I am going to share with you how to install low wainscoting to our bedroom walls. The wainscoting in our bedroom has easily become one of my favorite wall applications ever. When we had our flood, two feet on the lower half of the wall had to be removed around the flood damaged areas. I have always loved low wainscoting in a room – it really adds height to the space. So, I thought what better way to hide a 2′ drywall seam around our room than with low wainscoting?
Wainscoting is simply any trim applied to the wall, usually only partially covering the wall. Traditionally it would have thin wood panels beneath the trim to make it look like it’s all wood. However, if the walls are smooth coated you can skip this step.
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Tools and Supplies I used to add the Wainscoting
- Measuring tape
- Speed square
- 6′ level
- 12″ torpedo level
- 18 Gauge brad nail gun
- 1 3/4″, 1 1/4″, and 1″ brad nails
- Wood glue
- Wood filler
- Sander with 60, 120, 200 grit sandpaper
Wood I used
- 1×6 square edge mdf
- 1×4 square edge mdf
- 1×3 square edge mdf
- 1/2″ x 1″ strips of mdf – I cut this from baseboards cutting them on my table saw lengthwise
- Decorative trim under the cap molding was actually the top part of the baseboard I cut off from above.
- Decorative panel molding – pvc
- 1 1/2″ pine lattice molding
- Our house baseboards
Determining the Wainscoting Height
Wainscoting is traditionally the lower 1/3 or 2/3 of the wall. Our walls are 9′ high and the wainscoting is 27″ high. This makes it 1/4 of the wall. We also have a 6″ crown along the top of the wall, which visually brings the height of the wall down to around 8 1/2′. This makes my wainscoting ratio closer to 1/3 of the wall. It is important to take in to account all moulding you will apply to your wall when you are planning your wainscoting height. If I didn’t already have the crown moulding I may have put the height of my wainscoting a little higher.
However, in design once you know the rules, you can break them. I didn’t want everything to look perfectly proportioned. I wanted to emphasize height. By making the wainscoting just slightly lower than 1/3 of the wall I created an odd proportion on the upper wall making it feel extra tall.
This can work in the opposite way too. If your ceilings are uncomfortably high and you want a cozier atmosphere, try bringing the height of your wainscoting to 8 or 9′ high as a starting point. This can help define a visual “ceiling” or end to the wall.
Prepping for Wainscoting
Roughly decide on the number of panels for each wall
After I patched the drywall and smooth coated our walls, they were ready for adding the wainscoting trim. There aren’t really any hard and fast rules, but I do like the look of rectangular panels instead of square. I also wanted to have an odd number of panels on the walls if possible.
From one wall to the next the panels do not have to be the same size, but keep them with in 5″ range or it will look off. For example, the wall behind our bed is the longes at 18.5′ long. I put 6 panels along that wall broken into 37″ sections. On the second longest continuous wall at 10′ long, I divided it into 3 panels with 40″ sections. I would have liked the longer wall to have an odd number of panels, but the bed hides half of them.
I made a rough diagram of the room on paper marking where the doorways were. I put the lengths of the walls and wrote the number of panels for each wall.
Decide on the trim you will make your wainscoting panels out of
My wainscoting panels are made up of different sizes of 1x and trim. You can make yours however you like or follow my design.
Installing the Skeleton of the Wainscoting
When installing wainscoting the top upper rail goes in first
The first board to go up is the top horizontal board. This board is called the upper rail. In mine it is 1×4 mdf. I bought mine in lengths of 12′ to avoid seams.
If you have a laser leveler you can set it up to project a line around the room and install your upper rail along this line. I didn’t use a laser, instead I measured from the floor up to 26 1/2″ in one corner of the room and made a mark. Working from the corner outward and around the room I nailed the upper rail in place. I used a long 6′ level placed on top of the board as my guide to make sure I stayed level.
Our bedroom has bullnose corners. I squared off the corners where the wainscoting is applied by cutting the top rail corners at 45 degrees. If you want to do this too, make sure you take in to account the extra length the board will have to be to extend past the bullnose and join the other board. I like to make two outside corner scrap cuts with 45 degree angles, place them together at the corner, and then measure for the final board length. When it's all nailed up, I fill the small void created between the bullnose and the 90 degree corner with wood filler.
It may seem counterintuitive to install the top first, but as you go you will see how it sets you up to make your life easier.
The easy vertical boards or stiles come second
Here’s where things get easy, cut all of your vertical boards or stiles as they are commonly called, the exact same height. Install the easy ones first: the pieces next to your door casings and the inside corners. These should be cut so that when the base rail is applied it butts up to the bottom of these boards, it doesn’t span between them.
I like to pull the corner stile that goes into the wall out a 1/2″ away from the inside corner so that the boards look the same width. This also helps keep everything level since not all corners are perfectly square.
Make sure you use a level so that each vertical board is level vertically. The more everything stays level the more square it will be. If your top rail is level you can speed the install up by using a speed square, just butt one end to the top rail and press the stile against it so that everything is square.
Next are the outside wall corners. If you have a table saw you can rip (to cut lengthwise) the corner boards that join together to form the outside corner at a 45 degree angle. I use glue and nails when joining these together and to the wall.
