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The Moulding Maze: How to Shop for Trim

Back about a dozen years ago, shopping for trim was a cinch. You’d walk into a lumberyard or building centre and your choice of moulding material was pretty much limited to finger-jointed pine and some clear stain-grade wood. You knew how many feet you needed, paid the cashier, loaded the pick up and were gone (after dawdling in the power tool department, natch).

Now time-jump to the present, and the mouldings aisle at your local outlet is a brave new world of alternative materials. Advances in technology, concern over the supply of wood and higher prices for real wood products have spurred the development of more man-made alternatives. There’s medium-density fibreboard (MDF). Polyurethane foam. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Paper, vinyl or wood-veneer. Gypsum. Even a Canadian-invented moulding that’s so new, the inventors aren’t sure what to call it. And, of course, traditional wood mouldings are still in great demand.

The choice of materials alone is enough to confuse. Then there’s the choice of styles. What you see at your building centre is only a small fraction of what’s produced. A wood moulding catalogue published by the U.S.-based Wood Molding and Millwork Producers Association lists the most popular standard profiles and sizes, with almost 200 different mouldings. SierraPine Moulding, a California MDF moulding manufacturer, claims to have more than 500 different styles and sizes available. Amble into a specialty moulding outlet, such as The Royal Wood Shop Ltd. in Aurora, Ont., and the mind boggles.

But relax. We’re going to walk you through the modern moulding maze.

Paint Grade vs. Stain Grade

Your first consideration is whether your moulding is intended to be painted or stained. Stain-grade mouldings are usually a high-grade wood. This category commonly includes mahogany, oak, maple, cherry, and clear pine. Another option is a quality wood-veneer moulding, with the veneer wrapped around MDF, finger-jointed pine or other low-grade wood mouldings.

Paint-grade mouldings, on the other hand, are expected to be covered up with paint, so they’re made from a wider variety of materials than stain-grade trim, including finger-jointed pine, American poplar, MDF, gypsum, PVC and some of the veneers.

Understandably, stain grade mouldings generally cost more than paint-grade. A 5/8” X 4-1/4” Colonial baseboard in paint-grade American poplar costs [$1.73] per foot at Royal Wood Shop; the equivalent in cherry is [$6.46], or [373%] more expensive. But paint-grade isn’t always cheaper. Polyurethane and gypsum mouldings, for example, can cost more than some stain-grade materials. Style and ease of installation, as well as price, will affect your choice of moulding.

Stain-Grade Wood

Elegant rooms in fine homes often declare themselves with beautiful wood mouldings. Oak, cherry and maple are the popular hardwoods, with sales of maple increasing in recent years, says Betsy Rowe, general manager of Royal Wood Shop, a manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer of wood mouldings. Stain-grade clear and knotty pine are also available. Most of Rowe’s customers are custom homebuilders and homeowners willing to spend up to $6 per foot on such items as symmetrical crown moulding; the cost increases if the customer wants to build up the moulding with more than one piece, to achieve the right style.

Rowe recommends checking the moisture content of wood mouldings to ensure they don’t contract after installation and expose ugly seams. Wood mouldings should be kiln-dried to 6% to 8% moisture content. It’s also a good idea to leave the mouldings in the room before installation for a day or more to let them acclimatize to their new home.

Wood mouldings must be stained before installation, to prevent stain from splashing on the walls. You’ll need to drill pilot holes or use a pneumatic nailer to fasten hardwood mouldings to walls, to avoid split wood and bent nails. The best way to cover up nail holes is with a coloured wax filler stick that matches the stain as closely as possible; using putty and restaining the holes won’t get as good a match, and is a lot of work.

Finger-Jointed Pine

Finger-jointed pine is the most common paint-grade moulding. It is milled from the waste pieces of other milling operations. Short sections of wood are joined with glue in what are called finger-joints, a tight, strong joint that works well even in thin mouldings. Because the joints are visible, this moulding should be painted.

The relatively low cost of finger-jointed pine isn’t the only reason it’s widely available. Pine is also easy to work with and forgiving during installations. There is nothing a little glue, wood filler or a nail won’t fix when installing this moulding. It is also easy to saw. While a power mitre saw will give you the best joints, you can install a house full of moulding with a mitre box and a backsaw. Pilot holes, especially for small mouldings and near the ends, are advisable if you’re hand nailing, to avoid splitting the wood. If your equipment or your experience is limited, finger-jointed pine is your best option.

MDF Mouldings

The most common alternative to solid wood mouldings is MDF; you may be more familiar with this material in sheet form as a cheaper substitute for solid wood or plywood. MDF mouldings were introduced in southern California more than 20 years ago, but have become widely available since the mid-‘80s. MDF now captures 15% of the market for interior paint-grade moulding, according to Jeff Lundegard or SierraPine.

MDF is made from recycled and waste wood fibre. The fibres are mixed and boiled into a slurry with a synthetic resin, then poured into large slabs almost a foot thick. A hydraulic press compresses the heated slurry under intense pressure to the finished thickness. The finely textured sheets are then cut into boards and run through moulding machines just like real wood mouldings.

MDF mouldings can be installed anywhere interior wood mouldings are used, with one caveat: MDF is susceptible to water damage. It acts like end-grain and soaks up water quickly, expanding more than solid wood. Industry has responded with water-resistant MDF mouldings made with specially formulated resins and binders, but they are difficult to find. An alternative, says Jeff Lundegard, is to prime all sides and ends of the moulding before installation. But don’t use MDF outdoors; stick to wood. Like solid wood, MDF expands and contracts, so allow your mouldings to acclimatize for about 24 hours in the same area where it will be installed.

Beyond the environmental aspect of using recycled wood waste, the chief advantage of MDF mouldings is price. In larger sizes, MDF enjoys a clear advantage over real wood…

This price advantage only holds for larger profiles, however, because the smaller the piece of pine needed for finger-jointed moulding, the more plentiful and cheaper the solid wood becomes. MDF also loses its strength as it’s milled into thinner and thinner pieces. That’s why you won’t find small MDF quarter round…

While the price of MDF mouldings is attractive, handling and installing MDF moulding is more difficult than finger-jointed pine. It’s much heavier, with a density closer to oak than pine. This makes nailing a challenge.

By: Michael Theriault
Canadian Home Workshop- February 1999