Where to Look for Broken Trim in a New House/Project

Typical scenario: You walk through the new house admiring all of the trim work, especially that beautiful curved trim. You just love it. You buy the house. A year passes. The builder of the house quietly moves to a different continent.

One day you notice a small crack in one of those lovely pieces of curved trim. The next month you notice another crack in another piece. “Ye gods!” you exclaim, “Have those always been there? Is my house falling apart?”

Yes, it's true. You are another victim of Bent n' Broken Trim Syndrome. Here's how it happens.fireplace-full.JPG

In the process of building something like the fireplace mantle shown above, the builder or trim-carpenter thinks, “Hey, wouldn't it be great to put a curved piece here? But what could we use? We don't have a piece of trim that is made in the right radius. We could go back to the shop and custom build a piece of trim for this spot, but that would be terribly expensive. Why don't we just take a piece of trim and “field bend” it? We'll staple it really well and force it to bend into the radius we need. Brilliant!”

Now it is true that if a piece of wood trim can be forced into a curve and glued/stapled without breaking, it stands a very good chance of never fracturing. (This does not apply to “Flexible Moulding” or “Flex Mould/Trim”, which can and will sprout cracks years later if it is forced into a different radius than that for which it was designed — I see this all the time and may blog on it later.)

However, often in the midst of installation, a piece will often fracture to some degree, confronting the joiner with an annoying decision: “Do I go back and recut this piece only to risk the same thing happening again, or could I just make this piece work with a little extra glue and caulk?”

You get one guess how that “internal debate” usually gets resolved.

Okay, so what can the savvy homeowner do about this?

First, take the time to closely inspect all bent woodwork. Yes, I know it's uncool and the realtor will roll her eyes, but take your time and do it anyway. If you can catch a problem, the builder will GLADLY fix it if it means selling the house. (Never wait until after you've signed to make a request like this. You just moved to the bottom of the priority list.)

Second, look for curves that aren't consistent. If you see an inflection point, look closely for signs that a fissure has been filled with caulk and painted-over.mantle-closeup-text.jpg

Third, look for over-nailing. Copious fastening is a sign that the trim had to be forced to do something against its will. Often staples will be employed for additional strong-arm holding strength. Usually, the nail holes will he difficult, but not impossible, to see through the paint job.
So you use these clues to try to direct you to locations that are likely to have an existing fracture which will only become visible with the passage of time. What if the clues are there, but you can't find clear evidence of a break?

If so, one additional test is in order. You need to determine if any of the suspicious pieces are synthetic. Non-wood pieces under stress are far more likely to break in the years following installation. To test it, use a fingernail or another sharp object (in an inconspicuous place) to see if the trim has a “rubbery” quality to it. If so, it's time to think about whether this (giving the builder an ultimatum) is a battle you want to fight.

Curved trim is nice, but if it isn't installed appropriately, you don't want it.