Crown Molding: Traditional and Contemporary Options

A fantastic example of traditional, ornate crown molding.

Crown molding is traditional and classic, designed to be applied where the ceiling and walls interface. It is usually incorporated with classic and traditional-style architecture, though there is nothing that prevents its use in a very modern home or building. Crown moldings in contemporary/modern homes tend to be of a smooth and simple design used to provide a finished look to transitional surfaces or they make an architectural statement by contrasting a traditional look with modern materials or decor.

All that being said, it can also be really hard to install.

Traditional Installation

Wood crown moldings are traditional, and installation is a bit more difficult, as it is with MDF moldings. In more traditional or classic homes or buildings, crown molding tends to be more ornate and elaborate. Natural wood requires great care and is a high-maintenance product. It can be very expensive and complicated to install, since a design can require many layers to create the flair and desired architectural detail.

crown molding, Brian Moloney, the finishing company

Each layer is typically installed independently until the desired look is achieved. Additionally, as homes age, walls are not always plumb and square, and ceilings are not always flat. So, joining the molding with a professional finished look at inside and outside corners is not just a matter of cutting the molding on a 45 degree angle with a miter box.

crown molding, Brian Moloney, the finishing company

Ensuring a professional look requires the mastery of a skill called coping—a technique by which both inside and outside corners are cut with a saw from behind, on an angle, to remove any material that would prevent the two sections from joining smoothly. This cut must follow the profile of the design of the molding to make it fit like a glove.

crown molding, Brian Moloney, the finishing company

It takes skill, patience and practice coping wood or MDF crown molding to get that professional finished look. No doubt about it, this is the best way to install it, with the best results. It's a perfect DIY project, if you also happen to be a professional. After all it is that professional finished look that inspired you to install crown molding to begin with.

Installation Alternatives

Today, there are ways to achieve the look of crown molding, without taking on the complicated miters and coping. The results can be excellent, if not as finely crafted as the traditional, so if you're not a carpenter they're a good DIY option.

Corner Blocks – Precut and preformed inside and outside corner pieces are available to match or compliment all kinds of molding profiles. Some are designed to appear as a design element unto themselves, and others are made to seamlessly match with the overall install. Either way they eliminate the need for miters and coping, as the molding meets the corner block in a simple butt joint.

crown molding, corner block

Preformed Profiles – Instead of building out the molding one block at a time, you can find crown molding with a full profile you can glue or nail in place as a single piece. Irregularities in the wall and ceiling can be filled with paintable latex caulk.

Crown Molding, preformed, foam crown molding

Molding Kits – You can buy room-in-a-box kits that supply everything you need to install prematched molding and corners that basically snap together. The flexibility of the material (PVC) means that there’s little or no caulk required.

Crown molding, kit, room in a box

Material Types

These alternative options for installation are possible because of the range of materials that crown molding is now available in.

MDF - Moldings have traditionally been made of wood, but wood is expensive and needs to be regularly maintained. Today, moldings are also made of medium density fiberboard (MDF). MDF looks and installs like wood and is usually available pre-primed for painting, eliminating a step. MDF manufacturers boast of its ease of maintenance and resistance to humidity and temperature changes that can often affect wood moldings.

crown molding, mdf

Composites - Molding can also be made of simple plastics like PVC or composites like fiberglass, which are extruded and can be designed to be architecturally simple or with a host of detail. This molding is less expensive, maintenance-free, and makes for a relatively easy do-it-yourself project because the molding is usually glued in place.

crown molding, pvc

Foam - Not unrelated to the plastics, there are moldings made from dense foam (styrofoam/urethane) for both interior and exterior use. This material is very lightweight and can often be manufactured in single, large pieces with very elaborate architectural detail, from crown and base molding to faux beams. It is much less expensive than comparable molding made of wood, stone, or plaster and, like plastics, often manufactured to be glued in place as opposed to being nailed. Once installed, the molding is painted. In the case of exterior homes with a stucco finish, the molding is usually finished with a stucco finish coat to seal it.

crown molding, polyurathane, foam

Metal – Just like tin ceiling tiles are making a comeback, their molding counterpart is having a resurgence too. With or without a tin ceiling, tin crown molding can have a striking effect, whether painted or bare metal. It’s light and easy to work with and so thin that it doesn’t need coping in the corners. It’s not inexpensive.

crown molding, tin ceiling, lester Public Library

Plaster - As mentioned, molding can also be made of plaster or natural or synthetic stone, which can be machine- or hand-carved for architectural beauty. These materials can be very expensive, depending upon the amount of detail, and usually require professional installation.

crown molding, plaster

The Moral of the Story

The moral of the story is crown moldings not only finish, they enhance architecturally. There are crown moldings available to fit every budget in a host of materials, from a very simple contemporary molding to a gothic cornice. Crown molding adds architectural grace to any home and depending upon your skill level, installation of crown molding is a good DIY project.