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All About Wainscoting + The One Thing You Must Never Do!

  Dear Laurel, My husband and I adore your blog! We especially like the rooms you show with wainscoting, and wonder what you think about rooms with peaked ceilings? We’d love to do wainscoting but wonder if the top of the walls would look naked! I know you don’t answer […]



Dear Laurel,

My husband and I adore your blog! We especially like the rooms you show with wainscoting, and wonder what you think about rooms with peaked ceilings? We’d love to do wainscoting but wonder if the top of the walls would look naked!

I know you don’t answer individual letter-writers but I bet it would make an interesting blog post.




Hey Guys,

That was a real note from a lovely reader, Elizabeth.

And I’m so glad that many of you enjoyed the moulding post from last week. But… many of you had questions and I’d like to address some of them.

Some of you expressed concern about the mouldings looking fake and/or over-the-top.

Yes, that is a very real possibility and why if you’re not a designer, I very much recommend you work with one or at least with a contractor who has a good sense of proportion. But frankly, the ones that do are very expensive. Okay, you might luck out.


I would hire a designer, but short of that, let’s go over what wainscoting is and where it is appropriate or not.


Originally, I was going to do an overview of ALL of the wall mouldings and then I realized that if I were to do that, the men in the white coats would be carrying me away. I think that they’re on standby in any case. Seriously. I’m editing the post now, 8 hours after I wrote that, and yeah… It’s a big subject.


So, today, it is ALL about WAINSCOTING


Wainscoting (pronounced Wayne’s coating) or the alternative term, wainscot had its origins around the 14th century in Holland. Not only was it decorative, it was a means to protect the lower half of the wall as well as provide insulation in homes. After all, they didn’t exactly have central heating and as we all know, the warm air rises.


Over the course of time, numerous variations have taken place, so let’s go over them.


Today, wainscoting may go on the lower third of the wall, two-thirds of the wall, or the entire wall.


But the one thing you must never do with your wainscoting is apply it half-way up the wall.


Oh man, I saw this once during a consultation in a dining room, and it was horrible! I whipped out my tape measure and yep, the top of the chair rail came in at exactly 49″. Tres ugly.


The cure, would be either ripping it out and starting over, OR adding additional wainscoting so that the wainscot would go up approximated 2/3 of the wall. An attractive scale would be so that the upper panels are square. But all in all, sometimes one just has to cut their losses.


Well, Laurel, how high should the wainscoting be?


That’s a good question. Generally speaking, one can’t wrong with “rule of thirds.” For an eight-foot ceiling that would be about 33 inches. We did ours at 35″ and it was perfect. This is for the standard lower third of the wall wainscoting.


wainscoting with applied panel moulding

wainscoting very similar to our old house


In my opinion, when in doubt with mouldings, go smaller, not larger. Under-scale is better than over-scale. Of course, we don’t want to see dinky in a room with a 12′ ceiling, but we need to be careful with 8 feet and lower.


Here’s a look at the classical elements of wainscoting.


I made this graphic (below) for you to show the basic components of what goes into traditional wainscoting.


elements of wainscoting


Traditionally wainscoting is made of wood or it can also be made out MDF board.  You can even get it made out of plastic, but unless there’s a compelling reason, I prefer to draw the line.


handyman wainscoting guide


Another breakdown of wainscoting from Handyman


Let’s delve further in and begin at the top with the chair rail, wainscot cap or dado cap. Dado is another word for wainscot but it does not necessarily have paneling, nor it necessarily made of wood.


Dado Wall Taj Mahal via Flickr

via Flickr


Above is the exquisite carved stone Dado of the Taj Mahal.


The chair rail can either be a horizontal piece with a specified profile or it can even be a small solid crown moulding.


I did the latter in my home and loved it! (there’s an image coming later of all of the mouldings I used to make our wainscoting in our old home, so please hang on and no fair looking ahead.) ;]

Rails are the horizontal flat pieces of the panel and the stiles are the vertical flat pieces. I remember the difference because when I think of rail I see a railroad which runs horizontally.

Panel moulding are the pieces that fit inside the rails and styles. It is also called picture frame moulding. Or sometimes it is a small set in piece called a bead.


George Saumarez Smith classic homes doors mouldings wainscoting

This is a door designed by George Saumarez Smith of Adam Architecture in a photo I took during my trip to England. Here we can see the bead moulding inside the panel on the door. Why is it slightly cracked? It’s wood and wood expands and contracts. It’s not a defect.

2 bedroom blues board and batten wainscoting

2 Bedroom Blues

In shaker style or what is commonly called board and batten, there is no bead or picture frame moulding. It’s just flat pieces of wood There are a ton of tutorials on pinterest on how to do this because this is the easiest to apply. And it suits a lot of folks who want a less fussy look. The one linked above gives the exact proportions they used. I respect people who can make things like this!


