Question: I want to install crown moldings and wonder which is better: solid wood or these new composite moldings I see everywhere? Also, is this a good job for a homeowner to do?
Answer: If you're going to paint the moldings, I don't see any point in using solid wood. The warmth of the wood would be lost under the paint. Besides, composite materials, including exterior sidings and trim boards, are often more durable than wood and hold paint better. And any material that needs less maintenance and fussing with is a plus for modern life.
As for installation, this has got to be one of the thorniest DIY jobs possible. In many remodeled houses I've visited where the homeowners installed the crown molding themselves, there were big problems. Some the homeowners told me about, some I could plainly see: gaps between the wall and molding, or corners and joints with too much caulk.
One reason for the struggle is that after decades of settling and earthquakes, the walls and corners in old houses are not perfectly aligned. So installing long spans of perfectly straight molding with miter-cut corners takes a level of skill and finesse that the average DIY-er does not possess.
As firefighter Rocco DiFrancesco said of the molding he installed in his Dana Point home: "It's definitely a skill learned by trial and error."
To get a professional perspective, I turned to Gary Katz, a Reseda general contractor and finish carpenter (www.garymkatz.com). Katz is well known in the industry for teaching woodworking, and carpenters flock to his demonstrations at national trade shows.
Contractor's answer: The biggest difference between solid wood and composite crown molding is the cost. Moldings made of medium-density fiberboard have revolutionized the carpentry business, making crown molding affordable for almost every home, even with large expanses that would be pricey in solid wood.
On the other hand, solid wood usually gives a better profile. It has sharper corners and edges, which result in a more dramatic "shadow edge." This is usually what people like about crown molding. But for most tastes, the added drama of sharp corners wouldn't be worth the cost. So, unless you're going to stain it, go with the fiberboard.
People always ask if installing crown molding is difficult. Like anything else, it's not hard if you know how to do it. I suggest you hire a professional unless you have experience and the tools -- a power miter saw on a good stand, nail guns, a chalk line, ladders, etc. If not, buying or renting them could get expensive.
As for your most likely problem? It will be cutting the miters. The trick is to place the molding upside down in your miter saw and at an angle, so that the top edge of the molding is sitting on the base of your saw and the bottom edge is up and resting against the fence of the saw.
Submit remodeling questions to Kathy Price-Robinson at www.kathyprice.com, or send to Real Estate section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012.