This article, written by Greg Shue, is published in the September 2011 issue of Period Homes.
The wall base is one of the most common elements in period homes of all styles. Its primary functions include the beautification of the intersection of wall and floor, and the protection of the wall from damage due to traffic, dirt and moisture. However, this important piece of the trim package is often overlooked due to its location, its concealment behind furnishings, and its modest presence compared to ceiling crowns, door surrounds and cabinetry. Nonetheless, many design considerations lead to the final sizes and shapes of wall bases. For example, a well-designed wall base works well with the other pieces of millwork in the room. One house may have many kinds of wall bases, made of different materials, especially in period homes, where room sizes and uses can vary greatly throughout.
In traditional houses, the wall base is but one component in an often complicated trim program. It must resolve with trim around doors and windows, cabinetry, fireplace surrounds and anything else attached to walls that comes in contact with the floor. The importance of the wall base should not be taken lightly, for many parts of a house rely on its well-considered design. For example, the projection of a wall base from its wall is a period detail subtlety, but one that can be very important, especially at doors and other openings. Sometimes a plinth block is used as a transition element between a wall base and an adjacent door casing. In other places, the wall base and door casing are designed to interact without the use of a plinth block.
Another period design subtlety, depending on the room style, of course, is the incorporation of small steps, or offsets, in the wall base. I like to incorporate an offset four inches above the floor, providing visual consistency when transitioning to cabinetry but still tall enough to incorporate electrical outlets (oriented horizontally) near the floor. Another period detail is the omission of the toe mold (the small piece adjacent to the floor) when the room is carpeted, in which case the carpet goes under the wall base in a small gap left between the bottom of the wall base and the floor. In fact, in older homes, the presence of a toe mold in a carpeted room might be an indicator that the carpet was installed on hardwood flooring. At the top of the wall base, the wall base cap is one of those small pieces of trim that can be a real joy to design. The variations are endless, and it’s a great way to subtly build the continuity of a room’s style.
In many newer homes, the wall base has been determined by the dimensions of stock lumber or whatever can be found at the closest big box hardware store, which seldom produces a period look. When considering the appropriate size and shape for a wall base, it’s important to remember that it should be proportionate to the room as a whole. As mentioned earlier, it not only conceals the wall/floor joint, but it is also a decorative element. The Classical prescription is that it should be proportioned as the base of a canonical pedestal. Figure 1 illustrates how the wall base is one of the few remnants of the classical proportioning of many traditional rooms. While most rooms do not have columns, many have ceiling crowns and wall bases. Other dimensional considerations come into play as well, including the incorporation of electrical outlets, HVAC components, etc.
Although wood is the most common material for wall bases in period homes, they can be made from virtually any material. With wood, wall bases can be stained or painted (or a combination thereof) based on the character of the room. While wood is not very resilient, it is relatively inexpensive, available in stock shapes, easy to customize and very easy to repair when damaged. In rooms exposed to wide temperature and humidity variations, however, wood has a tendency to bow, cup, crook and twist.
Tile is another great wall base material for period homes. Its resilience against dirt and moisture make it a great choice for rooms with wet areas. Ideally, the carefully planned tile wall base resolves with cabinetry and other room components, and is carefully selected for its appropriateness for indoor or outdoor (or both) uses. Tile wall bases, while more resilient than wood, are still fairly simple to repair, available at many price points, come in an endless array of stock colors and shapes and can be custom-designed if necessary, although that can get quite expensive.
Stone wall bases are typically more durable than both wood and tile and immediately heighten the style of a room. They are also a great way to create continuity with other stone elements, such as fireplace surrounds, column bases and floor patterns. While stone comes in a spectacular array of colors and patterns and is very durable, it is heavy, difficult to repair, and custom shapes add to its already-greater expense.
As the reader might imagine, variations in the designs of wall bases are as numerous as variations in Classical detail. The proportions and the purposes of rooms usually determine the size and shape of their wall bases. While cost can become an issue with some of the more extravagant wall bases, so many traditional options are at the designer’s fingertips that often more than one appropriate solution is easily available. While wall bases go widely under-appreciated, the consideration of the minutiae is rewarding when the design all comes together – beautifully and intentionally.