For more traditional wainscoting, the panel itself can either be raised or flat or rather recessed. Or the panel could be the wall itself. More about that in a bit.



original source unknown

Recessed Flat panel with a bead


Wainscot Solutions

Doors have a raised panel and the wainscoting a flat panel. I don’t think there’s a bead, but there could be.


Wainscot Solutions

Beautiful raised panel wainscoting in perfect proportions.


Ben Pentreath classical architecture mouldings and wainscoting

One of Ben Pentreath’s magnificent creations. We did visit this fabulous place, but were not allowed to take photos. Ben IS allowed, haha and this is his image. As you can see he did a combo of recessed flat panels on the wainscoting and raised panel moulding on the shutters and doors. Gorgeous, gorgeous home!!!


elements of wainscoting

(Repeating my graphic so you don’t have to keep going back and forth.)


The baseboard can be a separate piece (or pieces), the baseboard can also be an extension of the lower rail as shown in the graphic.

Finally, is the shoe moulding, also known as a quarter-round. This is not an essential piece. I did have this in my old home. My apartment now, which was built in the 20s has both original baseboards and newer ones. None of them have a shoe moulding.


You may recall this lovely image I took of an Adam Architecture renovation in Winchester England. And what do we have here? An enfilade!!! and a beautiful raised panel wainscoting. And something I JUST noticed. There’s a ‘hidden’ door on the left just before the first doorway!


There is another version of a recessed panel that uses bead-board. It’s okay. Not my favorite. I prefer if using beadboard, to just use beadboard.


And then there’s the applied straight to the wall moulding which is a bona fide way to do wainscoting.


A beautiful French apartment. Sorry, the original source is unknown. But if it’s good enough for the French, it’s good enough for me. This is a tall wall, so the moulding is beefier than what we used for our eight-foot high living room.

I can’t believe that I can’t find a decent image of my old living room with the mouldings, but I do have one really bad image which might be worse than nothing. haha.

Bombs away…


mouldings townhouse goldens bridge wainscoting

Sad, huh? Oh well. This was applied directly to the wall and then painted in a semi-gloss (oil-base alkyd, thank you very much!). Pratt and Lambert Ancestral. Very pretty.



At least we have the stairwell. Not the best angle, but it’ll have to do.


Hey Get back up there! I told you not to look ahead unless you didn’t look ahead ;]


(no worries. I would do the same!)


mouldings for our wainscoting from Dykes Lumber

Here is what we used from Dykes Lumber.


Of course, you can use a more typical chair rail, but have to say that I loved the crown!

We did a beautiful crown moulding (ceiling crown) that is about 4.5″ It was the perfect scale for our 8-foot ceiling.

There are some compelling advantages to doing the wall applied moulding for wainscoting.


  • cost savings. tremendous. And really, you had to get right on top of it to realize that it wasn’t the real recessed moulding. Everyone thought it was the real thing!
  • It is easy to adjust the space in between the boxes. I had to fudge it a little, but the space on each wall was consistent. It ranged between 4.5″ and 5″ but if necessary, it was a bit bigger on the ends. I would not go wider between the boxes than 5″ and I don’t think it looks good if it’s less than 3″– minimum space between the boxes.

The picture frames were all the same. (I think. It’s been 21 years!) I don’t remember the length,(maybe 21″?) but the width I believe was 14 or 15 inches.


Oh dear. I haven’t answered Elizabeth’s question about if she should do wainscoting or not!


She sent me a photo of a room similar to hers.


This is a very lovely room. And I agree with the decision to paint the ceiling and walls one color.


It looks like they just moved in because there’s nothing but a table and chairs.


I wouldn’t bother with the wainscoting in this room because if putting up draperies, by the time you do that, there won’t be enough wall to make a difference. If doing wainscoting however where the windows come down low, like this I hate it when they make an L shaped box. That looks weird. What I would do in this case, is one box between the windows and then a horizontal box under each window.

But again, unless there will be no drapes, it’s hardly worth it. The other situation where it doesn’t make a lot of sense is if the furniture is covering up nearly the entire available wall.


beautiful wainscoting wall mouldings and millwork

Beautiful New York apartment with charming mouldings. via New York Times.


Well, I hope that this answered some of your questions. But if not, please fire away!


There are some good ideas in this post too.

And also this post about how to deal with a boxy boring home.



PS: Please check out this week’s hot sales!


5th edition rolodex-post-graphic - November 2018 - A unique shopping guide with hundreds of sources created by Laurel Bern

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