The Misused & Confused Chair Rail - Fine Homebuilding

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Square One: Good Home Design Starts Here

Square One: Good Home Design Starts Here


The Misused & Confused Chair Rail

comments (3) October 5th, 2012 in Blogs
THIS_is_Carpentry THIS is Carpentry, interactive, multimedia e-magazine

Historic-design expert Brent Hull demystifies the details that can make or break a chair-rail installation in this article reprinted with permission from THISisCarpentry.Click To Enlarge

Historic-design expert Brent Hull demystifies the details that can make or break a chair-rail installation in this article reprinted with permission from THISisCarpentry.


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BY BRENT HULL

How high should we install chair rail? Ask most carpenters and they'll either say 36 in., 32 in. or they'll measure the back of a chair and tell you to lay it out so the chair won't scar the wall. Well, I'm sorry to say, that unless your ceilings are 16-ft. tall, 36 in. is way too high for the chair rail; and letting the back of the chair set the chair rail height is like letting the size of a rug decide the size of a room. In most cases, it just doesn't work!

Chairs and chair rail may sound like they have a lot in common, but the relationship is limited to their approximate heights. Chair rail is the most misused and abused molding in new houses today. But it is also the easiest molding to install correctly, and one that can do the most to make a house feel like a home.

Yeah but…

correct chair-rail height

What? You want to argue the point? You still think chair rail should always sit at 36 in. from the floor? Sorry, there is no standard height dimension. In fact, historically chair rail started out very low.

Even in colonial rooms with 10-ft. ceilings, I've seen chair rail set at 30 in. from the floor. There are some 18th-century pattern books that show the chair rail at 24 in. off the floor. In fact, in rooms with 9-ft. to 10-ft. ceilings, this height is actually most appropriate for chair rail, and best falls within the rules of classical architecture (see photo, right). Over the past 60 years we have forgotten a lot about those classical rules, and we've forgotten how chair rail functions in a room.

A matter of scale…

Let's back up a bit. Chair rail is a molding, right? The purpose of molding is to establish proper scale and proportion in a room. And because of its close proximity to us (chair rail is often the nearest horizontal molding we see) chair rail can do more to make a room feel right than either the baseboard or the crown. But get the chair rail wrong, and the room feels wrong-I can guarantee it.

Here's where proper proportion comes into play. All of the classic architectural orders-the Tuscan, the Doric, the Ionic, the Corinthian, and the Composite-have strict rules of proportion. These rules of proportion were specified back in the first century BCE by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, a Roman architect and engineer. Vitruvius used "modules" to ensure proper proportion.

He started with the spacing of the columns on a Greek temple, using that distance as a "module." According to his instructions for achieving symmetry, harmony, and proportion, the base of a Doric column should be two modules and the height should be fourteen modules. That boils down to a proportional relationship of 1:7 - a column that is seven times as tall as it is wide. Put simply, if the base of the column is 10 in. wide, it should be about 70 in. tall. Of course, not all columns follow that same proportional rule.

How does all that relate to chair rail?

correct chair-rail height

Ironically, the rules of classical architecture are really based on human scale, on the male body, and I'm the perfect classical specimen: My foot measures 11-in. long and I am 77-in. tall; a 1:7 ratio. Wow! (I pity you poor short carpenters with big feet!!!).

The moldings in a room are supposed to relate to our bodies, too. That is why you can walk into an old building and it just "feels" right. The reason it feels right is because it is symmetrical and harmonious to our own size. (See Fig. 1, below) We innately relate to and enjoy a space we fit into and fit well with.

Dig a little deeper and we find proportional rules for every architectural detail. Despite its name, chair rail actually corresponds to the molding at the top of a column's pedestal.

According to Abraham Swan, the Doric order didn't even have a base because Vitruvius said: "This order is like a strong and robust man, such as Hercules, who was never represented but with his feet bare."

