Modern Trim

March 6th, 2010 by KTU | Filed under 6. Interior Materials and Finishes.

The architect Christopher Alexander wrote “totalitarian, machine buildings do not require trim because they are precise enough to do without. But they buy their precision at a dreadful price: by killing the possibility of freedom in the building plan.” (Incidentally, Alexander’s Pattern Language is a fascinating book on design. This link is to his “Pattern 240″ on “half-inch trim.”) While I don’t see trim in ideological terms, the stuff is a vexing challenge in modern residential design.

For concreteness, let’s consider trim to be the aesthetic feature at the boundary between windows and walls. In the most common instance, trim is wood surrounding doors and windows and laid flat against the drywall. Of course many other situations are possible (e.g., brick, tile, metal, etc.).

There are two very good reasons for trim. First, it allows the placement of the doors and windows to float a bit relative to the rough opening in the framing, and it allows the drywall to be installed with relatively low precision. Trim can suck up as much as 2-3 inches of imprecision in those tasks. Hanging drywall is done with only slightly more precision than excavating a ditch with a backhoe. (If a loved one is thinking of quitting school, have them watch a drywall crew for a couple of hours….that is a very tough way to make a living.) The second reason for trim is aesthetic. Trim emphasizes transitions, highlights openings in the walls, and can itself have nice material qualities when, for example, it comprises a carefully finished piece of wood with an attractive grain.

In modernist residential styles, four approaches to trim are common:

  1. No trim, with just a drywall “return” (corner) terminating at the window jamb.
  2. Porthole trim, which is essentially an extension of the window jamb 1/2″ – 1″ past the wall.
  3. Flush flat trim, usually with a little gap between the trim and the wall.
  4. Flat trim applied on top of the wall surface, the common approach.

Here are some illustrations and commentary.

No trim (i.e., a drywall return terminating at the window jamb).

No trim with the drywall return makes a lot of sense for a very thick wall, say 10″ or greater. When you have to cover a lot of area, drywall is a good approach. It is fussy for the drywall crew to get this approach right, but probably less expensive than buying, installing, and finishing trim. I find the look a bit stark. Ironically, although often a feature of high-end modernist homes, the “no trim” approach is also an economy tract-house strategy in much of the U.S. Usually, a sill of some kind is used on a trim-less window because drywall sills are not very durable from drips, wiping, dust, etc. — particularly at lower heights.

Porthole trim. Essentially an extension of the window jamb out past the wall.

The porthole approach looks nice in my opinion. It gives some framing to the window opening, but is clean and simple. In theory it is quite affordable because it doesn’t use much material. It also allows the windows to be ordered with no jamb extensions, which saves a few bucks. The main disadvantage is that it really requires the drywall crew to come back after the trim carpentry and fill in the gap between the rough edge of the drywall and the protruding edge of the trim. This filled area then has to be sanded and finished/painted. Again, drywall folks work fairly cheap, so this isn’t that big a deal. My plan is to spray paint the entire interior before installing the trim, though, and so I’d be filling, sanding, and then repainting those gaps. Probably not too big a deal. Indeed, it’s not too big a deal to paint after trim has been installed. The porthole windows are easy to mask, so spraying remains possible. I also worry somewhat about the plaster pulling away from the wood. My guess is that over time, cracks open up between the wood and the plaster.

Flat trim flush with wall, usually finished with a little gap.

The flush flat trim really requires a tidy little gap between the trim and the wall. This is a fussy, expensive drywall detail. It also never quite looks right to me, especially as it ages. I ┬áthink this detail is quite nice in theory, but in implementation it doesn’t quite live up to the promise. I really don’t think the flush trim is nicer on balance than the protruding flat trim, and so never really considered this approach. (Incidentally, sometimes this little gap is applied to the porthole approach as well. The same concerns apply in that case.)

Flat casing applied over wall surface.

