How to Install Wainscoting

Wainscoting offers decorative and functional benefits and we’ve had it within our homes in the entries, dining rooms, living rooms, and bedrooms. The simplicity of wainscoting can add so much character to a room and the classic look can improve the atmosphere of your room or hallway through the use of paneling and textures. In this tutorial, we’re walking you through the steps on how you can add wainscoting to your home. The wainscoting in this tutorial was applied directly to the drywall with no wood backing or panel behind it.

Dining Room Wainscoting | construction2style

Materials Needed 

  1. Finish Nailer
  2. Miter Saw
  3. Glue
  4. Level
  5. Pencil
  6. Tape Measure
  7. Molding Pieces
  8. Paint

Step One: Choose Material

The first step is determining your materials. Chair rail and wainscoting molding is available at any of your home improvement stores in all materials, shapes, and styles. To start, we walk up and down the aisles at Home Depot and grab a couple different pieces that we think would look best within the style of the room. We have always gotten a very plain style for the chair rail with no decorative border and then for the inner panels, we always choose one with more character. Often times at the store the trim will be labeled as “chair rail”. So if you are looking for a specific or classic look, that would be a good indication that you are in the right place looking at the right thing.

Step Two: Plan The Layout

Once you have your materials, the next step is to determine how big you want your panels/boxes to be. This will help you determine how much material you should buy. You should aim to keep each panel section the same height on one wall, but not all the panel widths in the room need to be the exact same size. However, we always like to try to keep them all within an inch or two. Keeping them the same can also save you the headache of trying to decide how big to make them. We always measure and pencil in our layout directly onto the wall before nailing anything on the wall. In the pictures shown there is about a 4 inch gap between all panels/boxes.

Step Three: Install Chair Rail

Not to get confused with the paneling/boxes. The chair rail is the top piece that runs straight across the romo at one height. Starting with the longest wall in the room determine the height to place the chair rail. We determined our height from the chairs in the room. We wanted the ledge to be right at the height of the chairs. Experts say to place the chair rails at 1/3 of the height from the floor. With a standard 8 foot room, the chair rail would be placed at 32″ from the floor. Finding a consistent height across the room can be challenging. We highly recommend renting or investing in a laser level to ensure that the height all around the room for your chair rail is the same. We usually leave the laser on the entire time while we are installing.

When installing the chair rail itself we typically glue and nail all of our pieces. Using a simple panel glue from Home Depot works great. When cutting your tube of glue, make a small hole at the top to give you more control. Given that the chair rail is most likely going into a nice, finished space, you don’t want glue oozing out all over the walls. Once you’ve applied the glue, hold the piece up to the wall and nail it off. You will most likely be painting the walls after installing off of this so it’s a good idea to mark where the studs are so that you know what you are nailing in to. Gravity will work against the chair rail so you want to make sure you are nailing into studs and that your nails are long enough.

Corners and ends can be very tricky with the chair rail. For instance if your chair rail is going to end because that’s where the room ends, you will want to do a return on your chair rail. For all your returns and your corners we would advise you to try it on a piece of scrap before doing it on the real thing. A return is simply adding a miter cut to the end of the piece of chair rail and inserting a small cap piece that will signify that that piece has an end to it. For outside corners simply miter the 2 ends to signify a turn around the corner. For an inside corner butt one of the pieces all the way to the wall and cope the other end creating a smooth transition at the inside corner. Miter cuts, returns and copes are all difficult things to do. Invest time into learning how to do them before trying it on a bigger piece. This will save you money as well as give you a better finished product.

how to DIY wainscoting | construction2style

Step Four: Install Panels

Once you have your chair rails glued and nailed to the wall the next step will be to glue and nail up your inner panels.All of your cuts should be at 45 degrees. Knowing how to cut 45 degree angels is key to making sure each of your corners all line up with one another to create a perfect square so again take the time and invest in learning how. Once the cuts have been made at all the desired sizes you will want to glue the panels together before putting them on the wall. Contrary to the chair rail, you will be gluing the joints or miters together before you glue/nail to the wall. Some have had success using just tape but you can buy “miter clamps” that can help with clamping your corners tight together. For glue you can use anything from wood glue to super glue. Clean off your corners once you have glued them because getting off dried glue can be a pain. Once the panels are secure, apply a thin layer of the panel glue from before to the back of the box. Then hold it up to the desired location and nail it off. Your layout should be marked before hand with a pencil but using the laser to get a consistent height can be helpful.

Step Five: Fill & Sand

Once you’ve glued and nailed all your pieces up, now is the time to make the finishing touches. Wood filler is a great option for filling all the nail holes. The filler itself comes in make different color so try to find one that matches your paint color. Some people will cringe at this but we also recommend using caulking on your seams. Walls are imperfect things and often there are gaps between the wall and the trim. Using a very small and clean bead of caulk on the wall and then running your finger over it can create a very nice finished look. Remember you are going to most likely paint the space so don’t worry too much about how clean it all looks. If your miter joints either on the chair rail or the paneling isn’t where you want it to be, try to rub a little wood filler in the crack to blend it out. Once this is all said and done we recommend running a light piece of sand paper over all of the wood. 220 grit would be perfect. This is to knock down and smooth out any blemishes that there may be.

Step Six: Paint

Now comes the fun part, watching your project all come together! If you’re wanting to lighten up the room, use a white or cream color for your wainscoting. For a more dramatic look, like in a powder bath, you can go darker with a gray or black paint color. Tape the top of the chair rail to get a nice uniform line dividing the chair rail from the upper wall. Make sure to cover the floor before rolling any of the surface to avoid paint splatter.

How to Install Wainscoting | construction2style