A house with good bones has pleasing lines on the outside, but that artful composition has to be echoed on the inside, too. And nothing’s better for giving rooms a handsome, well-built look than wainscoting on the walls.
What is the purpose of wainscoting?
A combination of decorative boards or panels and moldings that extend partway up a wall’s face, wainscoting is a centuries-old marriage of form and style. Dating to the 1300s, the Dutch used it to shield the bottom half of plaster walls from such hazards as jostled chairs, spurs on riding boots, perhaps even carelessly swung scabbards.
Wainscoting still guards our walls, but today it’s from dirt-caked gardening shoes in mudrooms, olive-oil fingerprints in kitchens, and the inevitable scuffs in the close quarters along hallways and stairways.
Covering your walls with wainscoting made from stock boards—or “sticks”—and panels is easy to do yourself, if you know your way around a chop saw. And if you don’t, there’s wainscoting that arrives on your doorstep fully assembled and ready to install.
Below we show these and other products and some basic design options, plus a how-to plan for creating a pleasing layout. Just the kind of knowledge you’ll need to boost the architectural integrity of any bare walls in your house.
Key Questions Answered
The original wainscoting material. Paint lesser species, such as pine, or clear-coat the good stuff, such as walnut and cherry, to highlight its color and grain. Wood requires careful installation and finishing to prevent cracks and gaps caused by seasonal expansion and contraction.
Medium-density fiberboard cuts like wood but doesn’t expand, contract, warp, split, or have knots. Comes either primed for paint or veneered. Keep it away from water, which causes it to swell and break down. Specially treated moisture-resistant MDF, however, can stand up to steam in a bath.
Made from either cellular PVC or the same solid surfacing material used for kitchen counters. Looks like painted wood but won’t rot, making it ideal for baths, laundry rooms, and even a kitchen backsplash.
The long, wide sheets make installation fast—just rip it down, glue it to the wall, and finish with cap and base moldings. Unlike those in other materials, the groove profiles tend to be shallow and rough.
Design Rules of Thumb
Follow these guidelines for pleasing proportions.
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