Wood walls have a long history. In early colonial times, boards and shingles that skinned over a house’s skeleton often formed the interior surfaces as well. Planks made up the partition walls. Later, vertical boards were nailed to studs, often with a decorative bead or chamfered V along their edges.
Walls that were not plastered were often paneled. While the wealthy had fancy woodwork, most homes featured flat-backed claddings similar to those used on the exterior—usually boards with interlocking “lapped” or tongue-and-groove joints to keep out water and cold winds. When factory millwork became available in the Victorian era, decorative beaded boards routinely covered walls in utility areas such as kitchens and baths.
Simple, practical, and attractive, such wall claddings are back in demand once more. Lumberyards and home centers are offering products that ease installation, and designers are specifying them everywhere from formal manses to industrial spaces to simple cottage interiors. Coming up here and on the following pages, TOH helps sort through the options.
“Shiplap House,” so named for this 1815 shed addition to an early-18th-century house in Annapolis, Maryland, showcases a well-preserved historical example of the flush, flat-backed siding. At the time, clapboards were the norm, their beveled profile designed to shed water. Shiplap boards had interlocking lapped joints along their edges to seal out the weather.
Do Your Prep Work: Important Questions To Ask
Individual boards can cost under $1 per linear foot for unfinished pine, and up to $20 per linear foot for the reclaimed stuff. A standard 4-by-8-foot MDF beadboard panel runs about $30, while individual beaded pine boards go for about $2 per linear foot, unfinished.
DIY or Hire a Pro?
A good project for experienced DIYers. The biggest challenges are starting off perfectly level (or plumb) and working around obstacles such as windows and doors. Doing a ceiling? You may want to go pro.
Where to Buy It?
Home centers sell a variety of manufactured-wood and MDF products, sometimes as kits. You’ll find higher-quality wood cladding at lumberyards, though it may be a special order.
As long as wood cladding has been properly installed with sufficient room for expansion, it should last the life of the house. MDF may be more susceptible to dings and moisture damage.
Types of Interior Wood Paneling
Here’s a look at some of the most popular types of cladding—how simple or detailed the profile is, and what type of finish you choose, all influence the overall effect.
SHIPLAP actually refers to a type of joint, rather than a decorative cladding treatment. Horizontally laid boards are rabbeted along their sides to interlock for a tight seal.
Today it is common to have them milled with a “nickel gap” of about 1⁄8 inch along the top edge to create a shadow line that highlights the individual boards. DIYers often install lauan or MDF strips on the wall with space in between to suggest shiplap.
BEADBOARD is traditionally “stick built,” using 2 ½-inch-wide strips of wood with a beaded edge milled along the tongue side and a matching rounded (or a chamfered) edge on the groove side to hide the joint. These fit together to form one continuous wall covering.
Today wider planks with multiple beads, and plywood or MDF sheets with rows of beads milled in, replicate the look while saving installation time.
V-GROOVE boards are milled with chamfered edges on both sides, forming a V shape when the tongue-and-groove (or shiplap) joints come together. V-groove planks in varying widths were a common wall cladding in colonial-era homes, often given a matte-paint finish. Like square-edged shiplap, they are prized today for their modern simplicity. Available in wood, MDF, and synthetic materials for various applications.
BOARD-AND-BATTEN is traditionally built as a series of vertical boards overlaid with strips of 1x material, or battens, covering the joints. When it serves as siding, the lumber is often roughcut. Today plywood may be used indoors, with 1x strips installed every 8 to 10 inches, covering joints as they occur. A popular DIY shortcut is to adhere battens directly to the wall, then unify the assembly with trim paint.
DROP SIDING is a historical type of shiplap, typically featuring a cove along the top of the board to encourage water shedding. (Square off that curve and you have channel siding.) Because it is a flat-backed siding, it easily makes the transition to interior use, unlike beveled styles, such as clapboards. Millwork shops can add a bead along the bottom or any other custom detail that you like.
RUSTIC PLANKING can be anything from barn boards to pallet wood to common lumber made to look old through a finishing process. Planks can be nailed up with little to no space end to end, but pay attention to staggering the joints. Boards may not have milled edges to conceal gaps, and will need space for expansion. Painting the wall black before installation will keep another color from showing through.
