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Wainscoting Along Stairs

For giving rooms instant personality—and protecting surfaces with style—nothing beats wainscoting. Here’s your guide to wainscoting styles, materials, and installation tips.

Wainscoting Panel Styles

Wainscoting comes in several styles. Below, we outline the most popular decorative panels to consider in your home.

Raised Panel

Raised Panel Wainscoting Photo by Joshua McHugh

Raised panels, the most traditional wainscoting style, go back to colonial days. The decorative raise is created by beveling the edges of the panel. Common height is between 30 and 40 inches, but the design can be adapted for higher-ceilinged spaces by adding a center rail to create two rows of panels.

Raised Panel Diagram

The rails, stiles, and wood panels fit together the same way as in traditional flat-panel assemblies. The bottom rail can double as the baseboard, as it does here, or the baseboard can be built up from several pieces of molding.

  1. Cap molding
  2. Cove molding
  3. Top rail
  4. Stile
  5. Raised panel
  6. Bottom rail
Raised Panel Wainscoting Diagram Illustration by Harry Bates

Flat Panel

Flat Panel Wainscoting Photo by Peter Paige

Recessed flat panels have the simple, clean lines popular in Arts and Crafts and Mission styles. The basic parts list is equally spare. It starts at the floor with the baseboard, which can be a plain piece or built up with shoe and cap moldings.

Next comes the bottom rail (the horizontal piece of the panel frame), followed by the stiles (vertical pieces of the frame) and panels, which slip into grooves cut into the edges of the stiles and rails.

The top rail completes the panel frames, and the whole assembly is crowned with a chair or cap rail. A less labor-intensive method is to panel the wall with sheet material and apply the moldings on top of it.

Flat Panel Diagram

  1. Chair rail
  2. Top rail
  3. Rail
  4. Stile
  5. Flat panel
  6. Bottom rail
  7. Baseboard
Flat Panel Wainscoting Diagram Illustration by Harry Bates

Beadboard and Flat Panel Combination

Beadboard Flat Panel Wainscoting Combination Photo by Chad Holder

Beadboard wainscoting, which had its origins in 19th-century Victorian and cottage styles, is the classic wall covering for informal spaces like kitchens, bathrooms, and back hallways. But you can fancy it up with the addition of a row of flat or raised ­panels.

Here, tongue-and-groove beadboard is combined with flat panels for a casual yet polished look that can work in a dining room or bedroom. Keeping the middle and bottom rails flush with the face of the beadboard streamlines the overall appearance.

Combination Diagram

  1. Cap rail
  2. Top rail
  3. Stile
  4. Flat panel
  5. Rail
  6. Beadboard panel
  7. Baseboard
  8. Shoe molding
Beadboard Flat Panel Combination Diagram Illustration by Harry Bates

Board and Batten

Board And Batten Wainscoting Photo by New England Classic

The Craftsman style, with its flat panels and vertical battens, emphasizes a Shaker-like simplicity. In the old days, the battens were used to conceal the seams between individual boards; today, they are typically installed over 4-foot-wide panels of hardwood-veneer plywood.

Height for board and batten wainscoting can rise up to 6 feet or even higher. At the top, a wider plate rail often replaces the chair rail to provide a platform for decorative objects.

Board and Batten Diagram

  1. Cap molding
  2. Cove molding
  3. Top rail
  4. Batten
  5. Panel
  6. Baseboard
  7. Shoe Molding
Board And Batten Wainscoting Diagram Illustration by Harry Bates

Overlay Panel

Overlay Panel Wainscoting Photo by New England Classic

Overlaid panels mimic the appearance of raised-panel wainscoting but allow for more elaborate designs. A solid wood overlay is centered between the rails and stiles of a flat panel and glued in place, creating a surrounding recess. Applied ogee molding heightens the effect.

Overlays can be deeper and more detailed than milled raised panels, for a more Neoclassical look. They can also be applied directly to a wall, with a chair rail above and base molding below, for quick and easy wainscoting.

Overlay Panel Diagram

  1. Cap molding
  2. Freeze molding
  3. Top rail
  4. Cove molding
  5. Ogee molding
  6. Overlay panel
  7. Flat panel
  8. Stile
  9. Bottom rail
  10. Trim band
  11. Baseboard
Overlay Panel Wainscoting Diagram Illustration by Harry Bates

Non-Wood Wainscoting Materials

Though wood is the traditional wainscoting material, not all wainscoting is wood. Try these durable, non-traditional materials for long-lasting style.

