Guide to plaster mouldings

If you want to restore the period charm, understanding which mouldings and plasterwork to choose to suit your home’s era of origin is essential. Clive Fewins explains the details and materials to look out for

TODO alt text

Mouldings have been used for centuries as a device to add interest to interiors — accentuating the light against the depth of subtle shadows cast onto an often vast expanse of surface. On top of their aesthetic uses, some mouldings (such as skirting and dado rails) were also used to protect the walls from furniture damage.

But if you are trying to add new mouldings to your home, or restore ones which may have been lost in past renovations, you need to know what types of moulding may have originally be found in your home.

Moulding types

These days the practical uses of mouldings have changed a little —skirting acts as a line of defence against the vacuum cleaner, while dado rails serve to break up blocks of colour and wallpaper patterns. Mouldings around doorways also add protection and can turn a mundane opening into a welcoming entrance.

Coving or cornicing is perfect for mirroring skirting and hiding joins and cracks between the ceiling and wall, but it can also help large rooms appear less clinical and more intimate. In ornate interiors, complement cornicing with a decorative frieze running beneath.

Ceiling roses and domes are generally quite large and circular, placed in the centre of the ceiling to add majesty. On grander projects, whole ceilings can become features, while in especially lavish properties, intricate wall panels, columns, pilasters and pedestals can also look right at home.

pl-moulding-cornice

Bespoke mouldings from Butcher Plasterworks

Staying true to style

Mouldings can be as clean-lined or as opulent as you desire, but staying true to your home’s style and period, as well as creating a balance in the proportions of the mouldings, is the key to success. Imposingly large mouldings in a small space will look overdone, but in a vast room you can afford to be more bold; most off-the-shelf mouldings are available in more than one size. Also bear in mind their depth: if their protrusions differ too much they will look unbalanced.

Era

Georgian

Georgian mouldings tend to vary considerably. One of the main features of cornices of this period is that they projected down the wall and across the ceiling at equal distances. Deep wall friezes were also popular.

Ceilings often featured ribbons and swags, Classical figures and urns. Other decorative devices included dentils and egg and dart patterns. As during the Victorian era, the ornamental qualities of the mouldings diminished with the relative social importance of the room.

Victorian

From the 1850s ‘fibrous plaster’ (strengthened with hessian fibres) allowed for large complex cornices to be cast in one piece prior to fitting. Also used were cheap, lightweight papier mâché ornamental mouldings. Cornice was very ornate, featuring flowers, fruit and vines. Ceiling roses were at their height during this period.

Post-WWI

World War I marked the end of decorative plasterwork in most homes, paving the way for starker, simpler lines, often with a simple cornice and perhaps a matching centrepiece.

Art Deco

Bold, chunky designs are typical of this era — and decorative mouldings are no exception. Strong, stepped designs feature heavily in both skirting boards and cornicing, whilst sweeping yet solid curves were also popular. The materials may also reflect trends of the time, with polished black and white finishes being much sought after.

Materials

In Victorian times fibrous plaster became the traditional material for producing mouldings, and it is still popular today for its superior appearance and texture. Plaster is perfect for mouldings, as it can be used for both mass-produced and bespoke designs, and can easily be resized and shaped in the production process; however, it is usually more expensive than modern versions and also more difficult to install.

There are alternatives that some manufacturers specialise in, such as polyurethane, GRP and glass fibre-reinforced gypsum. These are often more lightweight and cheaper than plaster, but some are better looking than others so, if possible, view the finished products in the flesh before buying.

Wood is another popular moulding material, as it brings warmth to the interior and can be beautifully carved into ornate designs. It tends to come unfinished so you can either varnish or paint it.

Bespoke cornicing

Above left: Victoria polyurethane ceiling rose, Dia96.5cm £91.58, NMC-Copley; Above right: Polyurethane architraves, from £47.78 a section, and raised door panels, from £27 each, Davuka

Where to buy

Most polystyrene and timber mouldings can be easily found in the aisles of DIY warehouses and builders’ merchants. Lengths of plaster mouldings in almost every style conceivable can also be found online from specialist companies. Cornice tends to be available in standard lengths, with 3m being a popular option.

If you are looking for mouldings to match original designs already in your home, or for something more specific, there are specialists out there who will make them to match, or who will run them in situ, either from plaster or glass-reinforced gypsum. Try periodmouldings.co.uk for traditional designs or take a look at oracdecor.com for something more contemporary.

Cornice and leaf ceiling enrichment

This bespoke floral cornice and leaf ceiling enrichment, created by Butcher Plasterworks, is a design that was typical of the Regency period, prices on application

How to fix it?

Plaster and gypsum-based mouldings should be fixed using both the adhesive recommended by the supplier, as well as rust-proof screws. You should use a mitre box – a box with angles at various degrees that provides a guide for cutting – such as the Stanley Mitre Box (screwfix.com). It is worth buying some cheap polystyrene coving and practising with it first.

Repairs

Extensive damage should be repaired by a professional. Fortunately there are plasterwork specialists who can comes and take a cast of the moulding and create a replacement section. This takes a couple of weeks and costs around £100–200 for every 3m that needs replacing.

An experienced carpenter should be able to help with damaged wooden mouldings.

Smaller faults such as cracks and chips can be repaired by a competent DIYer. Use a plastic filler knife to avoid damaging the surrounding plaster and fill with a suitable Polyfilla or Easi-fill product.

Featured photograph: Shutterstock