Types of Wood Paneling Material
Most cladding is made from one of these; here’s what to consider with each option.
You can find solid-wood tongue-and-groove or shiplap boards in a range of species, from budget-friendly pine and poplar to pricier woods like redwood, cedar, and cypress. Since wood expands and contracts over time, it’s critical that it is given room to move during installation. It may be heavier than manufactured products, so it needs proper fastening and likely another pair of hands to install. Thin plywood sheets milled with bead or V details, and lap joints at the ends, are more stable, less pricey, and go up fast.
Ask for a stain-grade clear wood that’s smooth and free of knots for the optimal paint job–and for staining, of course. Otherwise, knots need to be filled, sanded, and primed before painting. You can leave wood bare, but it will be susceptible to dirt and stains. A coat of water-based polyurethane or wax will protect it, while highlighting the natural color.
Reclaimed wood boards can be found in a variety of species and dimensions, whether rescued from old barns or factory floors. The wood is unmatched in character and saves trees from being cut down, but it won’t always be in ready-to-use condition. Salvaged boards should be cleaned, planed so they lie flat on the wall, and ideally kiln-dried by a dealer; otherwise, they may warp. Kiln-drying also eliminates any insects hiding inside. May be prefinished and/or milled into any style of wall cladding you want.
Reclaimed wood is a good candidate for a distressed or weathered paint finish, or a stain that doesn’t completely hide the wood grain. Often, reclaimed wood is left as-is, but old paint could be lead-based, so make sure to seal it with a water-based polyurethane or shellac before working.
Milled sheets of MDF are a popular choice among DIYers, since they are budget-friendly, and manufacturers are able to achieve a convincing bead or groove. MDF is also more stable overall than wood during swings in temperature, but if it gets wet it can soak up moisture like a sponge, swell, and crumble. Some companies offer moisture-resistant MDF for wet-area installations. Standard MDF also off-gasses formaldehyde when new. For wall cladding, MDF is most commonly used as battens or sheets.
Smooth MDF takes paint beautifully, and since it cannot be stained, it typically comes preprimed. If you’re priming it yourself, be sure to use a shellac primer on all six sides, paying special attention to any cut edges; avoid water-based primers, which can cause cut edges to swell.
Things to know before you begin, whether you DIY or hire a pro.
- Wood needs room to move > Always leave at least a 3⁄8-inch gap for expansion along all four edges of a wood-clad wall: That means above the baseboard, where it meets the ceiling, and at both corners where the adjacent walls begin.
- Construction adhesive is your friend > It can provide up to 30 percent of the bond, so you need fewer nails. With lightweight material, it may be all you need.
- Start with a flat surface > On uneven plaster or masonry walls, begin by hanging a grid of strapping, shimming as needed to make a completely flat surface. Nail vertical boards to horizontal furring strips or plywood.
- The first board must be level, or plumb > Don’t rush installing that first board; if it isn’t level (or plumb), you run the risk of every piece after it being crooked. If walls aren’t plumb or floors level, you may need to scribe the board to fit.
Shown: TOH general contractor Tom Silva puts up beadboard using high-tack panel adhesive.
Pro design advice for how to use wall claddings to your best advantage.
- GO WIDE When using shiplap and V-groove, Georgia-based designer Katie DeRario suggests sticking with 10-inch-wide planks so they look more like paneling and less like siding, which is typically narrower. Similarly, with beadboard, she prefers 3 to 4 inches between beads for a more modern look.
- EXPLOIT OPTICAL ILLUSIONS As a general rule, running planks vertically adds height visually, while horizontal boards can make small rooms look more expansive. “But it also depends on how you enter the room and what is in your line of sight,” says Massachusetts-based designer Jonathan Raith. That means a typical hallway can look extra-long when lined in horizontal planking.
- MIX AND MATCH WITH CAUTION With so many styles of cladding to choose from, it’s easy to go overboard. Raith suggests keeping it simple. “I wouldn’t mix more than two in one room, and I wouldn’t do more than three in one house,” he says. “And it’s critical to use them thoughtfully and proportionately in the space.”