The least expensive, most conventional approach is trim applied flat over the wall. Every finish carpenter knows how to do this. It can be done before or after painting. In my opinion a narrow square edged piece of flat trim gives a nice modern look and is an honest, economical strategy. Thus, I’m going with this approach.

I considered several different materials: clear vertical grain (CVG) douglas fir, clear alder, clear vertical grain antique heart pine, and weathered gray barnboard. My family didn’t like the barnboard. I find the fir a bit too soft. The antique heart pine is drop-dead gorgeous as wood, but I can’t afford to have the doors made in this material, and so I’m worried about getting a harmonious trim/door combination with this material. The clear alder is clean and simple…boring really, but I’m not sure that drawing attention to the trim is a good idea anyway. Mostly I want it to just manage transitions gracefully without being obtrusive.

Material options from left: CVG Douglas Fir, Clear Alder, Antique Heart Pine, Reclaimed Barnboard.

In these mock-ups I was also experimenting with a 1 inch offset on the top piece and with exposed fasteners. (These screws are mostly natural steel combi-drive screws from McFeely’s…if you’re into screws, these are mighty fine.)

My plan is to use a simple, square-edge flat casing 3/4 – 7/8 thick (whatever the most economical stock turns out to be) by 2 1/4 inches wide. I played around with different widths and this is what looks nicest to me. Currently my plan is to use clear alder with a clear finish (most likely just Minwax wipe-on polyurethane, or possibly buying the trim stock pre-finished). I’ve decided to go with conventional finish nailing (power nail with the trim nailer and fill the hole) and a flush-aligned square edge.

Here’s a photo of the mock-up of that material, size, and alignment.

Mock-up of trim in clear alder with clear finish, 2 1/4 in. wide.

Update as of October 2010…

I ended up using clear, vertical-grain fir for the casing to match the fir doors I wanted to use. I decided to miter the corners instead of using a square edge. Here is the casing going in.

3-panel vertical-grain fir doors with 2-1/4 square-edge casing.

14 Responses to “Modern Trim”

  1. Thomas Morgan says:

    Great thought process. I have been mulling around what door trim combo to use. Was going to do maple windows/doors/trim but too pricey. Moving to pine windows and now trying to figure interior doors and trim. I like your fir combo… how about that with clear pine windows? Clear coat all, no stain.

  2. KTU says:

    Yes, no stain. I used satin polyurethane on everything. The pine windows look fine with the fir trim.

  3. PCS says:

    I have a bit of a different situation. Going with Marvin Integrity fiberglass windows which are unfinished pine on the interior…and will be using Birch flush doors. Our’s is a remodel so will need to trim pine windows and birch doors but obviously want to marry the best of this. The one window we did as a test, so far as staining, etc I used a custom 50/50 mix of Minwax Natural and Minwax Puritan Pine. (old habits die hard, natural isn’t quite enough and I love the brown-ness you get in the grain with Puritan Pine). I will be doing a butt style joint and using 1×4s on doors and windows. Would appreciate any thoughts ????

  4. KTU says:

    This sounds like an excellent plan. I like the butt-style joint myself, but my trim carpenter was much more comfortable doing a miter. I think he was worried about the butt joint opening up and he can glue and nail the miter really easily. (I did use the butt joint on my mini cabin, however.) With the butt joint, I like a bit of overhang on the top piece of trim, say 3/4-1″ on either side. You could play around with it until you find something you like. The pre-mixed Minwax finishes are plenty practical and mixing 50-50 seems pretty reasonable if it gives you the tone you’re after.

  5. Rick Phillips says:

    I really like your CVG fir door. Can you tell me where you purchased it. I am currently developing my plans to build and am leaning toward this type of door in solid CVG Doug Fir.

  6. KTU says:

    The doors were made by Lemieux Doors.

    Most doors of this type are not solid CVG. Rather they are veneered to take advantage of the nicer grain structure available in fir veneers. Anyway, they look very nice and I’m quite happy with them.

