8 Ways to Get Old House Charm

Vintage homes earn their appeal over centuries. Don’t have 100 years to spare? These modern versions of period details give the same look without the wait (or the cost).

1. Ceiling Medallions 

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The Look: 

An architectural detail used purely for decoration by American colonists took on a practical purpose in Victorian-era homes: concealing the holes required to retrofit hanging gas lighted fixtures. They add texture and shadow lines, but even by today’s standards plaster medallions are a luxury, and they need to be installed by a skilled craftsman, which can be costly.

Style Cues:

Common ceiling medallion patterns include Renaissance, Egg and Dart, Jefferson, Rochelle and Chelsea styles. Most manufacturers make dozens of ceiling medallions that incorporate historic patterns, curves, and floral motifs to complement traditional decors. Designers often create medallions that complement common crown molding styles to create cohesive interior design options.

Tip: To replicate the texture of real plaster, mix joint compound with water until it reaches a pancake-batter consistency, then brush it onto the medallion before installing it.

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The Shortcut:

Polyurethane medallions made from molds have all the detail of plaster but very little of the weight. Installing one—either for decoration only or to hide an electrical box—requires just a few beads of construction adhesive.

Choosing A Size:

Ceiling medallions come in all sizes and designs, befitting everything from simple Colonial-style sitting rooms to ornate Victorian parlors. Not all are white to mimic plaster; some have metallic or wood-like finishes, and others use mirrors as embellishment.

The Victorians had the advantage of elaborate wallpaper designs with the onset of more elaborate printing presses and handmade papers. Wall paper hangers could do extremely elaborate work with just one paper, as long as it included borders in the pattern. The ceiling medallions in plaster had the added benefit of reducing the risk of fire directly above the chandelier, by being less flammable than paper. The more ornate it was, the less likely it was to catch fire, giving the inhabitants of the room time to extinguish the fire or escape should there be a flare up. They were also useful in camouflaging the hardware and ropes of the chandeliers, which had to be lowered to be lit.

2. Brick Walls

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The Look:

Colonists initially built chimneys with clay bricks, and the material’s varying tones, from red to blue-black, appear in nearly every architectural style that followed.

The Shortcut:

The ½-inch-thick veneers are glued to a mesh backing that bonds to drywall like tile-no masonry skill, cement mixing, or troweling required.

Brickweb is available in pre-assembled flat sheets and corner sheets, with 12 color blends to choose from. The primary 8 color blends are made from ‘tumbled brick’, having a classic old world, aged, or weathered look and feel. The 4 other color blends are commonly known as ‘straight brick’, and are made from the same brick but are not tumbled and provide a more uniform (flat and straight) appearance with less color and texture variation.

Tip: Skip renting a tile saw—cut the bricks with a circular saw fitted with a diamond blade and plugged into a GFCI outlet. Use a pierced water bottle to dribble water onto the blade to keep dust down while cutting.

3. Ceiling Tiles

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The Look:

Stamped steel came into fashion when Victorian homeowners used panels as a less expensive way to mimic decorate plaster (itself a less expensive way to get the look of carved wood or stone) while providing some fire protection. It’s an example of the age-old practice of replicating vintage charm with newfangled materials.

The Shortcut:

PVC and foam tiles express all the embossed detail of the metal but can be trimmed with a utility knife and stuck to the ceiling with adhesive. Which is to say, the work goes much faster than using metal snips and nails.

4. Wide-Plank Floors

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The Look:

The new machines of the Industrial Revolution gave owners of Italianate and Gothic Revival homes some of the first uniformly milled tongue-and-groove wood floors. Hardwood has ranked high on the charm list ever since, but the real thing isn’t always a sensible choice in hardworking kitchens.

The Shortcut:

Planks of porcelain tile shrug off scratches and spills and owe their realistic wood look to an ink-jet printer than uses two or three layers of glazing (depending on the wood species) to mimic flat-sawn boards.

Tip:  To create the natural look of random-length wood planks, be sure to stagger the joints at least 12 inches course to course. The right species is important!

  • Some species are more dimensionally stable than others. For example, hickory moves more than oak.
  • Hickory planks don’t sell wider than 5”.

5. Crown Molding

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The Look:

The Colonial Revival style borrowed heavily from earlier Georgian and Federal prototypes and often showcased rich-looking wood cornices built up in layers, miter by miter.

The Shortcut:

Foam molding’s extruded body has the crisp details and shadow lines of a stepped wood crown, but it comes as one piece. The profile’s coating, a mix of fiberglass and acrylic plaster, takes paint well and shrinks less than wood, keeping miters tight. It adheres to the ceiling with dabs of joint compound, which also fills and hides seams—no nails required.

Historically homes were decorated using custom designed wood molding. This required the services of a skilled carpenter and often took weeks of work to accomplish. The advent of plaster molding offered a mass product at a cost saving due to the reduction of time it took to implement, however costs remained somewhat high and skilled technology has allowed for the fabrication of lightweight, intricate, and high quality molding at a fraction of the costs compared to traditional methods. The have become so easy that any capable homeowner can tackle the project in a matter of days. The many advantage of plaster coated foam molding has made this coveted style accessible to everyone.

6. Radius Molding

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The Look: 

Arched interior openings date back to the Federal Style but became more common after industrialization gave us circular saws and milling machines, making carved and bent wood easier to produce. Today, finishing curves with wood molding is an expensive and time-consuming process that requires relief cuts or steam bending to build up the look in layers. Rubber molding can be ordered to match any style.

The Shortcut:

Rubber profiles easily bend around curves, you can use traditional tools to install them, and they take paint and stain well. All of which makes them typically less expensive than using real wood.

Tip: Flexible molding is easier to work when it’s warm. Make it pliable by letting it sit in the sun or heating it in an over to 80-degrees F.

7. Carriage Doors

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The Look:

Until the early 20th century it was common to shelter a horse and carriage in an outbuilding with swing out wood doors made with exposed X-shaped or diagonal bracing and hand-forged hardware.

The Shortcut:

Composite roll-up versions have all the energy efficiency of a modern, insulated garage door but use a frame-and-panel design made from stained, maintenance-free materials and cost only 10% more than cedar wood.

8. Decorative Brackets

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The Look:

Brackets turn up in many architectural styles. Second Empire homes had beefy ornamental ones tucked under mansard roofs, while a simple 4x4 style was a common detail on many later Craftsman homes.

The Shortcut:

Adding these nonstructural details are a lot easier when they’re made from low-maintenance, lightweight polyurethane and require only a few screws and some construction adhesive to install.

Tip: Use an acrylic gel stain instead of a traditional liquid stain to grab the ridges better on textured polyurethane parts.