Have you ever noticed that in some houses a chair rail looks great, but in other houses it just looks "off" somehow? That's because there are certain rules of thumb for chair rails that give us that visual sense of being "just right." Many homeowners ignore this completely, and that's why you get an old house that looks strange.
I discovered this by accident in an old house many years ago, where the chair rail just seemed to leap away from the wall and annoy me every time I walked into the room. So when I realized I needed a chair rail in my new house, I was determined not to make the same mistake.
Understanding chair rails
Chair rails were originally designed to do just what they claimed -- to provide a rail that the back of a chair would hit when it was moved, so that the painted wall or expensive wallpaper wouldn't be marred. But that didn't last long, as fashion and trends took over. Soon chair rails were designed to be a visual point in the room that enhanced the tall ceilings, handsome floors, or other areas that were deemed eye-catching.
But it was also a matter of symmetry. We are most comfortable in rooms that fit proportions that appear suitable to the eye. In fact, much of our understanding of proportion comes from way back in the first century BC, when Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio determined that a proportional relationship of 1:7 was necessary for harmony in a building. For instance, if a column is 10 inches at the base, it should be 70 inches tall. That's what feels "right" to us -- anything more or less might feel "wrong."
And so it is with the chair rail. Now I know that the chair rail in my old house was at a height that made the room look oddly skewed, and that led to my unexplained annoyance every time I looked at it. I was bound and determined that this would not happen in my new house!
Determining the right chair rail height
Many people think that 36 inches is the proper height of a chair rail in a typical home. But what is typical? Homes don't have a set distance from floor to ceiling these days. In fact, the ceiling height might vary from one room to another. How do you decide where the chair rail goes?
If you are going to create a chair rail that is for decorative purposes only, look to the height of your room to determine the height of the rail. For example, most architects install the chair rail molding at 25 percent of room height. If your room has 10-foot ceilings, the chair rail would look best at about 30 inches from the floor. Other factors might come into play, such as thick crown molding or wide baseboards. In that case, try out your chair rail at different heights for a while to see which appeals most to you.
Tough choices in chair rails
I tried the 25 percent rule with the chair rail in my house, and guess what? It didn't work. That's because I needed a chair rail for the purpose it was originally intended, which was to prevent scuffing on the wall. That's when tough decisions come into play. Should you simply change the chairs to a different profile that doesn't menace the wall? Or should you opt for a chair rail that is at the "wrong" height?
Fortunately, my chair rail was needed only at one part of the wall, which happened to be right between two windows. That meant that I could use the chair rail where I needed it, allow it to terminate at each window, and not carry the look through the rest of the room. It was a happy circumstance, but what if I had needed a rail to go all around the room?
After the experience with a chair rail in my old house, I would definitely change out the chairs before I went for a rail on the wrong level. There is no underestimating the annoyance that comes from a room that just looks "wrong." So when you do install a chair rail, make sure to get the dimensions right -- you will definitely notice if you don't!