One way to really dress up a room and try your hand at some different decorating techniques is to consider wainscoting. There are a number of ways to combine materials to create some very attractive wainscoting effects, and the cost doesn’t need to be prohibitive.

One way to really dress up a room and try your hand at some different decorating techniques is to consider wainscoting. There are a number of ways to combine materials to create some very attractive wainscoting effects, and the cost doesn’t need to be prohibitive.

Traditionally, wainscoting is tongue and groove boards or raised or flat paneling sections that are applied to the lower part of a wall. The wainscoting extends from the top of the baseboard up to a height of usually between 3 and 5 feet off the floor, and is topped off with a horizontal molding. In addition to its decorative appeal, wainscoting had the very practical advantage of protecting the lower portion of the wall from wear and tear.

Today, however, wainscoting has taken on a somewhat less specific definition. It can be just about any combination of materials, including paint, wood, wallpaper and even fabric.

A wainscoting application consists of three elements: the lower portion of the wall, the upper portion of the wall, and the dividing line between the two. How you mix and match those three elements is up to your individual taste and budget.

Splitting Up The Wall

One of the first things to decide for any wainscoting project is where the dividing line will be between the two different materials. For a room with an 8-foot-high ceiling, a division of approximately 3 feet on the lower half and 5 feet on the upper half tends to give the best balance. Many Craftsman-style homes used the reverse of that, with about 5 feet of paneling on the lower half, capped with a wider molding that was suitable for shallow storage. For best appearance, the dividing line should not be exactly half way up the wall.

To get a better idea of how different proportions will work, tape some newspaper or other material on the wall at a couple of different heights. This will give you a better representation of how the two halves will balance out, and you can adjust them accordingly.

Installing Traditional Wainscoting

To achieve the look of a board wainscoting, you can install individual narrow, tongue and groove boards; you can install wider boards that are milled on the face to look like two or three narrower boards, which simplifies installation; or you can install 4-foot-wide beaded paneling, which again replicates the look of individual boards but installs faster. With any of these methods, finish off the top of the boards with a horizontal molding such as a wainscot cap or a chair rail.

For a paneled look, there are kits available that include a routed base molding, a routed top molding, routed vertical strips, and the panels themselves. The pieces all interlock with one another, and as long as you take some time with the layout to ensure that the panels are balanced to the width of the wall, you can achieve a beautiful, traditional paneled wainscoting in a relatively short time. If you are an avid woodworker, there are specialized router bits that help you cut the individual pieces yourself and save some money.

With wood, you have the choice of painting or staining the material to get the look you want. For painting, the boards and paneling are available in medium-density fiberboard (MDF), which paints nicely and is less expensive than solid wood. For stained wainscoting, you can select from pine, fir, oak, cherry, maple and other woods.

Wood strips, paneling and moldings can all be found at most home centers and lumberyards, along with all the installation materials you need. Some larger stores also carry the paneling kits, or they can order them for you. You will also find a wide selection of wainscoting paneling kits online.

Other Wainscoting Materials

In addition to traditional wood, there are lots of other material combinations that will work very well together. You can experiment with different combinations of materials to achieve the exact look that works for your décor. In general, heavier materials such as wood and fabric look best on the lower half of the wall. Also, darker paint colors and darker, more heavily patterned wallpapers look best on the bottom.

Your wainscoting choice may be something as simple as two different colors of paint. You can also use a solid paint on one section of the wall, and some type of textured paint effect on the other section.

Another easy wainscoting can be achieved with two different wallpapers. Select a lighter paper with a more open pattern for the upper half of the wall, and a darker paper or one with a vertical stripe or heavy pattern for the bottom. You can also combine the two materials by using paint on one section of the wall and wallpaper on the other.

With any of these combinations, separate the two sections of wall with a painted or stained wood molding. To really accent the installation, finish everything off with a crown molding as well.

Remodeling and repair questions? E-mail Paul at


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