Decorative Coving and Cornices

For a long time, mostly in the later post-war period, the only thing that people in the United Kingdom wanted to do with cornices and coving was to rip them out, as the new design vogue was for modern, streamlined looks. Nowadays we all want to preserve the originality of period houses and many houses are having the old cornices and coving replaced.

Purpose and History of Mouldings

Interior coving is used to cover the line between two surfaces, most often where a wall meets a ceiling. A cornice can be a moulding that’s physically exactly the same as moulding used for coving, but the difference is that it will extend out into the room like a ledge. In fact the origin of the term in architecture is in its meaning in Italian, which is ‘ledge’.

Originally these interior architectural mouldings were made from plaster and were a feature that highlighted the immense wealth of the house owner. Ornate cornices and coving adorning high ceilings became very popular in the stately home building boom of the 17th and 18th centuries.

In the Victorian age they became more widespread, with simple mouldings being used in more modest housing as cities expanded into suburbs. The use of a cornice, in middle class housing, as a picture rail a few feet below the ceiling line was a Victorian innovation.

Modern Cornices and Coving

Making the cornices and coving out of plaster was extremely skilled work which is why they became simpler as more mass housing was erected. Now in modern homes they are likely to be very simple but coving in particular still fulfils the same functions, to hide the line where surfaces meet. In fact modern coving is as plain as it could possibly be and allows builder to be less fussy about the finish in areas where coving will be mounted.

Modern cornices and coving are almost all made from plastic or polystyrene, although plaster is available, usually at greater cost. Mouldings like these are usually glued to the wall and ceiling although with a long run it might be worth pinning every metre or so to hold it in place. If you drive the pins in just below the surface they can be painted over later if need be.

Coping With Corners

To do corners it’s essential to invest in a mitre box or mitre saw. A mitre box is a three-sided, open ended rectangular box with slots in the sides at accurate angles to the centre line, usually 90 and 45 degrees but sometimes others too. A mitre saw is more complex, it’s a saw held in a jig that can be rotated on its axis to almost any angle between zero and ninety.

As the saw is more complex than a box it is more expensive too, but might be worthwhile if you have an old house where things are rarely square or level. Measure out the lengths you need, using the mitre box to cut the lengths of coving at 45 degrees so that they slot together. If you have to join two pieces of coving together along a long straight wall it’s worth using 45 degree cuts there as well. This will make the join harder to spot when the job is done.

Fitting Cornices and Coving

Fitting is a case of marking up where the coving is going to go and scoring any wallpaper or paint along the length to provide a key for the glue. Then apply the glue according to the manufacturer’s instructions and press the length into place, pinning for support if necessary.

To finish it’s worth pointing out that there are a number of different coving and cornice products on the market today. As well as the different materials and literally hundreds and thousands of profiles there are flexible mouldings that can be used where a wall curves around a feature. There are also cornices that can hold special features such as concealed up-lighting, which looks very glamorous indeed.