poor planning leads to wasted energy

I’ve occasionally been known to throw myself onto the face of a home-improvement cliff so steep that I can barely make it to the top, let alone finish with something pretty. Last week, I bailed halfway up the cliff, and the crash was gloriously, hideously ugly.

The plan was to spruce up my ceilings with 100 feet of crown molding and roughly 200 square feet of tin panels. I sought advice from, among others, Brian Patrick Flynn, the principal designer of Flynnside Out, a Los Angeles design firm; Don Mandeville, a Home Depot district manager; and Ben Herzog, a Brooklyn-based architect.

Here’s how hard: The tin ceiling job was an excruciating disaster. The crown molding job came out O.K., but only after being scaled down to the dimensions of a tiny bathroom.

The moral of this story is that, especially with ceiling work, poor planning leads to wasted energy. Wasted energy quickly leads to fatigue. Fatigue leads to stupidity, and stupidity is how you arrive at the bottom of a cliff.

The idea of refining your ceiling is a good one, Mr. Flynn said. “Most homeowners don’t realize there’s more drywall space above their heads than on the walls, and when you walk into a room your eye goes immediately to the biggest empty space,” he said.

Both Mr. Flynn and Mr. Herzog favor exposed beams and, especially with older restoration projects, tin ceilings. Of the latter, Mr. Herzog said, “It’s a cool material, and it’s probably easier to install than putting up a Sheetrock ceiling and painting.”

The cathedral ceiling on our sun porch is covered with ill-fitting beadboard panels that we installed a few years ago. It seemed a good candidate for tin, since we could simply nail the material to the wood. (When attaching tin to drywall, the installation is more complicated.)

Tin tiles cost around $2 to $10 a square foot. We chose tiles toward the low end of that range, painted white. The tiles come in “field” patterns and textured border patterns that can slip beneath molding. But our sun porch has chunky molding that we hoped would cover the edges of the field pattern well enough so that we could skip the complexity of a tin border.

To install, you simply lay one dimpled border atop the next so that they fit snugly, and then nail the edges into place. My contact at American Tin Ceilings, a manufacturer and online retailer of decorative tin panels, said I should place the first tile at the center and work toward the edges, using metal snips to trim the tiles to fit the outer edges. He even sent a diagram to help.

I dutifully measured the beam atop our 12-foot-high cathedral ceiling and nailed the first tile in place with a $30 electric stapler that also shoots so-called brad nails.

The first row of five tiles went up easily and looked relatively straight. Soon, though, the tiles stopped aligning perfectly.

No big deal. Who would notice the borders separating by a hair? Besides, the longer I obsessed, the more my shoulders and neck complained.

Then came the third row. The first tile fit well enough. The second, not so much. The third was O.K. Then came the fourth and fifth tiles, which looked as if they had been installed by someone with a deep hatred of geometry, an extreme fondness for vodka, or both.

My shoulders and neck burned as I inspected the mess. On a hunch, I slipped a piece of molding into place to check how it looked over the high ridges of the tiles. Not great.

My big mistake, they told me, was not starting at the very center of the ceiling. Instead, I’d laid the first tile on the westernmost edge, which, it turned out, wasn’t straight. Naeem Malik, the national sales manager of retail at Armstrong Ceilings, a manufacturer of flooring and ceiling products, said that once the middle tiles are properly set, the rest fall into place.

But Mr. Flynn recommended sketching a grid on the ceiling to account for every tile before starting and said that novices should expect to spend three or four weekends covering a 10-by-12-foot ceiling.

If we loved the look, I might have forged ahead. But we didn’t, so we returned the unused tiles for a refund and called it a day.

Design-wise, crown molding is usually associated with grand spaces and big budgets. And intricately carved molding can indeed command prices in the range of $20 a foot. But prices for simpler patterns and cheaper materials start at around $1 a foot, and my sources said that these moldings would work fine in less formal spaces.

Mr. Flynn, for instance, said that molding that is four inches wide, or slightly less, works well with eight-foot ceilings. “But installing it can be tricky because no room is completely straight,” he said. “So if you’re in an older house and you know things aren’t straight, it’s better to leave it to your carpenter.”

To which I’ll add: If you’re in a newer house with walls that are absolutely straight, it may still be better to leave it to your carpenter.

The challenge is getting the molding to lie flat on every surface, while crafting the corners so the separate pieces perfectly abut. That requires measuring every angle, calculating the corresponding angles of the molding and cutting the material with nearly surgical precision.

Mr. Mandeville, of Home Depot, said that a compound miter saw is essential equipment for the job, since it simultaneously cuts two angles. Cheaper units sell for $80, but I spent $200 on one with a laser-cutting guide, among other helpful features, and it was well worth it.

Another good investment is the book “Crown Molding and Trim: Install It Like a Pro!” by Wayne Drake, of CompoundMiter.com, which sells the book and installation materials. I ordered a set of templates, which are physical reminders of how to place the molding in the saw before cutting it, and gauges for determining the exact angle of any given corner.

The book was slightly confusing at times, but it included a huge bonus: Mr. Drake’s contact information. He offers free installation advice to customers, and at least once during my installation a tip from him saved me from burying my head in a snow bank.

Mr. Mandeville recommended using a partner to help install the molding, so I called my favorite victim, Bob Sr., who knows his way around a miter saw but who was equally puzzled by compound miter angles.

We surveyed the living room. We looked at the miter charts. I remembered my recent debacle in the sun porch.

Even with the angle-measuring tools, the templates and Mr. Drake’s live counsel, we ruined several pieces before finishing. Smartly, I had painted the pieces before cutting, but I’d foolishly bought molding made out of cheap particle board, and when I tapped one piece against a wall it broke.

Four hours and many head-scratching moments later, we completed the installation. I added some spackling paste to the holes and touched up with some paint. Everything was tight and neat-looking without being too fussy.

Post time: Jul-09-2019

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