  7. Patt says:

    Hello, my husband and I are building a new home and are attempting to use drywall return interior door systems. I’ve been attempting to find photos of this but, so far, have seen nothing. The quotes we have gotten for this are varying wildly in pricing, mainly because we’re being told they have not done drywall return for doors.

    Our home is southwestern and we’re tired of the standard trim around interior doors. Our doors will be 8′ tall. Do you know of any site that might have photos of this type of installation? Do you think it’s feasible? This would be used for all doors, including closet doors.


  8. KTU says:

    I’ve not seen a drywall return used on a door. The door jamb would have to be quite a bit narrower than the thickness of the wall. A standard interior wall is 4-1/2″ thick and an exterior wall usually 6-1/2″ (with 1/2″ drywall). So, to get a decent return, your jambs would have to be 2-4″ narrower than that. That seems infeasible unless you make your walls unusually thick…which would be expensive. Alternatively you could extend the jambs out to just past the surface of the wall (slightly) and then run the drywall right up against it. That’s a pretty clean look. You could even paint the jambs to match the walls, so that the trim/extended jambs would essentially disappear visually. The challenge with doing this is it will be very hard to match the surface of the wall perfectly up against the plumb door jamb without some planing and fussing. That’s why that approach would usually have the jamb extend out 1/2-3/4″ past the surface of the wall. (There’s a reason trim was invented…it covers over sloppiness.)

  9. Jamie says:

    RE: Drywall trim return on a door

    If what you are looking for is an opening cased in drywall with a door swinging inside of it this is possible to be done on site by your drywall crew and your finish carpenter. the problem with this application is the softness in drywall, inevitably this finish will be damaged over time. another issue is the rough framing of the opening must be dead on, and straight and square. this become extremely difficult when working with wood partitions as wood naturally warps and bends over time, finding a straight 2×4 can be a mission.If your looking for a seamless transition that is durable. there is a product offered that is a metal door frame with tape-able flanges. this provides a solid frame that is durable and is prepped for hinges and latches. . When I built my home I had a consistent struggle with availability of modern-contemporary designs for anything. I ended up fabricating all my trim, my stairs, some of my counter tops. I have 10 years of Commercial Construction experience and I am at the head of a company that works on cutting edge designs and specialty finishes, I plan on oppening up a small operation in the spring to offer some new and modern millwork and architectural features. The site is feel free to contact me via the e-mail on the site with any questions or comments. Thanks

  10. John J says:

    Any thought to a mitered versus but end finish on the frames? Trying to decide on a current reno. Reasons for one or the other? Stuck!

  11. KTU says:

    I think this is mostly a question of aesthetic preference. A careful finish carpenter can implement either. The mitered trim has the advantage that the mitered corner can be nailed together from the edge, which is harder for the butted approach.

  12. Gerhard says:

    Very helpful discussions. The modern look with straight edges has a nice clean look. You decided on 2-1/4 inch wide casing. Did you think that 3-1/2 inch was to overbearing and detracted from the window? Also, do you think that mixing woods such as maple on pine, or cedar on pine, etc. with natural finish is OK. I presume that nearly all wooden windows are made of clear pine because it is the cheapest. Do you recommend using more exotic woods in a consistent manner to compliment the base wood.

    I’m getting ready to trim 2600 sq. ft. and would appreciate your opinion and suggestions before laying out the money.

    Many thanks!

  13. KTU says:

    I do think you can mix species. Yes, most natural wood windows are clear pine. You can of course have them made in other species, but this is very expensive. If you will stain the wood, then the painters can usually match up the wood pretty well. If you won’t stain the wood, then I think you’d want to either go with a very similar color or a contrasting color. So, for instance, you might use hemlock or fir trim (similar color and grain to pine) or mahogany (very different). I probably wouldn’t use maple on pine, personally. Having said that, the clear pine on the window frame and jamb is pretty unobtrusive — you probably won’t notice it after installation. In my opinion, it was definitely not worth the cost of customizing to match the trim.

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