5 secrets for way-good wainscoting

John Morell

A century or two ago, wood paneling along the lower half of a home's walls showed that the owners were prosperous and took care of their property. It wasn't always easy to mill or ship finished wood, which made large panels and boards a pricey addition. The paneling, known as wainscoting, served a dual purpose: due to the humidity in older homes without modern HVAC and the quality of the paint, it wasn't uncommon to have wet spots form on walls and mold develop in dank hallways. The panels also protected the often fragile plaster from the scrapes and gouges of everyday living. Attractive paneling covered up these imperfections and relieved the owner from having to re-paint the walls every spring.

Today wainscoting in older homes doesn't have the same purpose, but it's still prized. If your old home has been "modernized" by a previous owner who removed the paneling, you can give it that 19th Century touch with new panels or a new type of wainscoting on the walls. Here's a guide to shopping for wainscoting:

  1. Keep an open mind. Look at solid wood panels, as well as classic beadboard styles. For fun, there are even metal panels. Paneling can get expensive, so carefully weigh your options. If you must have solid panels, consider getting a paint-ready pine. And don't dismiss engineered wood options too soon. Many manufacturers make panels from veneered, medium-density fiberboard (MDF) that look just like expensive hardwoods.
  2. Figure the height. To determine how high the wainscoting should go, divide the wall into thirds. In general, wainscoting covers the lower third of the wall. For a more dramatic look, you could also move it up so that it covers two-thirds from the bottom. It's not impossible for the average do-it-yourselfer to take on a wainscoting project, but if you have doubts, it's best to enlist the aid of an experienced contractor.
  3. Decide where you want it. Bathrooms are a classic space to use wainscoting in older homes. It may not hold up as well as tile, but with care it can give your home a great look. Installed along the inside of a staircase, it can shield the wall from damage as people move up and down the stairs. While you might be thinking of wainscoting solely for its look, it does serve a good purpose by protecting your walls.
  4. Go faux. If you like the appearance but not the cost, you can create a similar look with a few tricks: install a simple molding at a particular height above the floor; then paint the wall below that point with a brash, contrasting color. You can also try wallpaper below the molding line.
  5. Pick an appropriate style. Kits are available with elaborate designs and inlays, but while they might be beautiful, keep the overall style of your home in mind. If yours is a fairly simple Craftsman bungalow from the early 20th Century, intricately carved wainscoting that looks like it belongs in a museum might appear out of place.

While wainscoting isn't permanent, it can be a lot of work to peel off and start over. Have a solid idea of what you want and how it will look before you begin covering up your walls.

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