Millwork refers to carpentry pieces traditionally produced in a sawmill
Common examples include baseboards, molding, mantels, wainscotting
It is distinct from casework (boxed pieces that are mass-produced)
Carpentry is a complex trade with a rich vocabulary developed through traditional practices that stretch back to prehistory. Working with carpenters sometimes requires learning and absorbing all sorts of terms that you aren’t familiar with. If you’ve been playing along and nodding every time your contractor refers to millwork, and now it’s too late to ask what it means without embarrassing yourself—don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Read on to learn what millwork is and what distinguishes it from other forms of carpentry.
Carpenters and other contractors use the term “millwork” to refer to pieces historically produced in a sawmill from raw lumber. Wood pieces must be built into the home to qualify as millwork—otherwise, it’s just furniture. Likewise, though wood flooring typically comes from a mill, it is classified separately. In your home, millwork pieces are decorative items rather than structural components. Common examples include:
Most pieces are made-to-order and engineered to the specifics of the home.
Millwork in Home Construction
As long as sawmills have existed, millwork has been a part of homes. It reached its apogee in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as a stylistic cornerstone of Victorian architecture, after the Industrial Revolution radically reduced the costs involved. Millwork elements were also widely employed in Colonial and Arts and Crafts interiors. While elaborate millwork was eventually replaced as more minimalist styles gained popularity, it has once again found a place in contemporary homes—adding flair, character, and warmth.
The types of wood most commonly used in millwork include pine, oak, fir, maple, poplar, and hickory. Today, millwork applies to these pieces even when they’re made from synthetic materials, like manufactured wood or melamine, and not natural wood. Costs can vary widely on different projects but expect to pay two to three times the price of materials.
Millwork vs. Casework
Making things a little more complicated is the form of carpentry classified as “casework.” Casework refers to boxed pieces, such as bookcases, cabinets, drawers, and racks—making them distinctly different from millwork. Unlike millwork, casework is rarely bespoke but mass-produced in standard dimensions and lengths. For this reason—and the lower production costs—casework is usually less expensive than millwork.
In addition to the type of wood, the appearance of millwork pieces depends on the finish—and there is a range of options. You can choose between varnish, shellacs, and lacquers, even adding wax as a secondary finish for extra buffing. By painting or staining a piece, millwork can be finished in any number of colors. Some modern designs apply bold colors to interior millwork, but neutral colors are more common for these wood elements.