How to mark wood moldings

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Robert LowdonGetty Images

The first step in installing attractive wood trim is to accurately mark its length. With a little practice and patience, you can get it right and end up with a clean cut every time. Here are the best practices for nailing it, some of which date back centuries.

1️⃣ Put away the ruler. Instead, score directly.

illustration of a ruler with an x ​​on it

Jesse Southernland

Using a folding rule or tape measure will almost always result in inaccuracy. There are times when you have to use one, but what you’re looking for isn’t to cut the trim into a whole number and a fraction, it’s just to match its length to the wall, window, or the door. If possible, put the trim in place and mark directly on it. For short lengths of trim (less than 4 feet, say), especially baseboards, use what’s called a ticking stick (more on that below) to transfer the length.

2️⃣ Use a tick stick.

A notch is a length of scrap lumber on which you mark the dimensions. Its most important features are that it is straight and wide enough (and thick enough) that you can mark it accurately. Erase the marks when you’re done and start over.

To use the tick stick on the baseboard, butt the stick to an inside corner and mark the length of the wall from the inside corner to the outside, or hold it in place by covering two outside corners. Make your marks on the stick and make a small notch on its edge to indicate the direction of the miter. (The illustration shows this clearly.) You can also make a small sketch on the stick to help you match the wall sections to the pieces of trim you are going to cut.

The stick is especially useful when you need to mark small runs of difficult trim, such as when dealing with multiple wall peninsulas or cutting around built-in cabinetry. Marking a single stick and recording data on it can help avoid bending, kneeling and standing. It simplifies the marking of these complex series of fittings.

Now take the stick and your piece of trim to the miter saw. Transfer the marks on the stick to the trim, then cut. With practice, the process becomes automatic: mark the stick, mark the trim, cut the trim, nail the trim. Repeat.

illustration detailing how to measure and mark trim using a tick stick

Jesse Southernland

3️⃣ Use a sharp marking tool.

Use a good quality pencil like this one from Mitsubishi, a marking knife or a penknife. When I have a big pile of toppings to cut, I even bring an electric pencil sharpener to work, and I use it often. Mark a fuzzy line, make a fuzzy cut. Mark a clean line, make a clean cut.

4️⃣ Mark the vertical tab of the door trim up or down.

Years ago, Neal Barrett, one of the country’s finest carpenters and a PopMech editor – showed us a trick for marking door trim. You can mark the trim length either miter up (miter tip facing the ceiling) or miter down (miter tip facing the floor). Both techniques accomplish the same task, which is to mark a piece of door trim and then cut it to the correct length. In fact, it depends on how you like to work. I prefer the down miter method, in general, because the trim length is established with a simple cross cut, not a miter cut.

But knowing the technique helps when scoring trim with a sharply curved or intricate edge. It is both difficult to mark an accurate miter position on these and even more difficult to perfectly lower the saw blade onto them. It is easier to cut the miter then score the cross section using the miter down method.

illustration showing visually how to cut trim using miter up and miter down techniques

Jesse Southernland

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