Not just plain vanilla…

Crown molding detail, Photo by Lie-Nielsen Toolworks

Years ago we were painting a room and my wife sent me to the store to get a gallon of paint. She gave me a paint swatch and said, “Have them mix a can of eggshell white in semi-gloss.” Well I’m light years behind Barb when it comes to colors and though I’ve gotten better, at that time my pallet was limited to the dozen colors you find in a small crayon box. In usual fashion all I heard her saw was “white.” What could be difficult about grabbing a can of white paint? When I arrived back home with the wrong white it was one of those – Bad Dog! Bad Dog! moments. There are many flavors of white that can often make a marked difference.

Sometimes very simple things can be tweaked in a variety of ways to achieve different looks. Here’s an example. A cyma recta is a compound shape that’s often used in molding profiles. The easy way to recognize a cyma recta is that the ends of the curves flow into a more or less a horizontal axis. You can always tell it from a cyma reversa because its curves flow in a vertical axis. The cyma recta is often used to terminate a form. You often see it at the top of a crown molding. The concave curve at the top of the shape provides a shadow that helps your eye recognize the boundary. It can also be flipped upside down and used to visually translate weight and mass to the floor so is often used in base moldings on case pieces. In that situation it’s the convex portion of the curve that your eye perceives as being compressed under the weight and mass. A plain vanilla cyma recta can be altered in a variety of ways. The curves can be cut deeper or shallower. We are often accustomed to seeing shallow curves as much architectural stock moldings are made from thin material that requires a shallow profile.

Curves can be deeply cut or shallow

If you have the opportunity to see profiles that are deeper, the effect can be very dramatic. You can also proportion the curves in cyma recta so that you create a major and minor. By moving the intersections where the concave and convex connect you can emphasize either the concave portion or the convex. This is useful to know when you think about how at the top of a crown molding it’s the concave portion creating the shadow.

Emphasize either concave or convex portion

Conversely when a cyma recta is inverted and used at the bottom of a design, it’s the convex curve that communicates to your eye that the piece has weight and mass. I could go on and on. The curves can be based on ovals rather than circles to create some bold light and shadow contrast. The facial angle (the amount the molding is tilted) can be set steeper or shallower, not to mention that this molding profile can be embellished with carving. Hope this isn’t confusing or discouraging. Instead, make a note to begin looking at built examples on furniture and buildings. Look at the many ways that something as simple as a cyma recta can be pushed and pulled and how it affects your view. It may come across as weak, naked, or bold. It may compliment the design or fight with other elements. When you begin making those distinctions and start to understand why, you are on your way to begin making more solid design judgments even if they have nothing to do with moldings.

 George Walker

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About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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One Response to Not just plain vanilla…

  1. Jeff says:

    Another way to alter the look of crown molding is to put it up upside down as they did in my church.

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