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All About Dining Rooms

If you find your dining room table has become a place that collects dust and mail, maybe it’s time to rethink the space. 

Dining Room John Gruen

Once upon a time the formal dining room was the main spot for sharing meals—these days not so much. It’s a common lament among homeowners that this room just doesn’t get as much use as it should. If you find your dining room table has become a place that collects dust and mail, maybe it’s time to rethink the space.

Consider why your existing dining room isn’t working: Poor flow and an overly formal tone are frequent complaints. Perhaps your current dining room functions as an awkward pass-thru and feels like less of a destination than it should. If you use the dining room only on special occasions, it may be time to give it a secondary purpose. Incorporating library-style bookshelves or a tidy work area are ways to get more function out of the room.

Looking for greater connectivity and a more casual layout? Then an open plan that combines the dining area with the kitchen or living room might be the answer. And don’t underestimate the power of a fresh coat of paint and a new chandelier—both easy weekend projects that can transform a space. To gather ideas, look at images of dining rooms online and in home design magazines. Note what you like about the spaces and use that as a guide to determine your palette, materials, and décor style.

Budget Concerns and Financing

Once you’ve gathered inspiration for your project, set your budget. Arriving at that number depends on the scope of your project and who is doing the work. There are a variety of ways to finance your renovation including a home equity loan or line of credit, as well as the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) and personal loans.

Hiring a Pro

Most dining room projects are DIY-friendly, unless you’re doing a major overhaul and taking out walls. If so, consult a qualified professional to make sure it’s not a load-bearing wall and there are no plumbing lines, ducts, or electrical wiring in the way. If you’re installing sconces in a new location, hire an electrician, and for any elaborate millwork you’ll probably want to bring in a carpenter, depending on your skill level. An interior designer can help plan a functional layout, and select a palette, furniture, and finishes.

Dining Room Basics

There are a few guidelines to keep in mind, whether you’re doing a complete remodel or a cosmetic refresh.

Here are the main dining room components to consider:

Flooring

You’ll want a dining room floor that’s easy to keep clean, since you’ll likely be dealing with crumbs and spills. Your choice of flooring will also need to work with surrounding rooms. Hardwood floors are ideal for a seamless transition from one room to another. Wood is still the most popular choice for a dining room floor, though moving chairs in and out from the table frequently can take a toll.

Solid wood flooring includes both prefinished and unfinished varieties. Prefinished planks come stained and ready to install, whereas unfinished ones get sanded, stained and sealed on site. Engineered wood is a lower-priced alternative to hardwood that’s easier to install. Because it’s not solid (it has a veneer), you won’t be able to sand and refinish it as much as hardwood. You could also get the wood-look with luxury vinyl planks or laminate.

If you’re employing an area rug, be sure it’s large enough. It should extend 36 inches beyond the dining table, when chairs are in the pushed-in position.

Furniture

Most dining rooms require a table and chairs and a serving/storage area, usually accommodated by a sideboard, breakfront, or china cabinet. To find the right table, consider the shape of the room. It may seem obvious, but a square or round table will look best in a square room and an oblong table, such as an oval or rectangular one, will work in a rectangular room. You’ll need at least 36 inches on all sides of the table for easy passage. Also, look at the base—a trestle or pedestal can fit more guests than a four-legged model, though legs offer added stability.

Lighting

To light the dining room, you’ll need a mix of overall illumination, which usually comes from a single ceiling fixture, and decorative accent lighting, such as wall sconces. To find the right size for an overhead fixture, take the dimensions of the room and add them together. That number in inches is the correct diameter for a ceiling light. Your light should also be proportionate to your dining table—make sure the table is at least one foot wider than the light on all sides. Pay attention to height, too: There should be 30 inches between the bottom of a chandelier or pendant and the tabletop. Consider putting overhead lights on dimmers, so you’ll be able to control the lighting while entertaining.

If you’re adding a ceiling medallion, divide the square footage of the room by 7 to find the ideal diameter in inches. And if you’re thinking of installing wall sconces, place them 5 to 6 feet up from the floor. A sconce that’s hung too high or too low will not only look odd, but it may not give off the right kind of ambient light and it could cast unflattering shadows.

Molding and Millwork

Baseboard: Used to transition where the walls meet the flooring, baseboards usually measure between three and five inches, and are accented with shoe molding.

