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Modern Ways to Use Wood Paneling

Forget Grandma’s rumpus room with the floor-to-ceiling faux wood, circa 1970. While today’s version of wood paneling takes a cue from the decade that made it famous, there’s much more to it than just wood grain and knots. This guide to modern wood paneling will shine some light on this once-taboo DIY topic.

Teal wood paneling in bedroom iStock

Wood paneling used only to be seen in decades-old TV reruns, forgotten basement hangouts, and rustic cabins. But the wall feature is making a resurgence these days, popping up in many savvy designers’ on-trend renovations. This renewed appreciation for a retro building material may leave many homeowners wondering if wood paneling is right for their rooms and aesthetic, and how best to pull it off in an updated way. Let’s take a deep dive into modern wood wall paneling including all the different designs and types out there to discover what’ll work for you.

What is Modern Wood Wall Paneling?

Wood wall paneling is a building material that covers a wall’s surface in wood boards or sheets. It can be made from hardwoods, softwoods, faux woods, or even wood byproducts.

Popular in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, wood paneling found its home within Mid-century design, providing the clean, simple lines that the style embraces. It also offered a warm, rustic look for masculine dens and an affordable wall-covering option that was neutral and subtle, unlike the boldly patterned wallpapers of the era.

Different Forms of Wood Paneling

Like most building materials, modern wall paneling comes in a few variations. Typically, those variations include sheets (or panels) and individual boards. While they share the same goal of covering a wall and adding a bit of texture and style, there are a few key differences between sheets and boards.

Wood paneling sheets come in large, thin panels. They typically measure 4 feet wide by 8 feet long and are rarely thicker than ½-inch (¼ and ⅜-inch are the most typical thicknesses). These sheets are typically plywood or hardboard materials, making them very stable. They may have a range of designs on their faces, including individual flat boards with pronounced grains and knots, beadboard, or smooth and glossy fronts with warm, golden hues.

Sheets are generally less expensive than individual boards and tend to be faster to install, as a lot of square footage is installed at once time. They’re also more uniform in appearance as the materials used to produce them go through a manufacturing process.

Individual boards are the most traditional type of wood paneling. These boards are generally tongue-and-groove, meaning there is a thinner edge known as a tongue on one side of the board and a groove on the opposite side. The tongue of one board slides into the groove of the next board, creating a flat, stable, gap-free design. However, these boards may also come with square profiles, overlapping edges, and other design choices. They’re also more expensive than sheets and generally take longer to install.

The Many Styles of Modern Wood Wall Paneling

Wood paneling in kitchen iStock

Beyond the different forms in which shoppers can find modern wood wall paneling, there are multiple styles to choose from. Some options lean more toward certain aesthetics than others, but the contemporary wood wall paneling movement is fairly accepting of almost any style.

Tongue and Groove

Tongue and groove boards that slide and mate together make up a large bulk of the wood wall paneling. As described earlier, these boards have two different profiles on their opposing long edges: one with a thin, tapered tongue and the other with a groove. These boards mate together in succession, with the tongue of one fitting into the groove of the next, creating a gapless and stable design ideal for wall paneling.

In many cases, tongue and groove boards come with two faces: one side being flat and bare, with the other having a beaded (shallow-grooved) profile. They’re available primarily in an unfinished state, allowing DIYers to choose their own finish or style for a customized look.

Beadboard

Beadboard is a popular wall paneling type originally made from individual boards with tongue-and-groove profiles. Each board is roughly 3 to 3 ½ inches wide and features a shallow groove (also known as a bead) along their edges. As the boards mate together during installation, the beads create a consistent pattern resulting in the appearance of thin strips with lengthwise grooves, typically installed vertically.

Today, individual beadboards are still available, but most DIYers opt for sheets of the material instead. These boards are commonly used in traditional farmhouse-style kitchens, bathrooms, and dining rooms, mainly on the lower half or third of the wall. However, they’ve also been used more recently in some unconventional areas, such as ceilings and the sides of staircases, with great success.