If you don’t have a table saw you can butt join them together. The seam may crack but to help avoid this join them with glue and nails.
The inside vertical boards or stiles go next for you wainscoting
Now that the main stiles are in place, it’s time to figure out the inside stiles. Measure between your two outside stiles, whether it’s an outside corner to an inside corner or an inside corner to the door casing. Just make sure you are measuring inside edge to inside edge.
Once you have that measurement, divide by the number of panels you already specified for that wall – refer to the diagram you made earlier. The number you get is the center of where each board will be placed.
For example, the measurement on my 10′ long wall was 111″ (1 door casing width, 1 stile next to the door casing and then 1 stile in the corner). My measurement was 37″. So, I measured from the inside edge of the stile next to the door casing out 37″, made a mark on the top horizontal board (upper rail), then measured from that mark out another 37″, made another mark. Those two marks sectioned my upper rail into three sections.
Use a level, nail those vertical boards (stiles) in place, centered on the mark.
If you're nervous that you won't center the stile perfectly on the marks, measure from the mark out on either marking where the vertical board edges should line up on. In my case with 2 1/2" wide boards my marks away from the center would be 1 1/4" away.
Repeat this step around the room so that three sides of your panels or boxes are on the wall.
Join the bottom rail of the wainscoting
If you have been very careful to keep everything level, the bottom rail can just be pushed up against every stile and nailed in place. It should be level. Cut the corners the same way you did the upper rail.
You can install the rest of the base if you like now or finish the trim inside your boxes
Install the trim inside the wainscoting boxes
The trim inside your boxes is called panel molding. If you decided to add a wood panel inside of your boxes to cover wall texture instead of smooth coating the drywall, this molding hides the seam. Otherwise, this molding is completely optional and decorative when you are wainscoting a wall.
Because you kept everything level, every single corner will be cut as an inside miter with 45 degree cuts. You don’t have to worry about them not joining tightly in the corners because as long as you kept it level it will be perfect In fact the top measurement should be the same as the bottom measurement. Since all the stiles were the same length, each side piece should be the exact same height too.
The best way to do this is to create a system for labeling the pieces. I like to just start numbering the boxes and label the trim pieces with their number. You don’t need to label top/bottom or left/right side because the measurements should be the same, if a tiny bit off you will figure it out when you go to install.
Cut all of your side panel molding trim pieces first
Remember all of those vertical boards? The stiles? The longest length of your panel molding trim will be the same length as the stile. This is the side that will touch the stile.
Cut your top and bottom panel molding next
Measure and write down all of your measurements using the number system for the boxes you made. Cut all of your top and bottom trim pieces for inside the boxes.
If you want to up your game, follow my steps for cutting trim.
I like to be as efficient as possible. Here’s my trick to cutting a lot of mitered pieces as efficiently as possible. Every time you have to move the saw miter you waste time. Each of these pieces requires the sides to have opposing 45 degree cuts.
Set yourself up to cut the first 45 degree cut placing the edge of the panel molding that will be the longest against your fence. Turn your saw to a 45 degree cut to make the inside cut. Cut the end of the trim.
Instead of turning the saw and cutting each piece one at a time, after I make this initial cut, I measure and mark where the next cut should be but instead of moving the miter, I cut the same angle away from the mark leaving enough meat to make the opposing miter cut later. I label the piece and set it aside.
This creates the next piece’s right side of the cut. I measure and do the same for the next piece until I have reached the end of the length of trim. I grab another length of trim and do the same thing, making all of the right side cuts of the panel molding first.
Once those are all cut, then I turn the saw to the opposite 45 degree angle. I have already marked all of my trim pieces where they should be cut, so I line them up and cut them.
It may seem complicated at first, but once you do it this way you won’t ever cut your trim another way. Especially when making a ton of cuts like when you’re installing wainscoting on a wall.
Nail your panel molding in place
Now that all of your panel molding is cut, nail them into place.
Finish your Wainscoting
Add your cap rail for your wall wainscoting – in my case it is a piece of 1/2″ that is 1″ wide nailed down on top of the upper rail. Beneath that I placed a small decorative cove.
For the base I nailed a piece of 1 1/2″ x 1/4″ lattice around the bottom of the 1×6. And then nailed my baseboards on top of that. I put backing behind the baseboards made from scrap wood I had lying around as I installed it.
Patch all of your holes. Sand the patches. Caulk and fill all of your seams/gaps. Then paint it. If you aren’t going to paint then just fill the holes, sand and stain.
Whew. That was a doozy of a tutorial. If you got lost, send me an email. I’d love to help clear any of the details up.
I hope you enjoyed learning how to install wainscoting on a wall.
This Fall, in an attempt to get one room in our house finished, we are entering the One Room Challenge. This challenge is exactly that, to find a room that is almost done or not done at all and complete it in eight weeks. The wainscoting tutorial is a part of the next 7 week series of posts for the Fall One Room Challenge we signed up for in order to motivate us to finish the last 5-10% of what is left in our primary ensuite.
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