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Baseboards, like 100 Years Ago.

I’ve written about the extra challenge replacing painted window and door casings1 with stained wood. The miracle of caulking is a perfect finish, covering up minor variances in carpentry on painted wood. Working with stained wood doesn’t have this luxury. Every minor error shows like a gapping chasm into the hell of imperfect execution.

Stained casings were hard. Baseboards even harder. The pieces of trim should fit together perfectly, and perfect cuts are more challenging for baseboards than casings, because: 

  • Angles.
  • Cutting.
  • Three dimensions – having to line up with the wall, and the floor, and go around corners. 
  • Diagnosing what’s wrong when there is no fit. 
  • Drywall mud. 
  • Sagging floors.
  • Lengths. 

It’s not trivial to set two pieces of square lumber beside each other and have them meet so perfectly that not a millimeter gap comes between them anywhere on the seam. If the match isn’t perfect, a square will identify what is out of wack. 

Why wouldn’t two flat pieces of wood abutt exactly? It can be from poor sawing technique, or poor quality tools. If one of the pieces is old, it could have warped or buckled over time. Poorly dried or stored new pieces may also warp. Still, lining up a butt joint is easy enough with a bit of sanding, chiseling or planing2.

Baseboards are different. It’s a three dimensional problem rather than the two dimensional problem of putting up casings on a flat window or door frame. Baseboards sit on both the wall and floor, so if either of these isn’t straight or plumb, fitting a board to it is complicated. Baseboards go around corners, requiring a mitered cut to make a nice 90 degree turn. Alas, drywall corners can be anywhere between 88 and 92 degrees because of the build up of mud. This makes it challenging to figure out why a joint isn’t right. Up. Down. Forward. Back. In. Out. What needs to be adjusted?

To make things more challenging, I’m using contoured baseboards (traditional style). Rectangular baseboards can be butted to each other, avoiding a load of trouble. But no, I’m trying to embrace the Craftman style and spirit of building excellent from 100 years ago. So, contoured baseboard requires mitered corners, and hence fit issues.

I fiddled, measuring the corner angles and cutting accordingly, sawing the back off the mitre to allow a flexible fit, and chiselling down the contours to make them match. 

Ideally, baseboards span the length of any straight wall in the room. But, the longer a piece of wood, the harder it is for it to lie flat on the floor/wall. Especially the saggy floor (due to settling or wood drying) or bumpy walls (due to drywall mud, relocated walls or building movement). Sometimes, it’s easiest to cut the baseboard in the middle to get it to fit along the floor. Other times taking a curve out of the floor makes sense. I did both on one wall. Chiselled down a humped plank and cut the baseboard at midpoint and glued it back together to allow for floor sag. 

I cut and installed all the pieces, making minor (or major) adjustments for fit. Then I took them back down to finish them. Aside from keeping stain and varnish off the walls and floor, staining the fastner holes makes them easier to hide. The mitered cuts were stained too, in case they peaked through a less than perfect joint. 

Getting the stain colour right required a bit of experimentation to match the poplar baseboards to the pine and mystery wood of the casings. 

Gluing the outside corners allowed a bit of sanding to bring the parts to a nice point and ease the fit on installation.

Even though the premise of this post is that there is no caulking with stained wood, I’ve tried various approaches to do the equavalent for filling gaps and holes. Saving the sawdust from cutting the boards, I made wood filler by mixing glue and saw dust together with natural and stained saw dust. The colour match and tone was good, but lack of wood grain made the filled areas look different than the wood. Overall, better than commercial wood fillers, which are waxy and look it, and never quite the right colour.

Overall, I’m pleased with the outcome. It looks enough like gumwood that’s been the for 100 years to achieve the goal. The inside of the closet is especially gratifying, as it was a nasty surprise when the house was purchased. There wasn’t even a floor in the closet, let alone trim, just a rug thrown over the subfloor. Now, the finish befits the craftsman bungalow spirit – quality and detail.

1The idea here is to take the trim back to something close to its 100 year old original state. I’m replacing worn out mdf and modern style trim with replicas of the 1920 era trim.

2I imagine there are pros that know which is best in which circumstance. Ok, obviously sanding for small modifications, and after chiselling or planing. Planing for greater lengths, changing thicknesses. Chisel for fitting around square obstacles? I generally try various approaches until I get where I want to be.

Thanks for reading.

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