How to Install Wainscoting With a Chair Rail

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Wainscoting gives a room a traditional "homey" feel. The technique is popular with country or cottage designed rooms. When a wall has been wainscoted, the bottom portion of the wall, typically 32 to 36 inches up from the floor, is covered with paneling or wallpaper. Along the top border of the wallpaper or paneling, a strip of molding is attached. This top board is referred to as a chair rail, for it is placed where a chair back might rub up against the wall, and theoretically the chair rail will protect the wall. Today a chair rail is added to provide visual appeal, rather than protection.

Things You'll Need

  • Pry bar Measuring tape Pencil 4-foot level Saber saw Hammer Nails Notched trowel Miter box and saw
  • Decide what type of wainscoting you want to install. Wallpaper is one option. Wallpaper would be applied along the lower part of the wall. Tongue-and-groove beaded board is a popular material for wainscoting and provides a traditional look. Another method, is to make frame panels, similar to cabinet doors, which are placed along the lower portion of the wall. When using boards or panels, attempt to keep the sheets thinner than the door castings, so the wainscoting won't stick out.

  • Decide what type of molding or chair rail capping you would like to use for your chair rail. Decide if you will be using your original baseboard or replacing it with baseboard with rabbet edges.

  • Look at the wall you are going to wainscot and decide where you want the top of the wainscoting to fall. Anywhere between 32 and 36 inches is standard.

  • Draw a horizontal line along the top edge of where you will be installing the wainscoting. Measure up the wall to the height of your wainscoting and mark with a pencil. Place the level on the pencil mark and adjust the level so that it is perfectly level. Use the edge of the level to draw a horizontal line. Move around the room, drawing the line, using the level as the guide.

  • Remove electrical outlet plates in your wainscoting space. If you are installing paneling as opposed to wallpaper, you will need to install outlet box extension rings. This will compensate for the additional thickness of the paneling.

  • Remove your baseboard from the wainscoting area. Carefully pry the board from the wall with a pry bar.

  • Find the wall studs. If you don't have a stud finder, you can tap a small nail into the wall (in the wainscoting area) to locate the studs. Do not nail above the wainscot area, or you will have visible holes in the wall. Mark where the studs are located, as that is where you will want to nail the boards. Make this mark right below your height line.

  • Paint, stain or seal your boards before you attach them to the wall. The remaining steps apply to wainscoting with tongue-and-groove beaded board. If you are using wallpaper or framed panels, you will need to adapt the instructions.

  • Consider your baseboard. If you are reusing your baseboard, it will be reattached after the wainscoting is installed. Measure for your tongue-and-groove beaded board from the floor to the line you've drawn on the wall.

    If you have purchased baseboard where the edge is rabbeted, so that the boards fit into the groove along the edge of the baseboard, you will want to install the baseboard, and then measure for the tongue-and-groove beaded board from the bottom of the rabbet to the line you've drawn on the wall.

  • Cut your first tongue-and-groove beaded board to secure to the wall. Measure and cut as you go, do not cut all the boards in advance. The concave of the wall or uneven floor will result in some boards being a different measurement.

  • Apply construction glue onto the backside of the board, running it in a wavy line and then swiping a notched trowel along the length to spread the glue. Insert this first vertical piece into the corner of the wall, and use the level to make sure it is at a perfect vertical line. Tuck firmly into the corner, but leave a 1/16-inch space to allow for climate changes. Keep vertically level. The top edge of the board should be at the line you drew.

  • Cut and prepare the next board, following the same instructions. Fit the second board into the first, adjust to keep the boards perfectly vertical. Continue adding boards and drive a nail through a board if it is over a stud.

  • Make adjustments as you move down the final stretch of the wall. Check to see if the boards are plumb. If adjustments need to be made, do these on the final boards, by measuring what adjustments need to be made, and dividing those between the final boards. Your goal is to make the last board flush with the adjoining wall.

  • Nail the chair rail and baseboard into place. Use number 6 or 8 finishing nails. Sink the nails and fill the holes with putty to hide them. The inside and outside corners will need to be mitered. A miter saw can be used to make accurate crosscuts.

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  • Photo Credit A. Johnson
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