Last week we had a fun project come through the shop to replicate some corbels for a 1920s Colonial Revival house in Delaney Park, Florida. I figured this was a perfect way to show you how you can make custom woodwork like these period details rather simply with the right tools.
Old houses have a lot of unique trim, moldings and woodwork that are not readily available at the home store. So, replacing them is never as straight forward as a quick trip down the molding aisle. I posted previously about 4 Tricks to Match Old Trim that may be helpful to you as well.
Home Depot or Lowe’s are good places to start looking because occasionally what you need is there, but often it requires a call to a local mill shop to find some of the more unique patterns. Sometimes even that’s not enough, so you’re left with making things yourself.
How To Make Custom Corbels
In the case of these corbels I want to show you that if you have a sample of the piece you are trying to replicate then making copy is not hard at all. Having some special tools will make the work easier, sure, but you don’t need everything I use to get it done.
Whether you are making a corbel, baseboard, or crown molding it’s all a matter of reverse engineering the sample you have in the simplest way you can. Below is the process I use and make sure to check out the video at the bottom of the post to see the whole process in action! To get more videos like these Subscribe to my YouTube Channel here.
Step 1 Template
Look at your sample piece and start taking measurements. You want to get as specific as possible (thickness, width, length, etc.) In the case of this corbel it was slightly larger than a 4×4 so we had to laminate some wood together to get the right size.
Find the right wood for your project. If it’s interior paint grade then poplar or pine are great choices. If you plan to varnish or stain it then look at oak, maple, or other hardwoods. If it’s going to be outside then you need a rot-resistant wood. Use this post to help you find the right rot-resistant wood for your project.
We choose Accoya for its great rot-resistant abilities and stable nature which make it similar to old-growth wood in my opinion. We only needed the corbels to be about 16″ long so we took some Accoya scraps and glued them together to reach the 3 3/4″ thickness we needed. We glued the faces of the wood with Titebond III waterproof wood glue, clamped it together, and let it sit overnight to cure.
Step 2 Make Your Blank
After the glue setup up we needed to shave it down in a few places and make it nice and square. We used a combination of table saw, jointer, and planer for this process. If you don’t have access to these tools then a table saw and sander is usually sufficient to get the piece close enough.
Work with what you have to get as close to square and clean as possible. If this could have been made out of nominal lumber like a 4×4 this whole process could have been dramatically shortened so always start looking there.
Step 3 Trace & Trim
With your prepped blank in one hand and your sample piece in the other lay them out and trace to the original profile onto the blank. Then it’s a mater of cutting it out. Since this was a curved corbel we used a janky old band saw that I bought years ago at a garage sale for $75.
You don’t need the biggest and grandest tools ever. I could have also used a scroll saw or a coping saw to do it by hand which would have been difficult due to the thickness but still possible. The moral of the story is find the easiest way that you can cut your new replica out. It doesn’t have to be perfect because you can refine it in the next step.
Step 4 Sand & Refine
Now that you’ve got it cut out sand and refine the profile as much as you need using whatever sander fits best. We used a bench sander like this one and a random orbit, but you could use a belt sander or hand sanding too. For heavy stock remove stick in the 24-60 grit range and then give everything a nice final sand working your way up the grits as necessary to your desired level of finish.
And that’s it! You should have a piece pretty darn similar to the original that you can put back into service and make it look as good as old! I hope that helps demystify some of the custom woodwork in these old houses.
This applies to everything from corbels to decorative rafter tails to ginger-breading. You don’t have to be an artist, you just have to be able to trace and replicate. The old craftsmen did the hard work for us coming up with these beautiful custom designs now we just have to copy them.