Yet many later architects have included pedestals. For instance, when using a pedestal, Asher Benjamin divides the entire height of the Doric order into 80 parts. The diameter of the column equals six parts. According to Benjamin, the pedestal should be "two diameters and thirty minutes high."

Fig. 1
correct chair-rail height

What's all this mean to a carpenter?

Here's how I look at it: Take a room with a 10-ft. ceiling, which is 120 in. Divide 120 in. by 80 parts. Each part would equal 1 1/2 in. Therefore, the column should be 9 in. to 10 in. in diameter (six parts). Multiply the column width by 2 1/2 to determine the height of the pedestal: 22 1/2 in. tall. Benjamin also suggests that the pedestal should be 15 parts high. Either way, the result is the same. Obviously, unless chairs were much shorter back then, the height of a chair has nothing to do with the height of the chair rail!

Wait a minute! Don't leave the room yet! I'm not finished. We're just getting started. Now we need to find out the exact size of each molding, from the plinth or baseboard, to the chair rail. Benjamin doesn't provide that detail, but William Pain does in his 1778 book, The Practical House Carpenter.

 

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posted in: Blogs

Comments (3)

How_we How_we writes: Totally agree with DC about clients, but this is about DESIGN. When the client has no real opinion or if they say, "What do you think?" the old ideas about proportion worked, we don't live in Colonial America but a lot of us pay good money to look at it in Museums. Knowing about this stuff and adapting it to today can't hurt.

I'm building a small addition to a 150 year old sorta "folk" Victorian that will house two bathrooms, a mudroom and an elevator. I'm using real bead board wainscoting in the new bathrooms but the lumber yard chair rail moldings looked really wrong to me, so I made my own "corona" (thanks for a new word!) and am pleased that I made it 2-1/2" x 7/8" and butt cut the ends in the small powder room I've finished. The backband is an idea I could have used, but I broke the rules by making it 48" high to provide a back splash for the antique lavatory. It is a small cozy room and visitors think it looks old, which was my goal.

The Master Bath isn't finished, however, and will use a lot of tile as it will have a barrier free shower. As of now, a 36" tile chair rail (black?) with 3" x 6" subway tile (white) below it looks good to me, matches the windows, etc., but I haven't picked the tile above the chair rail and haven't any idea how to do the transitions to the wainscoting or the back splash over another antique lavatory.

I'm looking for ideas that will work with Brent Hull's concepts but trim a modern bathroom in an old house.
Posted: 12:51 pm on October 9th

Dreamcatcher Dreamcatcher writes: I am imagining this scenario: Client asks you to install chair rail and wainscot in the dining room then leaves for work only to come home and see that you installed it 24" off the floor. "But that's where Vitruvius told me to put it!"

Worse yet: You're framing a whole house and set all the window sills to 24" off finished floor. "Well, yeah it looks a little strange now... but just wait till we get the chair rail installed."

May the teachings of dead men never trump the will of the living, the want of your client, nor your own common sense. While there's nothing wrong with learning from the past, there is a point which we must realize that we don't live in Classical Greece, Ancient Rome, The Tuscan Region, or even Colonial America. That said, I'll set my client's chair where ever they pay me the most to put it.

DC
Posted: 6:21 am on October 9th

Dreamcatcher Dreamcatcher writes: I am imagining this scenario: Client asks you to install chair rail and wainscot in the dining room then leaves for work only to come home and see that you installed it 24" off the floor. "But that's where Vitruvius told me to put it!"

Worse yet: You're framing a whole house and set all the window sills to 24" off finished floor. "Well, yeah it looks a little strange now... but just wait till we get the chair rail installed."

May the teachings of dead men never trump the will of the living, the want of your client, nor your own common sense. While there's nothing wrong with learning from the past, there is a point which we must realize that we don't live in Classical Greece, Ancient Rome, The Tuscan Region, or even Colonial America. That said, I'll set my client's chair where ever they pay me the most to put it.

DC
Posted: 6:20 am on October 9th

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