusting a couple of screws. Check your owner's manual for exact directions.

If you have a compound miter saw, you'll also have to check the relationship between the saw blade and the saw bed: Is the saw cutting straight up and down? Put the square on the bed of the saw and slide it gently against the saw blade, turning the blade so the square doesn't hit any teeth. If any gaps exist between the saw and the square, you'll need to adjust the stop that holds the saw in position. Follow the directions in your owner's manual. Once you've made any necessary adjustments, set the saw to 45 degrees and check against the sloping side of the square. Adjust the stops as necessary.

Coping a chair rail

MATERIALS: Chair rail, patching compound

TOOLS: Power miter box or miter box and miter saw, tape measure, pencil, clamps, coping saw and blades, round file, utility knife

Originally designed to protect plaster walls from damage, chair and picture rails give a room a colonial, Victorian or even a Mission look, depending on the molding you choose. Whatever you select, the temptation when running molding around a room is to miter it. But if the room is out of square, if there is a buildup of drywall compound in the corners, or if the moldings are slightly different thicknesses, you’ll get a gap that putty will only begin to fix. Worse yet, even a perfect joint will develop gaps when dry winter weather causes the wood to shrink.

Cope joints, in which you cut one joint to nest against the profile of another, are the only joints that will solve these kinds of problems. No joint is perfect so carpenters install molding in a certain order for the easiest and best-looking job. Start on the wall opposite the door (1) and install a piece that’s square at both ends. This presents tire best (and easiest to cut) side of the joint to anyone entering the room. The molding on the second wall (2) is coped where it meets the installed molding and square where it meets the other wall. The third wall (3) is treated the same way. The fourth wall (with the door) will have to be coped on both ends but it’s the wall where tiny mistakes will be less noticeable.

1 CUT A MITER. Start with a piece of molding a few inches longer than final length, and cut a miter in it as if you were mitering an inside corner.

2 FOLLOW THE OUTLINE WITH A COPING SAW. The miter reveals a crisp profile of the molding. Cut along the profile, creating a socket that fits over the face of a similar piece of molding. Angle the saw as you cut, creating a gentle point that will be the only part of the joint to touch the neighboring molding.

3 CLEAN UP AND TEST THE CUT. File the coped cut to clean up the profile. Check the joint by fitting it against a cutoff. Look for gaps, then sand and file high spots for a good fit. Once the fit is right, cut the molding to length by cutting the uncoped end square, and nail the molding in place. Proceed around the room in the order described above, cutting and coping as needed.

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