Wainscoting, once a necessity in drafty houses, has become more decorative than functional. It still serves a function, though a knowledge of its types and uses is important for anyone who's embarked on an old house rescue mission. Besides its historic value, wainscoting sets a mood in a room, from rustic to formal.
Wainscoting was invented to keep out the drafts in cold climates. In manor houses and castles all over northern Europe, great forests provided pine and oak that still covers walls in historic buildings today. Wood was a plentiful, easily worked material and was used to cover the stone and spaces at the bottoms of walls. Wood used at the bottom of walls was "base-board" and wood used at the top was a "crown." The really fine houses covered entire walls with panels of wood, capping it with a rail or crown, depending on how far the paneling extended.
As the middle class emerged and international trade developed in the middle ages, more people began using wood to insulate and make their homes a bit more upscale. Trade with the Far East brought new woods like mahogany to Europe for use in building and furniture. As more people used it, wainscoting developed as a protective covering for the lower wall. American colonists used wainscoting basically to insulate and provide chair rails and plate shelves for storage. The Victorians established the rule that wainscoting have a baseboard, stand no more than three feet high and be capped by a dado or chair rail. The Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th century brought the spirit of the medieval castle back with wainscoting rising to the tops of doors and windows. In the end, the modern wainscot, from 30 to 40 inches high, capped by a chair rail became the standard. Today, wainscoting is used to evoke an era or as a design choice rather as a protection or insulation option and is available in a wide range of woods, structures and finishes.
Paneled wainscoting is built using standard lumber and molding around plywood or a bead board inset. Bead board is available in panels or assembled with tongue-and-groove pieces. Caps and plate rails can be added using standard lumber and moldings. The simplest modern wainscoting is wallpaper below a chair rail.
Wainscoting protects walls from chairs and children's toys and it also provides a warm, natural surface that makes a tall wall look less plain. Its traditional look has made it a popular choice for home owners and the correct style enhances a historic house.
Use drywall or construction adhesive to attach wainscoting--you'll minimize the number of nails you have to use to those needed to position the wood. Install wainscoting on any wall by removing the baseboard and starting in the center of the wall people will see as they walk into the room. Level the first panel and work outward to the corners. Lay out or "dry fit" baseboard before beginning installation so you can scribe and cut corners before you have panels glued or nailed in. Since floors are frequently uneven, install your wainscot panels with a slight gap between their base and the floor--you can cover the gap when you replace the baseboard.
- Photo Credit Elite Trim Works, Microsoft Office clip art
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