low wainscoting in the background and a causally made bed with white and navy linens sits at top a traditional rug and wood floors.

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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low wainscoting painted feldspar pottery wraps the bedroom walls in this primary ensuite.
I may still need to add the baseboards but the wainscoting makes this bedroom look like I spent a million bucks

Tools and Supplies I used to add the Wainscoting

  1. Measuring tape
  2. Speed square
  3. 6′ level
  4. 12″ torpedo level
  5. 18 Gauge brad nail gun
  6. 1 3/4″, 1 1/4″, and 1″ brad nails
  7. Wood glue
  8. Wood filler
  9. Caulk
  10. Sander with 60, 120, 200 grit sandpaper

Wood I used

  1. 1×6 square edge mdf
  2. 1×4 square edge mdf
  3. 1×3 square edge mdf
  4. 1/2″ x 1″ strips of mdf – I cut this from baseboards cutting them on my table saw lengthwise
  5. Decorative trim under the cap molding was actually the top part of the baseboard I cut off from above.
  6. Decorative panel molding – pvc
  7. 1 1/2″ pine lattice molding
  8. 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.

Piecing together multiple sizes and types of simple trim can create the most dramatic wainscoting combination

Installing the Skeleton of the Wainscoting

the wainscoting is being applied, the first step is to install the horizontal top board or top rail
The top rail installs first

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.

installing the top rail for wainscoting against smooth coated white walls
You don’t need anything fancier than a regular level to make sure you install the top rail correctly

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.

close up of a bullnose corner prior to trim install
Wainscoting this bullnose may seem complicating, but squaring it off was the simple solution
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.

the top rail and stiles are installed over smooth coated walls in white
After the top rail the stiles are next
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. 
wood glue is spread along the mitered edge of the corner trim prior to installation
On the outer corners wood glue keeps the seam from separating

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.

close up of a corner with the top rail and stiles installed

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.

close up view of the corner of a bullnose squared off with wainscoting
The seams may look rough, but wood glue, 60 grit sandpaper and a sander makes these seams invisible

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.

the top rail and stiles are installed over smooth coated walls in white
After the stiles, the base rail is installed pressed up against them

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.

panel molding is placed against the fence for cutting on the miter saw
Cut the right inside edge first on off of the right side of the trim

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.

fat max measuring tape is being used to measure and mark for the next cut on this wainscoting panel molding
Measure and mark your next cut but don’t cut it
panel molding is being cut on a dewalt miter saw with an inside corner
Cut just past the mark with another right inside miter cut. You will come back later to cut the left side 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.

after cutting the right inside cut, the next cut creates the next piece's right inside cut and leaves enough waste to come back later and cut the left inside cut
Up close view of the marked trim and the right inside miter cut

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.

panel molding trim is sitting against the fence of the miter saw for a left inside 45 degree miter cut
When you reach the end of the trim go ahead and turn the saw to the left inside miter cut and start cutting your left edges

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.

wainscoting primed and ready for finishing

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.

close up of a filled and sanded corner of the wainscoting prior to painting.
One more coat of glue and sanding and this corner will be ready for finishing
finished corner of wainscoting showing how well the seam is hidden
It is nearly impossible to see the seams on these corners and the squared edge is an improvement to the old bullnose corners
white wainscoting installed over smooth coated white walls

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.

the back wall is 6 wainscoting panels long and is painted a beautiful greige set against white smooth coated walls and a greige crown molding to match
The wainscoting is painted in Sherwin William’s Feldspar Pottery and it is the perfect companion to the Benjamin Moore Simply White smooth coated walls.

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.

feldspar pottery and simply white are combined together in this bedroom wainscoting
low wainscoting in the background and a causally made bed with white and navy linens sits at top a traditional rug and wood floors.
one room challenge logo for shared girls bathroom

See what the other guest participants are up to.

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Disclaimer: Working with power tools and DIY projects can be dangerous and post inherent risks. While we work hard to ensure the accuracy and effectiveness of the tutorials along with the information displayed on this website, Hambels Get Real cannot be held responsible for damages or losses sustained or incurred in the course of your project or in the use of the item you create.

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