- LET THEM WORK HARD If you use wall cladding in just one space, a mudroom or a laundry is a great place to put it. “Mudrooms take a lot of wear and tear,” says DeRario. “Kids kick off their shoes and backpacks, and wood walls hold up a lot better than drywall.” Plus, you can install hooks anywhere that’s convenient, rather than planning around the wall studs.
What to use when moisture is an issue.
On bathroom and even kitchen-sink walls, wood planks and plywood sheets stand up to moisture better than standard MDF, which can swell with water. Vinyl beadboard made for wet areas isn’t convincing, though painting it can help. Solid-surface versions made for bath and shower enclosures are too costly to cover full walls.
While there is water-resistant MDF, TOH senior technical editor Mark Powers prefers to stick with wood where walls could get wet. “Any wood cladding will fare fine with a coat of paint or water-based poly-urethane,” he says.
A new product with promise: Boral’s TruExterior Beadboard siding, made of polymer-bound fly ash. The material is lightweight and easy to work, inexpensive, impervious to water, and doesn’t off-gas.
From about $2 per linear foot; Boral for stores.
DIY Made Easier
Prefinished Pine Board
Off-the-shelf products save time, money, and installation headaches. Here are a few to consider.
These shiplap boards have a distressed red finish reminiscent of old barn wood. Six 8-foot-long pine planks come in each pack, so all that’s left to do is trim them as needed and glue and tack them up.
UFP Edge 1”x 6”x 8' Barn Wood Red Shiplap Pine Board, $72 per pack; The Home Depot
These interlocking reclaimed-wood panels are meant to cut install time by 90 percent. The maker claims a typical 8-by-10-foot accent wall can go up in about an hour.
Prefab Wood Wall Panels in All Natural Pallet Wood, $12 per square foot; Sustainable Lumber Co.
The kiln-dried boards in this kit come in random shades and lengths up to 2 feet. Each pine plank comes with its own unique markings, without the hassle of prepping salvaged wood.
Nuvelle Deco Planks in Picket Fence Sun Baked, $100 for a 10-square-foot case; The Home Depot
If you plan to paint your cladding in place, primed boards get you there a bit faster. And these pine planks have a nickel gap already milled into the joint, so you don’t have to fuss with spacers.
1"x 6" Shiplap Paneling Nickel Gap, $1.89 per linear foot; Stonewood Products
Interior Wall Paneling Design Ideas
White battens pop against sunny-yellow walls, adding texture and dimension, and accentuating high ceilings. Running a couple of horizontal bands saves them from looking like stripes.
Similar to shown: 1”x 4”x 10' poplar batten, $9.29; Lowe’s
This feature wall of custom-milled nickel-gap shiplap packs a lot of design punch. Though shiplap is often considered rustic, bright-blue paint and sleek furnishings make it feel modern.
Similar to shown: Poplar Ship Lap 5⁄8”x 4 15⁄16" (1⁄8" gap), $2.42 per linear foot; Cortland Hardwood
This finish was actually a happy accident: The homeowners regretted painting the natural cypress planks, and started scraping with a putty knife. They liked the distressed look so much, they added glaze to give it depth.
Similar to shown: Cypress Shiplap, 1”x 10”x 8' boards, $22.51 each; Follen
Tongue-and-groove boards milled with two beads flanking a cove detail go from knotty to natty with a warm, neutral paint job.
Similar to shown: 3⁄4"-thick Pickwick Tongue-and-Groove Premium Pine, from $1.29 per linear foot; Stonewood Products
A smooth face gives reclaimed planks a more sophisticated finish, as do cool colors like gray and blue. Using them on one wall creates an eye-catching focal point.
Similar to shown: Reclaimed barn wood, $8 per square foot (unmilled); Salvage Solutions
Extending beadboard onto the ceiling and alternating its direction in squares adds architectural interest. Battens covering the seams create a pleasing panel pattern.
Similar to shown: Ultra True Bead MDF Paneling, $33 per 32-square-foot panel; The Home Depot