Step 2: Lay Out the Walls

measuring walls for wainscoting
Photo: Ryan Benyi
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Decide your wainscot height, and run a level line of painter's tape across the wall above it. Divide the width of the wall by the number of panels you'd like, and use that measurement to make hash marks on a strip of wood longer than the wall. You just made a swing stick—a tool that maintains even spacing as you adjust it diagonally to fit the panels onto a wall. You must account for the fact that each wall has one more stile than panel, so first pad out the wall's lower corner with one stile plus the thickness of the adjacent wall's wainscot. Butt the swing stick against this blocking, lower the other end until a hash mark lines up with the wall's far edge, and tape it in place. Use a level to transfer the hash marks to the painter's tape, as shown, which gives you the distance from the outside edge of one stile to the inside edge of the next.
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    Tools List

    • utility knife
      utility knife
    • flat prybar
      pry bar
    • chalk line
      chalk line or straightedge to mark cuts on the plywood
    • four-foot level
      4-foot level
    • circular saw
      circular saw
    • caulk gun
      caulk gun
    • studfinder
      stud finder
    • brad nailer
      nail gun
    • miter saw
      miter saw
    • japanese pull saw
      flush-cut saw to back-cut existing moldings
    • speed square
      Speed Square
    • cold chisel
      chisel

    Shopping List

    Painter's tape

    ¼inch plywood.
    Get enough to cover the entire area of your wainscoting with the grain running vertically.

    1x4 for the stiles

    1x5 for the corner stiles

    1x6 for the bottom rail.

    1x8 for the top rail and baseboard.
    Get enough to cover each wall twice.

    Stool for the chair-rail cap.
    Choose a profile deep enough to extend beyond the layered depth of the plywood, rail, and apron.

    Casing for the apron

    Panel molding to trim the panels Base-cap molding

    Shoe molding

    Panel adhesive

    2½-inch finishing nails to install the stiles, rails, baseboard, apron, and chair rail

    1½-inch finishing nails to install the panel, base cap, and shoe moldings

    Wood glue

    Wood filler

    Adhesive latex caulk.
    Choose primed boards and molding to save time.