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Pinning down that railing near ceiling

It could be a picture rail - for hanging pictures - or crown molding. Either way, probably best to paint, not strip and refinish.


I just moved into a house that was built in the 1920s, and my landlord is letting me paint as long as he sees the colors first. I'm excited for my first house project, but there is some painted wood trim that goes around the top of the walls in every room except the kitchen and bath. My friends and I have a bet going. What's it for?

- Rory

A: I received a few questions on this topic recently. Joyce from the Philadelphia area also wonders what color to paint it. One reader even sent in a picture.

That piece of trim is called a picture rail, but some might call it crown molding or picture molding, depending on where exactly it's attached to the walls. People in old houses like yours hung their pictures from the moldings with special hooks and wire because a hammer and nail made holes and cracked the plaster. (Pre-drilling a hole for the nail prevents this problem.)

Victorian-style houses with tall ceilings often had the picture rail dropped from the ceiling about a foot, or even with the top of window trim. When the decorative trim is actually at the ceiling, it is called crown molding. In houses with lower ceilings, the same trim functioned as both a picture rail and crown molding, since it's placed at the top of the wall.

When these old houses were built, the wood trim typically was not painted. Eventually, people got tired of the dark wood colors and started to paint the trim. Now, people strip the paint to restore their houses. But, unless you are very dedicated and don't mind a lot of hard, messy work, I would suggest painting it again.

For a simple, clean appearance, paint all the trim the same light color as the ceiling but in a satin or semigloss finish. The ceiling should be flat or eggshell finish, not shiny, to softly diffuse the light and hide flaws. If your house is Victorian, you could go with a darker, wood-toned trim color for a restored look.

I would love to hear your friends' guesses, and I hope you won the bet. Send pictures when it's done.