Removing Crown Molding in an Old House Restoration

When it comes to remodeling an old house, homeowners typically find themselves trying to salvage as much material as possible for a historical restoration. Crown molding is one of those many architectural details that remodelers have to remove before beginning a the restoration process.

Modern crown molding has it origins in the Renaissance Revival period of 1840-1890. Architects of the time adapted some of the elements of Italian and Greek architecture and incorporated these decorative finishes into the structures of that period. While crown molding can refer to a wide range of decorative treatments that accent ceilings, cabinets, doors, and even windows, most of us think of crown molding as that decorative piece of wood or plaster that covers the angle of the ceiling and wall. Crown molding typically has a slight curve that gracefully flares out from wall to ceiling. While in modern homes, crown molding is usually made of a single piece of wood, more elaborate crown molding can be made of an assembly of two or three pieces of wood. In vernacular homes replicating the grandeur of their wealthier cousins, home made crown molding may consist of a piece of decorative quarter round placed over plywood.

Our home was built in the 1880 and in a flight of fancy, the builder added some Renaissance touches including a Renaissance porch, bay window, crown molding and picture rail. Some 50 years later, one of his son-in laws tried added “budget priced” Craftsman touches with home made plywood crown molding. A little weird yes, but now an integral part of the home’s history and worth saving.

While in modern home people remove crown molding in order to replace wallpaper, in historical homes crown molding might be removed for several reasons. These reasons may include wanting to strip and refinish the molding more easily, replacing the molding altogether, or having to access the lathe and plaster beneath.

In our home, we found ourselves having to remove roomfuls of crown molding in order to replace the failing lathe and plaster of our walls. Removing these various types of crown molding were an incredible challenge since not only were they well secured with nails, they had been painted over with multiple coats of paint. Fortunately, they were made of wood and not plaster, which made the job slightly easier.

Tools for the job

Because we were not concerned with saving the wall beneath the crown molding, we used a tool called a Wonderbar. This flat pry bar has a tip like a putty knife, and uses leverage to pry wood away from the surface it is attached to.

Two sturdy putty knives also came in handy for use, since the thinner blades slid more easily beneath the crown molding. To tap the blade of the putty knife beneath the crown molding, we found a hammer to be useful as well.

If the molding has been painted or papered over, a utility knife will allow you to score any paint or paper that is attached to the crown molding.

Last but not least is a pair of safety goggles and a pencil.

How to carefully remove the crown molding

Step 1: Working one section of wall at a time, begin by scoring the paper and paint above and beneath the crown molding. Those many layers of paint have the effect of glue and can make the job of prying away the molding that more difficult. Scoring the paint also leaves a nice, clean line on the molding itself which will allow for easier sanding and refinishing.

Step 2: Using one of the putty knives and the hammer, gently tap the blade of the putty knife beneath the crown molding, just enough to loosen it from the wall. Loosen the crown molding from the wall first, then come back around and loosen the crown molding from the ceiling.

Step 3: Since the goal is to remove the crown molding intact, the molding has to be inched away from the wall very carefully. This can be done either with the two putty knives or the Wonderbar. To prevent the wood from breaking, move the crown molding away from the wall in quarter inch increments.

Step 4: As the crown molding begins to release from the wall, have a helper hold one end of the molding. This prevents the wood from twisting or bending, and possibly splintering in half. Unless the molding is covered in multiple layers of paint, it should separate into separate sections as it comes off the wall.

Remember to have your helper pencil in the sequence of the molding as it comes off the walls, writing on the back of each molding strip. We used a combination of letters and numbers which denoted the room from where the molding came from (such as “P” for parlor), the direction the wall faced (such as “N for north), and the order in which it came off the wall (such as “1” or “2”.) This allowed us to rehang the crown molding in the proper order once it had been restored.

Restoring an historical old home means working as carefully as possible to avoid damaging existing architectural features. By working patiently in small increments, you can remove crown molding intact so it can be reused again.

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