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Wainscoting 101

March 31 2010

To dramatically transform a room in short order, consider wainscoting. Wainscoting is a style of tongue-and-groove panelling applied to the lower portion of the interior walls of a room, above the baseboard and below the chair rail. It originally served to protect the lowest portions of a wall from normal wear and tear, which was especially important before paints and wallpapers became as durable as they are today.

Though it still serves this practical purpose, people often choose wainscoting now because of the way it can lend instant character and elegance to a home. Happily, the advent of pre-fabricated kits has provided an affordable DIY alternative to hiring a carpenter to create the wainscoting from scratch, an involved and prohibitively expensive process.

The panelling is available in several styles – including flat panel, raised panel, beaded panel, and appliquéd – and you can select from a range of veneers or paint it a solid color to complement the wall above. Whichever you choose, wainscoting promises a dazzling décor upgrade sans a major investment of time or money.

A Weekend Project that Won’t Break the Bank

Frame-and-panel wainscoting installed from scratch can be both expensive and time-consuming, but prefabricated kits widely available today make for a project that can be completed in a matter of days, depending on the size of the room.

According to costhelper.com, which tracks what consumers are paying for a range of products, prefab wainscoting materials average $7 a square foot for paint-grade poplar veneer, $11 for red oak, $18 for maple, and $22 for cherry. Material costs to wainscot a 45-square-foot bathroom, for example, would be between $300 and $600, and materials for a 15-foot-by-20-foot dining room would come in at between $1,750 and $5,500. You can choose to install the materials yourself or hire a carpenter to do it. According to DIYornot.com, carpenters on average will charge about $500 to install prefabricated wainscoting in a 10-by-12-foot room.

Kits Are Your Friend

Basically, prefabricated kit components include base custom-cut raised-bevel panels and the top and bottom rails and vertical stiles you’ll use to frame them. Kits are available in a range of veneers or in unfinished wood, which you can paint to your liking. To determine the number of panels you will need, measure the perimeter of the room you plan to work on and divide by the width of the panels. Standard heights for wainscoting are usually 32 or 36 inches, though some reaches as high as 54 inches.

Choose the Right Panel for the Room

Wainscoting adds different things to different rooms. For example, raised- or flat-panel wainscoting, especially panels that reach up to the middle of the wall or even eye level, can add formality and elegance to a dining room. Beaded wainscoting painted a crisp white, meanwhile, can add brightness and cheer to a bathroom or child’s room, especially when set against a light and playful contrasting wall color or paper. 

Getting Down to Work

To begin, remove any existing baseboard and chair rail moulding, as well as any outlet covers, and establish and mark a level line for the top of the panels. Starting from one corner of the room, lay out your panels to establish proper fit and mark and cut for any electrical outlets.

Once you have established your final layout and trimmed and painted all panels, installation is quick and easy. Using construction adhesive, attach the panels and stiles to the walls. Finally, install the shoe moulding and decorative cap rail and touch up any joints or scratches with a paint brush.

Voíla! A designer makeover on a DIY budget and schedule. Visit our home remodelling section for more guides and tips!