Unlike some materials, homeowners can stain, varnish or clear-coat hardwood molding, such as oak, maple and mahogany, for a natural wood grain look without special paints or veneers. This material is popular with homeowners and builders despite being more likely to crack under changes in temperature or humidity and requiring more maintenance than synthetic materials. Alternatives to hardwood molding include softwood, medium-density fiberboard, polyurethane and plaster.
Softwood materials, such as pine wood, are generally less expensive and less dense than hardwood, but softwood tends to be less fire resistant and shares the same sensitivity to temperature and humidity.
Builders can achieve the appearance of wood grain with a wood veneer on medium-density fiberboard or paint it to match or contrast wall colors. This material contains resin and sawdust fibers and is less sensitive to environmental conditions than hardwood and less likely to expand, shrink or crack.
Polyurethane is also more resistant to warping than hardwood, and it has high density and is resistant to stress. The material does not attract termites and other pests that feed on wood, but it dents more easily and does not come in wood-grain finishes.
Builders use plaster, another temperature- and humidity-resistant material, with plaster walls. Plaster molding is typically custom made, requiring professional installation. Because of the custom design, designers can create uniquely sculpted shapes and lines with the material.