Wed. May 29th, 2024

We started our living room renovation about 10 months ago and we are now working on the finishing touches: baseboards!

Since our house is over 100 years old, it came with very tall, oak baseboards, which we had to remove when we installed our new floor. I numbered each one with every intention of putting them back in their place. I didn’t want to lose the character of the house and I assumed that replacing them would be way too expensive. There were only two problems with this plan. The first was that the baseboards were covered in layers of oil (and likely lead) paint and there were massive holes where the electrical boxes had been. They were also a dark burgundy, which is a pain to cover in white paint, but definitely manageable.

Because of these challenges, Alex suggested we just get new baseboards. I was convinced this was blasphemy, but 10 months of renovation wears you down and I had little fight left in me.

Purchasing Baseboards

It turns out that old baseboard designs are very much available and not nearly as expensive as I assumed.

I did some Googling and found a great local-ish lumber store: Central Fairbank Lumber. They had a wide range of baseboards and mouldings to choose from, so we grabbed a few samples to see what they looked like against our other trim.

We chose “tudor” style wood mouldings that were the same height (5½”) and depth (5/8″) as the originals. We had no interest in that MDF crap. And at $1.80/linear foot, it was very affordable!

I also asked how likely it was that the store would change their design (since we had visions of replacing our upstairs baseboards at some point) and the guy told me that they’ve had the same patterns for 90 years. So likely not anytime soon.

Measuring

We needed to consider two things when measuring for baseboards. The first was the total number of linear feet and the second was the combination of lengths required so that every wall had a single baseboard from end to end.

To calculate the total linear feet, we simply measured each wall, rounded up, and added all the lengths. It’s important to measure every single inch of wall that will have a baseboard because the small bits add up. We needed just over 80 linear feet in 5½” baseboards and 25 linear feet in 7½” baseboards (our interior wall has taller baseboards for some reason).

I also drew a little sketch so that we could make decisions about length at the lumber store.

I then wanted to make sure that we had the right combination of lengths so that we always had full boards for each wall. When we got to the lumber store, we found out that they came in 16′ lengths, so my drawing came in handy for calculating what we needed.

Carrying the baseboards home was particularly fun. It turns out that 16 feet is really long – much longer than the Impreza! We strapped the mouldings to the car and hoped for the best.

Tools

Of all our projects, I found this to be the easiest in terms of figuring out which tools we needed. For the cuts we used a mitre saw and a coping saw and some sandpaper to smooth out the cut edges. For the installation we used an angle finish nailer (similar to this) with 2½” nails. We could have used a regular finish nailer, but this is all our Tool Library had. For the shoe moulding we used a regular brad nailer with 2″ nails. Both nailers required a compressor, which we luckily still have sitting in our kitchen (and can luckily get rid of as soon as these baseboards are done!).

We also used wood filler to fill the gaps (and a nail punch to countersink the nails), construction adhesive for baseboards that couldn’t be nailed, and caulking to finish it off.

Cutting Baseboards

Installing baseboards felt daunting before we began, mostly because of what I read about trying to cut baseboards for non-square walls. It’s not the easiest thing in the world, but it’s definitely not as scary as the internet makes it out to be. Plus, because we eventually painted the boards and could use caulking to fill any gaps, we had a bit of leeway.

There are basically 3 cutting situations: Outside corners use mitre cuts, inside corners use a combination of straight and coped cuts and walls that require two baseboard pieces are spliced using a scarf joint. This high-tech diagram sums it up nicely:

Outside Corners: Mitre Cuts

For walls that are perfectly square, baseboards are cut at 45-degree angles and fit perfectly together. Easy peasy. Except when your house is 100 years old and nothing about it is square.

We used a digital angle measurer, which was the best way to calculate the angles. For non-90-degree angles it took some trial and error to realize that you can’t just measure the angle and then divide by 2. For example, if the corner is 88 degrees, you don’t mitre cut the baseboard at 44 degrees – it’s actually 46 degrees. Here’s why: the mitre cut represents the opposite angle, not the wall angle itself. If the wall is less than 90 degrees, it means that the opposite angle is more than 90 degrees. So if the corner is 88 degrees, the opposite angle is 92 degrees, which requires a 46 degree cut.

Here’s a diagram to explain:

Inside Corners: Coped Cuts

The great thing about inside corners is that only one baseboard needs to be coped. The other is just a straight cut, or butt joint, that goes all the way to the wall.

Coping is used to cut the baseboard in a way that makes it fit tightly against the adjoining baseboard and prevents any gaps when your house moves. 

We found coping slightly complicated at first because we weren’t sure how it was going to work. When you place a baseboard at a 90-degree angle against another, there is a large gap because the baseboard tapers off at the top.

We weren’t sure how coping would magically fix this, so we coped a scrap piece of baseboard.

The result was what we expected: the bottom of the baseboard fit tightly against the other, but the top had a gap.

It turns out that you actually need to taper the baseboard before you cope, which can be done in two ways. The first is to draw the profile on the baseboard, but this is tedious. This video shows how to do it. 

The other way, which is much easier, is to first mitre the baseboard at 45-degrees and then cope at the opposite angle. Cutting a 45-degree angle is what actually creates the right taper.

In the photo below, the left baseboard was cut at a 45-degree angle and then coped, leaving a nice taper. The right was coped along a straight cut and has no taper.

The 45-degree angle always needs to be in the opposite direction of the coping because the 45-degree angle simply creates the taper. In the photo below, the mitre is cut so that the back of the baseboard extends further out than the front. When it’s coped, the saw will remove wood so that the front of the baseboard extends further left than the back.

When coping, the saw should be at a 30- or 45-degree angle in the opposite direction that was mitred and should very carefully follow the profile.

It’s also easier when “relief” lines are cut into the wood. These lines make it easier when moving the coping saw along curves. They should also follow where the profile changes to help match the profile.

It’s important to leave the top piece of the baseboard, which is very tiny and can break off easily.

Once we got the hang of it, the coping saw did most of the work. We originally tried to saw away at the wood, but the best method is to just move the saw back and forth instead of trying to move it forward into the wood. As soon as there’s no pressure on the saw, it cuts beautifully.

If done properly, the baseboard sits tightly against the adjoining baseboard and looks like a perfect mitred cut.

See? Magic.

Joining Baseboards Together: Slicing

Our baseboards came in 16-foot long pieces, but one of our walls is 17 feet. To cover the entire length, we had to splice two baseboards together using a scarf joint. If there is movement and the baseboards pull apart, the gap will be less noticeable than if they were connected using a butt joint.

We cut the baseboards at a 45-degree angle and chose a spot in the room that was slightly hidden. Ideally the splice should occur at a stud, but we have no idea where our studs are so we didn’t bother trying to line it up. 

It took about a full day to make all the cuts, but it wasn’t that complicated or time consuming. Even coping was fairly easy to master after a few tries.

The baseboards along our interior wall and in our entrance were higher than in the rest of the room – 7½” versus 5½” boards. These were slightly more difficult to cut (and cope!) but luckily we didn’t have many linear feet to deal with. We also purchased slightly taller shoe moulding to keep the proportions right.

Other Techniques

The majority of our baseboards required standards cuts and were all the same height. But we had a couple of unique things we had to do.

At the front door, the shoe moulding stuck out more than the door moulding, so we decided to cut the moulding at a 30 degree angle (45 was too dramatic).

…And for the close-up…

Our kitchen entrance doesn’t have any trim, so we simple cut the baseboards flush with the door.

Next step: Installation!

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