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Bedevilled by the details

Who would have thought that a small detail like baseboards would require so much deliberation? Baseboards – also called skirting boards or floor mouldings – are used to cover the uneven edge of flooring material alongside the wall.

Who would have thought that a small detail like baseboards would require so much deliberation?

Baseboards – also called skirting boards or floor mouldings – are used to cover the uneven edge of flooring material alongside the wall. They are also meant to protect the walls from damage when something such as furniture rubs against them. They are part of a broader category of finishing details known collectively as mouldings – the trim that goes around windows and doors, along the ceiling, around cabinetry and almost any other edge in a house. Because they are literally everywhere the eye can see, mouldings are a key element of home’s architectural style – think of the really tall baseboards and decorative trim in Victorian-style homes.

Baseboards are basically planks that are nailed, screwed or glued to the base of a wall. These days, you can buy ready-to-install lengths of wood mouldings to use as baseboards in a variety of styles and lengths at your local lumber or home-supplies store.

I remember the baseboards in my childhood home clearly because my mother was a bit obsessed with making sure they were dust-free. Since I was the youngest and, therefore, closest to the ground, it was my job to dust them. I don’t think I’ve given baseboards much thought since I outgrew that job. In my family's post-war bungalow, like in most houses, baseboards were made about half an inch thick, three inches tall and paired with quarter round (convex molding that’s about a quarter of a circle). (Quarter round, I learned this week, is one kind of "base shoe," used with baseboards. These days, the base shoe is usually built into the profile of a baseboard and not a separate piece, since it takes less time to install.)

So, when our contractor, Dave Rannala, explained that he planned to use tile baseboards in our bathrooms, I was surprised. Is that what people use in bathrooms these days?

“This is the way we typically do bathrooms as wood baseboard on the [tile] floor always gets water waste,” Dave said. “I don’t want you calling me back down the road to say that your baseboards have warped because of water.”

I’ve written and edited stories about housing on-and-off for more than 15 years and I don’t ever recall a story about this. I went to the office and looked through our photo archive, trying to find pictures of bathrooms that showed the baseboards. Most, it seemed to me, were wood, definitely not tile, though it was hard to tell in some cases since bathroom photos don’t usually focus on baseboards. There were a few, in high-end bathrooms, that did obviously use tile and they looked lovely, though no more so than the ones that didn’t use tile.

I also looked online and found a few discussions of the issue. In most cases, preference depended on taste. People either liked tile baseboards (“They look great and are so easy to clean”) or they strongly disliked the look ("It’s a house, not a hospital – use wood, not tile”).

When we asked our interior designer, Lorin Turner of Zebra Group, she definitely fell into the anti-tile camp.

“I’m not so keen on the tile baseboards myself,” she said. “I prefer a standard wood baseboard as it looks clean and not so ‘YMCA.’ I haven’t had any experience with water damage on baseboards, not from client nor from my messy self.”

In our experience, my husband Brad and I could not recall anyone we know ever having to replace baseboards because of water damage. Still, we respect Dave's diligence and advice. We came to a compromise: We'd go with wood baseboards in the main bathroom, which would be least likely to suffer any water damage because it would be used only by guests. Also, that bathroom is off the main hallway, so we thought it would be better to keep the baseboards consistent and not suddenly transition to tile.

In our ensuite bathroom, we decided that -- if there were enough extra tiles -- we would go with tile baseboards because it is likely to see some water hit the floor and it's away from the main part of the house. As it turns out, there aren’t enough tiles to do the baseboards, so they'll be wood like in the rest of the house.

The profile of the wood baseboard we chose is similar to the trim we chose to go around the windows and doors. Again, choosing the trim design took more time than deciding which walls to move in the rest of the house.

The trim in the original 1946 house had an interesting triple "ripple" look. However, when the house was expanded in the early 1990s, no effort was made to use common trim throughout the house. Since one of our original objectives was to more closely tie the old with the new, we decided to go with new trim throughout. Unfortunately, we could not replicate the style of the original mouldings because the triple bevel design would require that they be handmade in wood -- a process that would have been very expensive.

To make sure we had a clear idea about what we wanted -- and what we didn't – Travis, the carpenter worked on our project, nailed a selection of mouldings to windows at the front of the house. Interior designer Lorin had recommended “clean, flatstock” that was four to five inches by one inch because “it has a nice, clean look.” We agreed -- it did look clean and simple -- but that style seemed too contemporary for the look and feel we were after.

Another option featured a taller section across the window’s top edge -- beautiful, but a it had a distinctly Victorian feel about it, which didn’t suit the style of the house. The one we liked best and chose was a style closest to the original -- a relatively narrow baseboard with three small bevels.

In hindsight, we are surprised at the number of conversations we had about the interior trim work -- with our contractor, with our interior designer and between the two of us. Then again, the devil is always in the details -- and we are happy that this is one devil that has been exorcised.