PVC Plastic

PVC Wainscoting Photo by William A. Boyd Jr.

Smooth and paintable, extruded PVC beadboard may be too perfect for those wanting even a hint of woodgrain or sharp profiles, but it will never warp or rot.

Embossed Metal

Embossed Metal Wainscoting Photo by William A. Boyd Jr.

For something completely different, the stamped tin we're used to seeing on ceilings can also be fastened to walls. To make it less susceptible to dents, butter the back with plaster or joint compound before mounting the tile on a 3/8-inch plywood substrate.

Ceramic Tile

Ceramic Tile Wainscoting Photo by William A. Boyd Jr.

Four-inch ceramic tile is almost as traditional for wainscoting as wood, especially in bathrooms. Many tile makers offer profiles that can be used as cap and base moldings. Newer is tile "beadboard," which combines a classic look with the durability and water resistance of tile.

Embossed MDF

Embossed MDF Wainscoting Photo by William A. Boyd Jr.

A 5/8-inch-thick, 32-by-48-inch sheet with the contours of three raised panels pressed into the surface gets fastened to the wall above base molding and capped with a chair rail. Embossed MDF lacks the shadow lines created by stiles, rails, and panels, and panel widths can't be adjusted for specific wall lengths.

Shaped MDF

Shaped MDF Wainscoting Photo by William A. Boyd Jr.

Covered with a hardwood veneer or factory-primed and ready for paint, MDF is used for beadboard, panels, stiles, rails, and moldings. More stable than solid wood, it eliminates problems caused by expansion and contraction.

Embossed Drywall

Embossed Drywall Panel Photo by William A. Boyd Jr.

A 5/8-inch-thick, 32-by-48-inch gypsum board with raised-panel shapes pressed into the face. In addition to sacrificing verisimilitude, you also must be willing to forgo any of wainscoting's protective power.

Wainscoting Installation Tips

Read these tips before installing wainscoting.

Material Prep

Sealing Wood Wainscoting Panel Photo by William A. Boyd Jr.

If you are using wood for wainscoting, whether it's staying natural or taking paint, it should be sealed all over, back and front, to minimize the expansion and contraction that can crack seams, then pre-painted or stained to eliminate the chance of movement exposing unfinished wood.

Getting Started

Leveling A Corner Out Of Plumb Photo by William A. Boyd Jr.
  • To get off to a perfect start, you may have to adjust the first strip to compensate for a corner that's out of plumb.
  • Hold the strip tight against the wall and adjust it until a level shows its plumb.
  • Measure the size of the gap that results (left). Then, starting at the end of the strip that's touching the wall, cut it lengthwise so it tapers from the amount of the gap to the strip's full width.
  • The strip will fit the angle of the wall while remaining plumb.

Wavy Walls

Furring Strips On Wavy Wall Before Wainscoting Photo by William A. Boyd Jr.

An existing wall may harbor one or more "waves" that must be flattened lest they make the wainscoting equally untrue.

  • To produce a flat, plumb nailing plane, horizontal furring strips can be fastened to wall studs through the drywall or plaster.
  • In isolated spots on a finished wall, use shims to fill the void (left). To make a chair rail fit flat against a not-so-flat wall, fasten a filler strip to the chair rail's back edge.

Uneven Floors

Leveling Uneven Floors Before Wainscoting Photo by William A. Boyd Jr.
  • Any run of floor, old or new, invariably has high and low spots, even if the difference is only 1/8 inch. So you can't just cut all the beadboards the same length and assemble from the baseboard up.
  • You must find the high spot and mark the chair-rail level line from there. To keep the top of the baseboard level, shim as needed, then, using a block equal to the height of the gap, scribe and cut the bottom edge to match the floor's ups and downs.

A Perfect Finish

Wedge That Molds To Wall For Wainscoting Photo by William A. Boyd Jr.
  • If the chair rail stops at an outside corner or is wider than a door casing, you can finish the exposed end with a return, a small wedge that "returns" the molding to the wall.
  • End the chair rail with a 45-degree cut, as if it were an outside corner.
  • Then, on a scrap piece of chair rail, cut the mating outside miter.
  • To create the wedge, make a 90-degree cut at the point on the scrap stock where the miter begins.