Canadian Woodworking

Classic Wainscoting

Author: Carl Duguay
Photos: Elite Trimworks
Illustration: James Provost
Published: December January 2008

Add charm, character and visual appeal to any room with the classic look of wainscoting.

Wainscoting is a wood covering that is applied to the lower portion of a wall. In the past, wainscoting provided a practical way to help keep warmth in and dampness out, as well as to enhance the look of the ever present stone walls. Wainscoting was even used in state rooms on trains and boats. Today, you can use the rich look of solid wood wainscoting as a decorative element to dramatically transform just about any room in your house into a warm, inviting space.

Flat panel

Raised panel

Beaded panel – paint grade MDF

Beaded panel –- veneered

The Anatomy of Wainscoting

A wainscot wall consists of a frame that is made up of a top cap (also called a chair rail), an upper rail, at least two stiles and a lower rail. The rails and stiles enclose one or more panels or an arrangement of vertical boards. Three pieces of optional trim: a cornice, bottom cap, and shoe, serve as additional design elements.

Wainscoting is fastened to the underlying stud wall frame. If the wainscoting is constructed entirely of hardwood it has to be attached to the wall studs by means of nailing strips. If the wainscoting is made of a combination of hardwood and paneling, or entirely of an engineered wood product like MDF, then it can be attached to the wall studs directly on top of the drywall. Typically a wainscot wall will be from 36″ to 42″ high.

Solid Wood Wainscoting

You can mill all the lumber you need for a wainscot project by yourself. This, of course, was the traditional way of making wainscoting. While this provides you with the greatest amount of design flexibility and allows you to use whatever species of lumber you want, it is quite time consuming and expensive. If you go this route, an industrial shaper equipped with a power feeder is the ideal machine to use for milling the decorative edging. However, you can also use a router table – it will just take longer, particularly to rout all the vertical boards.

There are a range of edge forming router bits (see ‘Basic Routing’ article in this issue) and tongue and groove paneling bits that you can choose from to mill the profiles for the frame components. Freud also has a reversible wainscoting bit that cuts perfectly matched profiles. You will have to use tongue and groove or shiplap joinery for the vertical boards in order to accommodate changes in seasonal moisture content of the wood.
It’s much easier to apply a finish to all the pieces before you install the wainscoting. Remember to finish the back of each piece as well.

Panel Wainscoting

Using plain or framed panels is probably the most common method of installing wainscoting today. It’s more economical than all solid wood wainscoting, and easier to install. For the panels you can use MDF, high density fiberboard, hardwood plywood or beadboard. You could use a combination of solid wood for the wainscoting frame and veneered ply or beadboard (in the same wood species) for the panels; or you could use MDF for all the wainscoting components, which is probably the best choice if you plan on painting the wainscoting. In fact you can even dispense with panels altogether and simply install a wainscoting frame over the existing drywall. If you go this route you’ll want to ensure that the drywall is flat and blemish free. Paint the drywall before you apply the framing. Beadboard is a sheet product, typically ⅜” thick, with beaded grooves that simulate the appearance of tongue and groove paneling.

It’s available in a paint grade MDF and as a wood-laminated veneer core, which is very stable and less conducive to warping than MDF core sheet stock.

While milling solid wood components for the wainscoting frame isn’t difficult, it can be somewhat time consuming, and may necessitate your purchasing additional router bits to make the edge profiles. Fortunately, most building supply centres carry some solid wood moulding, though typically in oak. Custom manufacturers, like Elite Trimworks, carry a much wider selection of moulding and trim. They also offer customized wainscoting kits, which contain everything you need to install a hardwood-veneered wainscot wall or a paint grade MDF wall.

Installing Wainscoting

If you are installing solid wood wainscoting then you’ll have to anchor the wainscoting to the wall. You will first need to locate all the wall studs. Screw 1″ x 2″ nailing strips to the finished wall surface, directly into the underlying studs. Attach one strip at the bottom, one near the top and one in the middle. Screw or nail the wainscoting frame and vertical boards to the nailing strips, don’t glue them. It’s best to install box extenders to bring the electrical receptacles out flush with the front of the wainscoting. You’ll find box extenders at any electrical supplies outlet. Remember to exercise caution when working around electrical outlets.

If you are installing panels in place of vertical boards then you can attach the wainscot frame (whether the frame components are solid wood or paint grade stock) and the panels directly on the drywall. It will be easier if you apply a finish to the wainscoting before installation. Remember to apply a finish to the back of each piece as well. Careful stock preparation will pay dividends in the final look of the wainscoting. Nail holes in the top cap and lower rail will be most visible, so you should fill them, using a product like Elmer’s Tinted Wood Filler. Wainscoting really is a wonderful way to enhance the look of any room, and it’s not as difficult to install as you might think.


Carl Duguay - [email protected]

Carl is a Victoria-based furniture maker and the web editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement.

2 Comments

  1. May I suggest a Part 2 to this article. One zooming into layout, proportion, planning. For example panel sizing for any over all pleasing look, when dealing with a variety of wall sizes in a room or rooms. Proportional sizing of rails and stiles in relation to those panels. Lastly simple spacing calculations How To’s.

    1. Thanks for your feedback Roger – it’s something that we’ll definitely give consideration to.

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