The True Value of the Bead
I began my carpentry career with a company that did mostly historic restoration. Even the new projects were in a similar aesthetic and without fail there would be a bead present in some fashion, mostly as beaded casing. After a couple of years I was tired of seeing the bead everywhere. I wanted to try anything else. We used it on casing, baseboard, bead board, everything. Some years and many old buildings later I had begun to appreciate the true value of the bead as an architectural element with both form and function.
The mighty bead has been in use since at least the Greeks and Romans. A quick look at the classical orders of architecture or an 18th century pattern book like William pain’s “The Practical Builder” shows the bead in use. It has two real values. The first is form, as a decorative element. The rounded profile softens the edges of the elements it is used on and creates shadow lines. C. Howard Walker’s “Theory of Moldings” has a much better and detailed explanation of the bead then I can offer here. It has a simple elegance when used alone, such as on a flat casing, baseboard, and window aprons. As a casing type it easy fits many design styles. However, it is most recognized as a feature of the colonial period. Standing alone, it is often used as a transition from one architectural feature to another or a termination point for a molding. A beaded face frame on a cabinet is a good example here. It can also be used in conjunction with other profiles to create more complicated moldings, such as the nose and cove.
The second use is function. The fillet, or space, created between the round of the bead and the flat next to it allows for a shadow line to hide a joint. Bead board is an excellent example of that. The beads obscure all the individual boards and the ceiling looks like one single element.
Often wooden double hung windows have beaded stops. The bead allows for one of the stops to be removable, to access the sash, without looking any different than the fixed stops. The ¾ bead was often used on outside corners. Both in all wood applications, such as paneled fireplace surrounds and Cornices and also to create termination points for plaster corners.
A good example are around stair openings or outside corners of walls. The radius corners provide a great place to hide the joints between dissimilar materials, think expansion joint, and also the wood is more durable as an outside corner then the plaster. Another common use of the ¾ bead is in coffered ceilings. The bead easily hides the joint where the side and bottom of the built up beam meet, creating the look of a solid element. There are other instances when it is desirable to create the appearance of a solid member, as opposed to one built up from many parts. The bead lends itself to that as well. By beading the thin edge of the jamb or extension jamb. Then rabbeting it to except a flat casing there is no reveal, as in contemporary construction. The element looks like a solid piece.
This can be more than just an aesthetic exercise. It is not uncommon for colonial buildings to have their doors hung flush with the casing, not the jamb. If you were to trim the opening in a contemporary fashion inevitably the hinge screws fall in the joint between the casing and the jamb. This trick can also be used on windows if you wish to avoid the look of too many reveals created by built up layers.
That same flat casing can be used as the base layer for a more complicated built up molding for a more formal look in different parts of the house. A common example from the 18th century would be a three layer beaded casing on the first floor, the public spaces, and just the flat beaded casing on the less important rooms of the house.
A simple beaded casing can be adjusted in width to handle odd trim situations with little or no real perception in the change. Such as doorways to close to perpendicular walls or placed close to other doors. It also is fairly easy to join. Where we work, in eastern pa, the joint used for flat beaded casing is called a “butchers miter” or “jack miter”. Only the beaded portion of the casing is mitered. The flat portion of the casing is a simple butt joint. This joint lends itself to pre-assembly with pocket screws and because it’s a butt joint is less susceptible to movement.
While there are advantages to using the butchers miter over a regular miter, there is an extra step in cutting the joint. You only want to miter the bead, not cut too far into the flat portion. I have seen many iterations of ways to cut this joint. In my experience, the quickest is a block of wood on the chop saw to move the bead out to the lowest point on the blade. That way you can cut right to the fillet without exceeding it. We have found that the saw you use depends on your need for the block. For some reason the Bosch saws have the fence set closer to the blade then the Dewalt. You can remedy that with an auxiliary fence. At this point the design dictates in what order the pieces are cut. If the casing is to have additional moldings such as a back band, we tend to run the head over the legs, think stone henge. The back band will cover the exposed edge grain of the head casing. Leaving the casing one or two inches long measure from the floor to the reveal mark and miter the bead only. The section of bead left above the miter is removed using the table saw. It may not seem like the most efficient way, however we have found it to be the most consistent. If there is no additional moldings we have the legs run up beyond the head casing, hiding the end grain. The rest of the process is the same.
Creating beaded elements is fairly simple. Edge beading router bits are commonly available and most come equipped with guide bearings that simplify setup.
There are differences between an edge beading bit and a bull nose. The first is that the bottom portion of the edge beading cutter is further forward then the top portion. The second is that the bottom portion of the cutter is wider than the top. That is ¾ of a circle not just half a circle like an edge bead, requires two passes.
The first with the board held vertically. The second pass is run face down. The key to this set up is the bit must be set at the right height above the table. It needs to remove the same amount of material in both steps or the shape will not be a true circle, a good indication that the setup is off. The big difference between today’s beaded molding and that of the 18th century is the size and shape of the fillet. The original designs were shaped with molding planes ground to a point which created much tighter fillets. Modern tooling requires a thicker blade to survive in the router.
While the bead does not fit within every architectural style it does have a fairly wide appeal, from very basic trim packages to the most formal. Besides being an esthetic element it can also serve a more practical purpose to hide or conceal joints. The bead can truly be the “duct tape” of trim, providing solutions to many odd trim problems. It is certainly a valuable molding to have in the bag of tricks for finish carpenters. There is truly 101 uses for the bead.