Shiplap

Shiplap is commonly used in modern farmhouse designs, as it creates a clean yet rustic look that this design leans on. In fact, it’s been one of the more popular wall paneling choices over the last few years. This style consists of boards with rabbeted edges (a step-shaped recess cut along the board’s long edges) that overlap each other between courses or rows, creating small gaps between the boards. They’re generally installed horizontally, though vertical shiplap is also on trend. It’s popularly painted though it is also available in natural, unfinished varieties for DIYers and pros to finish as they like.

Board and Batten

Board and batten paneling originally started as a rustic siding option, but can have a much more modern, sophisticated look today. Traditionally, this style consists of wider boards affixed to the wall (typically vertically), with thinner boards installed over the seams between the boards to close off any gaps or unevenness.

This design was originally an exterior finish used on rustic buildings, but it’s worked its way inside, particularly with the modern industrial look that so many designers strive for. It’s often made with rough-cut wood that still features saw marks from a mill, giving it yet even more of a rustic touch. Other more sophisticated patterns may include horizontal or diagonal designs.

Raised or Flat Panel

Raised or flat panel wall paneling is the traditional style used in early colonial homes, typically on the lower half of the wall. These paneling treatments consist of rails, stiles, or horizontal and vertical frame members with grooved or rabbeted edges. Raised or flat panels (typically made from MDF today) slide into these grooves before being finished with chair rail and baseboard. While these two panels types can be used anywhere, they’re often found in foyers, dining rooms, and dens in old-world mansions.

Pallet and Reclaimed Wood

One of the newest twists on wall paneling treatments includes walls made from strips of pallet wood or other reclaimed wood species. These boards typically come in uniform widths but with varying lengths, thicknesses, and colors. When installed on a wall, they offer a mismatched look with plenty of texture and depth.

Reclaimed and pallet wood plays up an organic modern aesthetic or boho vibe, and often creates a backsplash, bathroom, or accent wall, though it may be too much for an entire room or space.

Prefinished Panels

Prefinished panels or sheets are generally made from compressed wood fibers and glue or plywood and come in a variety of patterns and finishes. They may be as simple as a glossy panel of printed wood grain with shallow grooves sliced in it to mimic individual panels or rough-textured veneers with knots and other imperfections for a rustic touch. Beadboard is also available in sheets, as are some tongue-and-groove styles.

Most often, these panels come in finished form, meaning the installer installs them by fastening them to the wall framing underneath. This allows them to skip the process of painting, staining, or sealing the paneling afterward, usually saving both time and money. However, in terms of finishes, shoppers will likely find stained, primed, painted, whitewashed, and other distressed modern looks.

How To Use Modern Wood Wall Paneling

Dog sitting on couch in living room with wood paneling iStock

One of the challenges of modern wood paneling is figuring out how to use it in a space. The following are some of the most commonly used applications.

Wainscoting

While wainscoting technically encompasses a wide variety of paneling types and heights, the most prevalent meaning today describes paneling installed only on the lower portion of a wall. Aesthetically, pros and designers suggest the lower third of the wall, but some folks prefer half-wall or even two-thirds-height installations. Typically, wainscotting requires several molding pieces, including a horizontal chair rail, placed mid-wall, to finish it off.

Floor-to-Ceiling

As the name suggests, this installation method includes any wood wall paneling that reaches from the base of the floor, up the wall, finishing at the ceiling. This can include any variety of paneling style, including beadboard, shiplap, board and batten, and reclaimed wood, among others, with the boards placed either horizontally or vertically.

Accent Wall

Folks that love the look of modern wood wall paneling but don’t want to commit to a whole-room installation might consider an accent wall. This means choosing one wall within a room and installing paneling of some sort, whether it be a half-height wainscot or reclaimed wood paneling, and then painting or wallpapering the rest of the space. This wall will create texture and interest without overwhelming the room, and provides a stunning focal point. You could even try it in super-small doses, like just behind a bar or an entryway to zone off the area in an open floor plan.