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Hand Cut Dentil Molding
By Rodney Milen

A Dentil (from Latin dens, a tooth) is, in architecture, a small block used as a repeating ornament in the bed molding of a cornice. We see it on the architectural facades on buildings, but more commonly it is used to create a band or decorative piece in crown molding on furniture and cabinetry. Dentil molding can take many shapes and designs but in this article we will concentrate on a simple band of dentil.

This molding can be cut with a dado blade on a table saw or radial saw or it can be cut with a router table and a straight bit.

In my teaching at The School at Narrow Bridges, I like to emphasize hand work and hand tools so I am going to demonstrate how to cut a simple dentil molding by hand using a hand saws and a chisel. The only other tools required are a square, a wheel type marking gauge, and a hard pencil.

The first thing we have to do is to establish the size of the dentil blocks and the open spaces. There is no hard and fast rule for size but the bigger the piece, the bigger the dentil should be. This will come down to you using your eye and artistic sense to determine size of the block and open spaces (they do not have to be of equal size).

The cabinet that I am using for a model has the blocks and open spaces the same size, which made this example layout a breeze.

We must also determine the depth of the dentil molding. Referring back to the model cabinet, the dentil was used as a filler piece to give the total crown molding more height so for demonstration purposes, I made it 1/4" thick. This allowed me to cut two pieces at once to save time.

Next: Measure the overall length of each piece that will be fit to your project. Now that we have our lengths we can lay out our cut lines for the molding. Start from both ends with your design laying out full size blocks and open spaces as you have designed. Keep in mind how you want the corners to look. Typically there is a half block on each side of the corner so when the pieces are put together there is a full sized block that goes around the corner. Another popular design is to start with a half open space on each side that leaves the corner of the piece exposed. Your eye and what you like again will determine this. You will find that as you get closer to the middle you may have to make some adjustments to the size of the blocks and/or the open spaces so that you don't end up with a half block/open space or two blocks/open spaces together.

Now that we have the design basics covered, it is time for layout and cutting.

Layout using a marking gauge
STEP 1: Determine how tall the blocks will be. Once this measurement is known, set the marking gauge to that height and begin marking the layout. In the same manner as cutting dove tails, start with using the marking gauge to score a line along the wood piece to provide a reference on how deep to make the cuts. It also provides a nice line to guide the chisel when removing the waste between the blocks. In order to have a clean line all the way through, mark the piece on the front and back. Make these marks on all of your pieces first and remember to do an extra piece, just in case it is needed later.

Marking the layout using a hard pencil
STEP 2: Now that the reference line is scored, determine the width of the blocks and spaces. Using the model cabinet, I determined that I wanted the blocks and spaces to be equal at 3/4" wide. I also laid out my spacing so that my two end blocks were a little larger to frame the piece and draw your eye in and down to the crotch figured doors. Once widths and spacing are determined, lay out lines with a hard pencil (gives me the best and thinnest line) and a square. Mark all pieces.

STEP 3: Cut lines for molding – depending on the thickness the stock, you can accurately cut multiple pieces at one time. This stock is only a 1/4" thick so two pieces can be clamped together clamped two pieces together which allowed me to make two pieces at once and save a whole lot of time.

Sawing layout lines

Marking the waste with a Sharpie™

Making multipe cuts with a hand saw
Now is the time to determine how you are going to make your cuts – just on the right side of the line? Just on the left side of the line? Or split the line in the middle? Whatever method you choose – stay consistent through the whole project in order to achieve a uniform look. Personally, I like to split the line when I cut, something carried over from cutting dovetails.

Be patient – take your time when cutting the lines. Crooked cuts stand out in the final product. Your mantra should be "slow and steady." Once all the lines are cut, mark the waste that will be removed (open spaces). A Sharpie™ works best. If you have your pieces clamped together for cutting, mark the two outer sides and the top while clamped so that they will be identical when they are finished.

There are several ways to remove the waste. All have equal merits so it is more dependent on tools available and personal preference.

Option 1: Make several cuts with your saw in the waste area

Option 2: Cut the waste out with a jeweler's saw

Option 3: Make multiple cuts in the waste area with a band saw

If you have stock clamped up, and go with options 1 & 2 – make the cuts. If you want to use a band saw, then unclamp the pieces and mark the waste on the opposite side and cut each piece independently. The extra step of marking both sides is required because depending on how long the pieces are and the throat size of the band saw, you will only be able to cut so far before flipping the piece over to complete the cut. Remember "slow and steady" applies to making the additional marks, as well as cutting.

Removing waste with chisel
STEP 4: Now that lines are cut, waste has been marked and multiple cuts made it is time to remove the waste by chipping away to create open spaces. Start about half way down the cut lines with a chisel and chop out the waste. Work your way back until you get close to the original score line we made in step one. Leave about 1/16" margin in front of the score line for the final pass. This last sliver of material can be easily removed by placing the chisels into the score line and with body weight only, push the chisel straight down. Since the piece was scored on both sides, the final pass leaves both edges clean and smooth.

Ideally, chisel selection is based in the width of the waste area – 3/4" wide space = 3/4" chisel. Slowly work your way down the molding and before you know it you will have a beautiful piece of hand cut dentil molding that will accent and enhance any project you are working on.

The saw leaves a pretty smooth surface but you may have to do a little light sanding. My personal preference is to leave the surface "as is" to bring out the "handmade look" I am going for.

Finally...the finished product

Cutting your own molding may seem like it would be difficult but with a little layout and some patience you will be cutting pieces like a pro in no time. The molding I cut for this cabinet was simple and straightforward but you can cut with as many variations as you would like. Take a few scrap blocks and just experiment with different ideas.

Just by making the blocks wider than the open spaces will give the molding a whole new look. The only limits are the size of your project and your imagination. Take these tips and ideas and put them to good use on your next project and let your family and friends be amazed at the detail and creativity that dentil molding and your newfound skill can add to any project. Now get out in the shop and make some saw dust!

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