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What About Wainscoting: Decoding Decorative Wood Paneling

Today’s options for wood paneling go way beyond the rec rooms of the 1970s, when ceiling-to-floor sheets of oak-looking fiberboard stole the show. Now decorative wood paneling meets homeowners halfway—literally. Lining the bottom portion of a wall with a decorative wood treatment has quickly become a trend. Want to create a fine dining experience in your dining room? Have a bathroom that could use a little splash of style? Need to cook up a new look in the kitchen? Adding decorative paneling could be the most practical way to bring an instant element of design to an otherwise ordinary room, while at the same time protecting walls from scuffs and hiding other imperfections.
Contractors and manufacturers vary in their use of terms for decorative paneling. In your local home improvement store, you will often find these products in the molding section (also referred to using the British spelling, moulding), sold along with other types of wood trim for doors and windows. The most popular term you will hear for this half-wall treatment is wainscoting (pronounced with a long or short “o,” by the way), referring to the practice of affixing thin panels of wood to a wall vertically, from the baseboard to chair-rail height, or slightly higher. Derived from a Dutch term for lining a wall, this practice was once used centuries ago for insulation, especially in homes with stone walls where dampness intruded from the ground. But today it has found its way into the realm of interior design, and it appears that it’s here to stay. Now any room in a house can benefit from these traditionally thin wood panels and the more modern and even more durable PVC or vinyl waterproof varieties currently available. An entranceway or staircase can instantly become more ornate with square panels that can mimic your door design. A mudroom, washroom, kitchen, or bathroom can benefit from surfaces that are easy to wipe down. From plain slats to artistic designs and coordinating trim, a plain dining room, den, office, or library can be transformed into an elaborate room you won’t mind showing off to guests.
With the use of wainscoting, you can truly make your walls one-of-a-kind. Try to start your project and you will see there are a lot more decisions to make than you thought. Even under the umbrella term of wainscoting, you’ll find “raised panel wainscoting,” “beadboard,” and “batten” for instance. But what do these terms mean and where should you use them? We’ll give you a quick rundown and show you ways wainscoting can enhance any room in your home.

Beadboard is characterized by its narrow panels, usually 2 to 4 inches wide, with tongue-and-groove connections and a thin “bead” strip (a rounded line) disguising the joints in between. Like other types of wood paneling, you can find this product in sheets (4 by 8 feet and 4 by 4 feet that are already sanded, primed, painted, and ready to install. It can also come in six-pack kits of about 7.5 inch-wide sections made of moisture-resistant MDF (fiberboard) or cellular PVC. Beadboard is most often used at chair-rail height (about 4 feet from the floor) and works well in close quarters, such as hallways, laundry rooms and utility spaces, lending texture and interest without commanding too much space and attention. Because PVC beadboard shrugs off water, it is a great choice for a tub surround. Some people have even installed PVC board in children’s rooms for the durability it provides during those years when your walls can take the most beating. For the same reason, you can even think “off the wall” and wrap a kitchen bar or island in beadboard. Kits come with easy installation instructions, requiring application of an adhesive and using only a few nails to hold panels in place during the work.
Board and Batten
This type of treatment involves planks laid vertically on the wall that can alternate with separate, narrower strips to cover the joints. The look can also be achieved by simply placing vertical planks on the wall itself, topped by a flat chair rail. There seem to be no hard-and-fast rules for this style, just equal distances between planks (although if you’re going for a farmhouse/rustic feel, installing them at random could work). You will sometimes see board and batten in two levels: vertical planks, a rail, then
a row of shorter vertical planks on top and another top rail. Board and batten can run higher up the wall (and even to the ceiling) and is sometimes finished with a cap rail wide enough to serve as a display shelf.
Paneled Wainscot
You will most likely find this type of woodwork in foyers, lining a staircase, or in dining rooms, as it is often used in more formal areas where you will want stand back and admire it. Square or rectangle panels, built like picture frames, can be affixed right on the wall, with decorative chair rails and baseboards to match. Pieces of molding can be combined to construct this series of “boxes” along the bottom half of a wall. There is no shortage of online tutorials to teach you how to build your own panels out of molding, or you can buy plywood with panels that are already beveled, or recessed. Shaker style remains popular with panel wainscoting, using simple vertical rails spaced equal distances apart to create a very clean look. With rail molding coming in so many different woods—pine, oak, poplar, maple, to name a few—and in stain-grade or paint-grade, you can achieve the formal or casual look in any room.
If you intend to install this paneling yourself, it certainly comes in handy to have some training in using a miter saw. But a skilled craftsman should be able to create the look you desire, and it may be worth it to hire one to make all the different parts work together.
Now that you know some of the terms and have a
few ideas, perhaps you won’t find yourself up against a wall when it comes to wainscoting—or actually, perhaps you will.


■ Paint or stain all molding before cutting or installing (unless you also plan to paint the walls and trim the same color).
■ Always double-check your measurements.
■ If you are right handed, start from the left corner of the room, or vice versa.
■ Ask yourself how permanent you want the project to be, as this may determine how involved you get, and whether you use nails or glue adhesive, which could damage your drywall if you decide to take it down.
■ Buck the bottom-half rule and top the upper half of your wall with board and batten.
■ Plank it: go horizontal with beadboard in the bathroom.
■ Use chair-rail height wainscoting on the bedroom walls until you reach the bed, then bring it up high above the headboard to nicely frame the bed.
■ For a rustic look, use wainscoting to create a barn-door (criss-cross) panel over beadboard.
■ With raised or recessed paneling, the squares become their own frames—for fabric, wallpaper or even ceiling tiles.

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