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When Lucy and Steve Crowley e-mailed Ask TOH, seeking help enhancing the dining room walls in their nearly-70-year-old Colonial Revival home in Cincinnati, the space already had decorative baseboard and chair-rail moldings. They thought about changing the look with wainscoting, but Tom Silva had a plan to get that look with less fuss. “Traditional stile-and-rail wainscoting is a nice detail,” he says, “but it’s expensive, and in a finished room it usually means making a mess of your molding.”

Tom’s trick to getting the wainscot look for less keeps the existing molding in place and uses the wall to stand in as the frame and panel. He builds rectangular picture frames from base cap molding, then spaces them evenly around the room for a custom look, attaching them to the wall with nails and glue. Real wainscoting often calls for twice the work: building frames from square stock around a decorative panel. Tom’s easy DIY wainscoting solution can finish 33 linear feet of wall in a day. The base cap stock adds architectural detail and texture to the wall without busting the budget—it runs $1 to $2 per linear foot for primed pine, and comes in a range of styles to complement moldings you already have.

Follow along to learn how to install wainscoting the easy way.

Step 1

Pick Your Look

Photo by Meg Reinhardt

Base cap molding, which has flat sides that rest against the baseboard and the wall, is sold in 8-foot lengths starting at about $1 per linear foot. Home centers usually stock profiles made from primed pine or MDF, though PVC is also an option for outdoor projects. Styles range from simple coves to ornate ogees. Panel molding, which can also be used for wall frames, is usually wider, thicker, and sometimes includes a rabbet that fits over a piece of square stock, giving the frame a more substantial look.

Here are some common base cap profiles.
A: 3⁄4-by-1 3⁄8 primed MDF; $1.30 per linear foot
B: 5⁄8-by-1 5⁄8 pine; $1.22 per linear foot
C: 3⁄4-by-1 1⁄4 aspen; $1.50 per linear foot
D: 11⁄16-by-1 3⁄8 primed poplar; $1.25 per linear foot
E: 3⁄4-by-1 1⁄4 aspen; $1.62 per linear foot; all from The Home Depot

Step 2

Size Up Your Wall Frames

Photo by Ricky Rhodes

Measure the width of the window, including the casing. Divide the number in half for a double window.

Step 3

Take the Distance Between the Baseboard and Chair-Rail Molding

Photo by Ricky Rhodes

Then subtract 7 inches. This accounts for a 3 ½ inch space top and bottom, or the width of two 1x4 “rails.” The calculations in Steps 1 and 2 provide a rough frame size.

Step 4

Divide the Wall Length by the Rough Width of a Frame

Photo by Ricky Rhodes

Then stretch or narrow the rectangles until can you can fit full frames that start and end with space for a “stile.” Tom likes an odd number of frames; the ones he installed here are about the width of a window sash.

Step 5

Determine Number of Wall Frames

Photo by Ricky Rhodes

Note each wall’s length on paper. Tom follows the steps on the previous page to determine the width of the wall frames. Every wall will have one more stile than wall frame. Chances are you won’t get a whole number when you divide the wall by the rough frame size, so adjust the frame’s width until you do. Repeat the process on the remaining walls and jot down how many panels the room needs.

Step 6

Cut the Parts

Photo by Ricky Rhodes

Set the miter saw 45-degrees to the right. Measure between the baseboard and chair rail, subtract 7 inches, and mark that length on the saw stand from the blade’s left face. With the widest part of the molding against the fence, miter the profile’s left end, slide the wood to the left ½ inch past the mark, and make another cut. Cut the remaining vertical pieces the same way. Now swing the saw 45-degrees to the left, align the molding’s left long point with the mark, and trim to final length. Trim the horizontal parts the same way according to the wall frame’s width.

Step 7

Glue Up the Miters

Photo by Ricky Rhodes

Gather the moldings onto the workbench and dry-fit a panel together to ensure that you have the right parts. Add wood glue to one end of a miter joint, as shown.

Step 8

Make a Corner

Photo by Ricky Rhodes

Bring the miter joint together while holding both pieces of wood down on the workbench, as shown. Work the miter back and forth to distribute the glue. Wipe any squeeze-out with a damp rag or your finger.

Step 9

Hold the Joint with Nails

Photo by Ricky Rhodes

Drive a pair of 1-inch-long 23-gauge nails at a slight downward angle from one side of the miter into the other, then repeat in the opposite direction. You can use 1-inch-long 18-gauge nails, but you’ll have to fill the holes with putty before painting. Once you’ve made a corner, complete the wall frame by gluing and nailing the last two pieces in place.

Step 10

Sand the Squeeze-Out

Photo by Ricky Rhodes

Make all the wall frames first, which gives the glue that squeezed out of the miter time to tack over. Before installing the DIY wainscoting, rub each miter with sandpaper to remove any glue, as shown. Don’t worry about the holes left behind by the 23-gauge nails—paint will fill those spots.

Step 11

Use the Spacer Block

Photo by Ricky Rhodes

Place a 1x4 scrap tight in a corner of the room, then strike a line, as shown, to represent the position of the wall frame’s side. Remove the scrap, but keep it nearby to set the top edge of the wall frame.

Step 12

Glue the Wall Frames

Photo by Ricky Rhodes

Keep your nailer nearby. Add a bead of wood glue along the back side of the panel.

Step 13

Attach the Panels

Hold the spacer block underneath the chair rail. Butt the top of the wall frame tight to the spacer and even with your pencil lines on the wall. The spacing underneath the wall frame should be the same, which you can check with a second spacer block. Drive 23-gauge nails every 5 to 8 inches along the molding, as shown, or space 18-gauge nails about every 10 inches.

Step 14

Finish the Room

Photo by Ricky Rhodes

Reposition the spacer block for the next frame and continue working around the room. Add putty to any 18-gauge nail holes, then sand them smooth. Fill in any gaps between the frames and the wall with acrylic caulk. All that’s left to give the wall frames the look of real wainscot: Paint the lower wall the same color as the molding to unify the parts.