How to Add Custom Wainscoting

Design and install classic wainscoting using basic tools and off-the-shelf materials.

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Wainscoting is one of those details in a house that takes a space from builder-grade and rather ordinary to high-end with lots of charm and character. It can be expensive to hire our this kind of work, but with careful measuring, attention to detail and basic use of a saw, you can do it yourself for a fraction of the cost.

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Image Credit: Jennifer Bridgman

Things You'll Need

  • Tape measure

  • Pencil

  • Laser level and/or hand-held level

  • Small pry bar

  • Semi-gloss interior paint

  • Paintbrush

  • Paint roller

  • Paint tray

  • Miter saw

  • 1x4 wood molding

  • Nail gun (recommended) or hammer

  • 2-inch brad nails

  • Shoe moulding

  • Nose molding

  • Cove molding

  • Spackle or wood filler

  • Caulk

  • Caulk gun

  • Pad sander or sandpaper (fine grit for either)

*To estimate the amount of materials you'll need for this project, please reference the Tip at the end of this article.

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1. Mark chair rail height

Use a tape measure to measure the height from floor to ceiling. Divide that number by three and mark that height up from the floor on the wall with a pencil. For example, for a 9-foot ceiling you would mark 3 feet up from the floor. Use a laser level or standard hand-held level to mark a level line across the length of wall where the wainscoting will go. Draw this line right on the wall with a pencil. Measure the width of the nose molding (usually 5/8 inch) and mark another line 5/8 inch underneath the first one.

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Image Credit: Jennifer Bridgman

2. Remove curved baseboard (as needed)

Many baseboards are made up of a flat piece of moulding on the bottom and a curved piece on top. If you have the curved piece, use a small pry bar to pull it off. This leaves you with a flat surface to set the wainscoting against.

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Image Credit: Jennifer Bridgman

3. Paint the wall

Paint the wall using a brush and roller up to the bottom level line drawn on the wall. Make sure you can still see the line for molding placement later. Semi-gloss interior paint is usually the best choice for wainscoting and molding.

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Image Credit: Jennifer Bridgman

4. Add horizontal 1x4s

Often, the existing baseboard can be used as the bottom piece of the wainscoting, but if you are working around something (like the electric baseboard pictured in this project), measure both the bottom length of the wall and the top length (along the lower of the pencil lines). Use a miter saw to cut a 1x4 for each place. Attach the 1x4s to the wall using a nail gun or a hammer and 2-inch brad nails. The top edge of the top 1x4 should sit right on the lower of the two pencil lines you drew on the wall.

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Image Credit: Jennifer Bridgman

5. Add vertical 1x4s

Measure the height between the top and bottom 1x4s on both the far left and the far right sides. Cut 1x4s to those measurements and nail in place. To determine placement of the remaining vertical 1x4s, measure the length between the left and right vertical pieces and place pencil marks on the wall at even intervals.

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There is no standard distance between pieces; however, the space between the vertical 1x4s is often somewhere between 18 and 30 inches. In this project, spacing of approximately 25 inches was used.

Use a level to draw level vertical lines where you have marked, then measure those lines from the top 1x4 to the bottom 1x4 to determine the length to cut the remaining pieces. Cut the 1x4s and nail to the wall over the level lines.

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Image Credit: Jennifer Bridgman

Tip

Most floors are not perfectly level so make sure you measure each vertical line separately. They will most likely vary by small amounts.

6. Install shoe molding

Shoe molding is the curved trim that sits inside the boxes made by the 1x4s. Measure the inside lengths of the four sides of each box. Cut the shoe molding to these measurements, making sure the cuts at each end are at a 45-degree angle. Nail the shoe molding inside the 1x4 boxes.

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Image Credit: Jennifer Bridgman

Tip

Shoe molding has a taller side and a shorter side. The taller side sits right up against the 1x4s in each box. When measuring, make sure that the cut length matches what you have measured on the taller side, not the shorter side — the taller side should be longer than the shorter side because of the angled cut.

7. Install nose molding

Measure the length above the very top horizontal 1x4. Cut the nose molding to this length and nail to the wall so it sits right on top of the topmost horizontal 1x4.

Image Credit: Jennifer Bridgman

8. Add cove molding

Measure the length underneath the nose molding and cut a piece of cove molding to this size. Nail in place directly underneath the nose molding.

Image Credit: Jennifer Bridgman

9. Fill holes and caulk

Fill any nail holes or cracks with wood filler or spackle. Let everything dry, then sand the wood filler or spackle with fine-grit sandpaper or use a pad sander with fine-grit sandpaper attached. Wipe away all dust. Caulk along all seams between molding pieces and where the molding meets walls. As you work, wipe off excess caulk with a finger so as not to muddle the details of the molding.

10. Paint the wainscoting

Use a brush and semi-gloss interior paint to paint the wainscoting. Usually two or three coats give the best coverage.

Image Credit: Jennifer Bridgman

Tip

The amount of molding needed for this project will vary greatly depending on the amount of wall to be covered with wainscoting, but there are some general rules of thumb you can follow to help estimate materials.

  • For the 1x4s, measure the length of the wall(s) to be covered and multiply by two (if you are going to be using the existing baseboard as the bottom piece of the wainscoting, just use the single measurement, not doubled). For every 8 feet of horizontal length, add another 12 feet to account for the vertical pieces. So, for an 8-foot span of wall where you need materials for the top, bottom and vertical pieces, you would need (8 x 2) + (12 x 2) = 16 + 24 = 40, i.e. 40 feet of length.
  • To determine the amount of shoe molding, start with the horizontal measurement you took of the wall. For every 8 feet of wall, plan on around 24 feet of shoe molding.
  • The amount of both nose and cove molding will just be the same as the horizontal measurement you took of the wall.
  • Round up everything by about 10 percent so you have extra material for off-cuts and mistakes.

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