One of my favorite things about architecture and design is the way in which it is so responsive to changing needs. Did you know that wainscoting was originally used to keep old cold drafts from poorly insulated walls? The wind-proof paneling was then decorated to look less utilitarian. This explains why we see a lot of wainscoting in Pittsburgh—a place with historical roots and cold winters!
However, the use of wainscoting has evolved and has invaded the DIY scene as a quick way to add interest to plain walls. In fact, I’m tackling a project with it right now!
Here’s how to pull it off:
The hardest part may be deciding what type of wainscoting is for you. “Wainscoting” is a broad range term and encompasses everything from tile to paneling, painted décor, and anything else you can affix to your wall for a touch of style. Most often, the clerks of your local lumber store will assume you are referring to beadboard—the most commonly used panel. It is made of wood or wood composite and can be painted or left unfinished for staining. It consists of vertical strips of wood (usually between 2 and 4” wide) with a thin bead of wood connecting them. Shop around and find out what style suits you best—some even have raised panels and insets for visual depth.
Because the height of your walls may be different from the height of your neighbor’s walls, you need to pay attention to the height of the panel you are selecting. Some come in pre-cut heights—usually 36 or 42” to fit a standard 8’ wall. The bottom line rule-of-thumb is that a perfectly eye-catching wainscoting panel will be one third of the wall’s height. Remember, this does include your baseboard so factor that height in when considering the panel.
Another thing to consider is something called a chair rail. The chair rail can stand alone in a room or it acts as a graceful finish to the top of the wainscoting. The original purpose of chair rails is rather straightforward: they prevented the backs of dining chairs from damaging the walls behind them when they were slid out from the table. While that is still a great reason to install them, they are also a beautiful addition to any room.
Consider also the wainscoting material. If you are installing it in a room that gets a lot of wear (think family game room), choose a high-density fiberboard (HDF or MDF) which is a wood composite that is reinforced and pressure treated to resist denting. Other hardwoods would also be a good choice but can be pricy.
Chair rails are often sold in the same categories of moldings (baseboards, crown molding, etc). This means you have a wide range of materials to choose from. While basswood is light, easy to work with, and reasonably priced, remember, it is also a very soft wood that will not hold up to your busy family. Basswood moldings are great for crown moldings placed at the top of your wall where they are unlikely to be disturbed. Again, fiberboards and solid hardwoods are your best choice for a chair rail, particularly if you are using it for its original purpose.
Installation is a cinch. If you opt for paneled wainscoting, the panels generally interlock with ease. They can then be nailed into the wall along each stud. Most of the more ornate patterns come pre-milled and assembled but may require a bit of work with cutting and matching the patterns at corners. If you choose a tiled wainscoting, be sure you have the proper underlayment behind your wall—I recommend Fiberock (essentially a cement sheet that holds the tile in place).
What am I using in my own project? I’m using a 3-1/4” Cape Cod style beadboard with a very simple chair rail on top. This way, I don’t have to replace my existing baseboard with anything more stylized. I am choosing to panel just one wall as a decorative accent. When finished, I will put an occasional table in front of that wall and decorate it with my favorite fall decorations. It will balance out the heavy furniture I have on the opposite wall and add a touch of warmth and historical charm. If I can do it, you can too!