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How to Add Wainscoting to Your Walls

Wainscoting is an inexpensive way to add a warm, elegant look to your decor, and can be done in a variety of colors and types to suit your specific style.

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Step 1: Choose a Style

Wainscoting refers to a paneling style that lines the lower part of the walls in a room. The three main types of wainscoting are beadboard (both individual pieces and panels), plywood panels, and decorative panels like those of a door. Complete kits with tongue & groove beadboard panels are readily available at home improvement stores. Wainscoting can also be created from other materials (e.g. metal sheets, cultured marble) for uses in various rooms of the house.

No matter the style, the basic method for installing waincoting is about the same for all.

In this project, we use 3/4" birch plywood, 1/4" beadboard panels, and chair rail molding to create the wainscoting.

Step 2: Remove the Baseboards and Faceplates

If you have baseboards, you'll need to remove them before installing the wainscoting. Use a utility knife to break the seal where the baseboard molding paint meets the wall to score the joint all around the room. Use a pry bar to loosen -- take care not to press too hard on the walls for fear of breaking through -- and remove the baseboard. Remove any nails still sticking through.

Remove faceplates from electrical outlets. In this project, plywood is used to replace old wall material and then beadboard wainscoting is added on top of the plywood, adding a full 1" thickness to the wall. Loosen electrical outlets and bring them out to compensate for the extra space.

Step 3: Mark the Chair Rail Height

After the plywood is installed (or if your project involves applying beadboard over drywall), use a stud finder to find and mark the locations of the wall studs. Mark a point on the wall to indicate the height of the chair rail; the typical height of wainscoting is 32", but it can go as high as you like. Then use a straight edge and a level to draw a line across the wall to serve as a guide for installing the chair rail.

mark the chair rail height

Step 4: Determine Measurements for Cutting

Measure the wall from end to end to determine the area to be covered by widths of wainscoting panels. For electrical outlets, measure from the chair rail line to the outlet, and then from a wall corner to the outlet to determine the exact location for outlet hole; transfer those measurements to the wainscoting.

Step 5: Cut the Wainscoting and Chair Rail Molding

Using a circular saw, cut the wainscoting pieces to length. Do not cut all of the pieces at once; instead, dry fit the boards against the wall first and cut them one at a time as you go along, because the length of the boards may change due to uneven floors.

Cut outlet holes in the wainscoting pieces with a jig or sabre saw.

Cut the chair rail molding with a miter saw, using 45-degree angle cuts for corners and 90-degree angle cuts for where the molding meets a door or window frame.

cut the wainscoting and chair rail molding

Step 6: Attach the Wainscoting Panels

Run a wavy line of construction adhesive along the backs of several of the boards and spread the glue with a notched trowel. Then, keeping the panels flush with the chair rail line, adhere the boards to the wall by pressing them into place with the heels of your hands. Secure the panels with a pneumatic nailer at the wall stud locations.

Step 7: Stain or Paint; Attach the Trim

Nail the chair rail molding into place at wall stud locations with #6 or #8 finishing nails, being careful not to drive nails near electrical outlets or switches. Fill in nail holes and seal the seams and gaps with paintable caulk.

The wainscoting is stained to match adjacent cabinetry in this project. If you choose to paint the wainscoting, be sure to prime it first with a high-quality primer.

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