Material Matters
Wainscoting's looks, how it holds up, and its cost depend on what it's made of.

Solid wood
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.
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MDF
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.
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Plastic
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.
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Plywood
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.
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