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Wainscoting installation in living room.

DIY: How to Install Wainscoting Panels

Try Installing Wainscoting to Add a Touch of Sophistication to Your Home

Enjoy the look of crown molding and trim, and wish you could add something similar to your bare walls? Wainscoting might be the decorative flair you’re looking for. This wall covering is a great way to enhance the look of any room, and it’s relatively easy to install once you get going. We’ll help you find the right rooms in your house for this artistic décor and show you how to install wainscoting in just a few simple steps.

What Is Wainscoting?

Wainscoting is a term used to describe decorative boards or panels placed less than halfway up a wall. Before the 20th century, people used wainscoting to protect the underlying plaster from wayward boot spurs and scabbards. Today, wainscoting is more valued for its decorative features, but it still offers plenty of protection against scuffs and muddy shoes. 

How Much Does Wainscoting Cost?

The cost of wainscoting varies based on the material and design. As with hardwood flooring, there are a variety of woods you can choose from, ranging from budget-friendly fiberboard to luxurious solid oak. Here are a few of the most common materials and their average cost:

  • Medium-Density Fiberboard: $8 to $18 per square foot. 
  • Unfinished Oak: $13 to $24 per square foot. 
  • Stained Oak: $20 to $31 per square foot. 
  • Unfinished Maple: $14 to $30 per square foot.
  • Stained Maple: $20 to $37 per square foot. 
  • Unfinished Cherry: $13 to $34 per square foot. 
  • Stained Cherry: $21 to $41 per square foot. 

Where Should You Install It?

You can install wainscoting on practically any wall in your house, but these are the most commonly chosen rooms: 

  • Entryways
  • Hallways
  • Stairwells
  • Dining Rooms
  • Living Rooms

As you can see, rooms with more foot traffic tend to have the most wainscoting. But you can’t go wrong adding it to other spaces, as Rosie Romero of Rosie on the House explains: 

"The formal dining room or office look will come off well with Walnut or Cherry wood in a raised panel. Casual breakfast nooks and sun rooms can be pulled off with distressed vertical bead board. Kitchens, wet rooms and bathrooms are great applications for waterproof wainscoting done in ceramic tile."

How to Install Wainscoting

The Tools You Will Need:

  • Pencil
  • Caulking Gun
  • Paint
  • Tape Measure 
  • Adhesive
  • Clamps
  • Circular or Miter Saw
  • Jigsaw
  • Laser Level
  • Safety Glasses
  • Sandpaper
  • Nail Gun* 

*Use a finish nailer for thicker materials.

Step 1: Determine the Layout of Your Wainscoting 

Tools Needed: Pencil or chalk line, tape measure, laser level

Spread your panels out on the floor to determine how each piece will fit together. You should also use this time to figure out how many cuts you’ll need to make to fit around corners and outlets. Measure the height of your wainscoting panels and mark it on the wall with a pencil. Use a laser level to help you mark the height across the entire perimeter of the room. Alternatively, you can mark the wall using a chalk line - a handy device for drawing straight lines. 

"Generally, you will start in the center of the room, determine what size panels fit the area and center the first panel. Then working out to each corner repeat the panel size until you get to the corners. Each end of the wall will generally have smaller panels than the field...You will quickly realize the smaller corner panels won't match on each wall. If you desire a match you will have to start playing with the dimensions for the panels on each wall."

Rosie Romero | Rosie on the House

Step 2: Make Room for Power Outlets 

Wall Power Outlet

Tools Needed: Pencil, jigsaw, clamps, tape measure

Use a jigsaw to carve out spaces for any outlets your panels will cover. Mark the dimensions of the outlet on the board, then clamp it to your cutting surface. Push the blade of the jigsaw into the material, guiding the saw with both hands as you follow the outline. 

Step 3: Install Base Molding

Tools Needed: Adhesive, circular saw (or miter saw), caulking gun, nail gun (optional)

If your wainscoting design includes base molding, install those pieces before the panels. Apply adhesive to the backs of the baseboard pieces in a zigzag pattern and press them firmly into place. Cut the ends of corner pieces at a 45-degree angle so they fit together once installed. Depending on the manufacturer’s guidelines, you may be able to nail the molding in place for additional security. 

How to Make a Mitered Joint for Your Baseboards

Step 4: Install Wainscoting Panels

Tools Needed: Adhesive, nail gun

Next, apply adhesive to the backs of each wainscoting board before pressing them onto the wall. Check the height of each board to make sure their tops line up evenly. If your panels use a tongue-and-groove system, double-check that each one is joined correctly before securing in place. Then, use a nail gun to mount each panel in place following the manufacturer’s spacing guidelines.   

“Caulking is the savior of this project…it fills the cracks and makes everything look seamless. Use the putty on the nail holes (and any dings in the walls or the wood) and fill the gaps and cracks with caulk (just make sure it’s paintable).”

Randa Derkson | The Bewitchin’ Kitchen 

Step 5: Cut Corner Panels to Size 

Tools Needed: Pencil, tape measure, clamps, circular saw 

Before installing wainscoting around corners, measure the distance between the last panel and the corner on each adjacent wall. Then, mark up two panels with the necessary dimensions before cutting to size with a circular saw. Make sure the panels are clamped down before making your cuts. 

Step 6: Install Trim and Add Finishing Touches 

Chair rail installed on a wall.

Tools Needed: Adhesive, nail gun, caulking gun, sandpaper, paint or stain

If your design includes additional trim, such as a chair rail, follow the same instructions you used to install the baseboard molding. Once finished, it’s time to put your nose to the grindstone, as Randa Derkson explains: “This project is easy, but it drags on. After the boards go up, that’s when the work begins. Puttying, sanding, caulking, and painting.” 

If you haven’t already, take your time filling in every last gap and seam in your wainscoting before painting or staining. This methodical approach will ensure a blemish-free finish once you wrap up your wainscot installation.  

Once the boards dry and you’ve put away all your tools, take a moment to admire your handiwork. You’ve significantly classed up your home with just a few pieces of wood and a lot of sweat. 

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