Chair rail: Historically, chair railing was installed to protect walls from being damaged by furniture. Nowadays it’s more decorative. It can be used on its own as an accent or to delineate two different wall treatments, such as paint and wallpaper.

Crown: Also known as cornice molding, this molding literally “crowns” your room, easing the transition between walls and ceiling. Most historic moldings used to be made of plaster, but today many are wood or composite. Crown molding can range from simple three-inch styles to 20-inch-tall ones with elaborate silhouettes.

Cove: Like crown molding, this concave-shaped trim is used where walls and ceilings meet.

Wainscot: Any wood paneling that typically covers the lower half of a wall is referred to as wainscot. There are many types, including raised panel, beadboard, flat panel, and board-and-batten. Raised panels have thick beveled edges and are more common in formal dining rooms, especially in Colonial-style houses.

Beadboard features slender tongue-and-groove strips of wood and is often used in bathrooms and kitchens. Shaker-style flat panels feature wood stiles and rails placed over a flat sheet of solid wood, plywood, or fiberboard, and can work with both farmhouse and contemporary styles. Board-and-batten panels have wide planks laid vertically with narrow strips covering the seams. They usually run higher up the wall and are a common sight in the dining rooms of Arts and Crafts houses.

Paint

When choosing a color for the dining room, consider the surrounding spaces. Color is carried from one room to another, so hues that are harmonious will create a pleasing flow. Or you could take the opportunity to create some drama with a bold color choice.

Take into account the amount of light a room gets when picking a paint finish. A flat finish works well in low-traffic rooms; it hides imperfections and diffuses light. Matte is similar to flat, with just a hint of sheen.

Eggshell has a subtle sheen and it’s fairly easy to clean. Satin is glossier than eggshell and can also be wiped down effortlessly. Full-gloss paint creates a shiny, smooth surface that’s the easiest to scrub, which is why it’s often used on trim, woodwork, and doors. It’s worth noting that the glossier the paint, the more it highlights details, including imperfections. Flat or matte sheens tend to work best for ceilings, especially if the plaster is less than perfect.

Window Treatments

Draperies dress up a dining room and provide shade as well as privacy. To create the illusion of taller ceilings, hang them several inches above the window casing. Most standard curtain panels measure 84, 96, or 108 inches, allowing you to hang them well above the casing before the length gets too short.

Cornice boards are another way to bring a formal tone to the dining room—they’re also a relatively easy DIY project. When upholstered, they lend a high-end designer look to any window. Pair them with Roman shades for a modern update on this traditional window treatment.

Home Improvements to Consider

Unless you’re planning on taking out walls to create an open concept space, most dining room improvements fall under the cosmetic category. Upgrading lights with a new chandelier and sconces can improve ambience.

Adding wainscot to the walls or coffers to the ceiling will give your space old-house charm, and new hardwood floors offer a solid return on investment. Built-in bookshelves, window seats, and custom storage cabinets are permanent fixtures that will typically cost more than freestanding furniture pieces but will add value and character to your home. Scenic wallpaper, historically a feature in dining rooms, makes for a dramatic focal point, though the quickest and least expensive way to improve the look of your dining room walls is with a fresh coat of paint.

Repairs and DIY projects

Whether you use your dining room every day or only on special occasions, you’ll still need to maintain it. Common projects include repairing scratched wood floors, fixing a wobbly table, and quieting a noisy radiator.

There are plenty of opportunities for DIY upgrades, too. Try a new light fixture to change the whole vibe of a room; swap in a mid-century chandelier for a modern update, or a farmhouse-style pendant for a rustic look. To give an old dining room set new life, reupholster the chairs or refinish the table.

Add a bit of architectural character to the walls by installing a simple chair rail or a more elaborate treatment, such as board-and-batten paneling topped with a ledge to display pottery or art.

Recommended Tools and Equipment

You’ll need a few basic tools for most dining room projects. Among them are a standard level, tape measure, hammer, screwdriver, and cordless drill with driver and bits, with a few add-ons for bigger projects.

For instance, a miter saw makes the corner cuts needed for installing raised panel wainscot much easier. To make sure you have all the equipment you need, refer to the recommended tools needed for specific projects.