How To: DIY Wainscoting

Materials Needed:
•22 linear feet of 3-1/2″ x 3/4″ pine lumber for chair rail*
•42 linear feet of 3-1/2″ x 3/4″ pine lumber for rails*
•Liquid Nails Adhesive
•3″ Finishing Nails
•Drill with coordinating bit size
•Miter or hand saw with 45 degree capability
•Tape Measure
•Steel Angle
•Painters Tape
•Primer Paint
•Bright White Semi-Gloss Paint

*Note – Quantities and style of wood are specific to our 8′-8″ x 7′-11″ space and style shown in photos.

STEP 1 – Take a look at the type of base molding you currently have (if you plan to keep it) to see if it will be compatible with the style of wainscoting you plan on installing.  For our Flat Panel wainscoting, we wanted a flush connection between the vertical rails and the base molding, which required a flat and level top to the base molding.  Initially our base molding had an additional decorative trim piece attached to the top, which came off fairly easily with a chisel, hammer, and crow bar.  Without removing it, our connection from base molding to vertical rails would have been sloppy and difficult to install.

Our Inspiration

STEP 2 — Determine the height you wish the top of your wainscoting to be. We set ours at 40″ above finished floor. (Look out for obstructions such as light switches, outlets, windows, doors, etc.) Mark height at various locations along the wall with pencil. Choose a starting point and use your level to create a level pencil line along the wall. Keep in mind that this horizontal line may not intersect all your points due to an uneven floor.  Once you’ve made your way around the perimeter of the room, determine if you’d prefer to higher or lower your starting point based on the level line you’ve drawn (ex: did the level line end significantly higher — interfering with switches or requiring more material for the vertical rails?  did the level line end significantly lower — making the proportions look off?)

If you wish to change the height, repeat Step 2 with a different measurement from finish floor.  If the outcome from the first measurement was acceptable, move on to Step 3.

STEP 3 — Take measurements of each wall around the perimeter of your room to determine how many linear feet of chair rail wood you will need to purchase.  For Example: Our room needed 7 individual pieces of wood measuring 61″, 58″, 35″, 35″, 32-1/2″, 27-1/2″, 2″, and 2″ totaling ~22 linear feet. Refer to the floor plan image below to see how we determined this.

STEP 4 – Purchase necessary quantities of chair rail wood (We used 3-1/2″ x 3/4″ pine which was the same thickness as our existing base molding and would be the same thickness as our vertical rails).  Be sure to purchase in proper lengths to avoid having non-continuous pieces along individual walls.

STEP 5 – Cut each piece to proper length starting from any corners.  Cut the 45 degree side first, measuring from the outside edge, and then cut any blunt ends.  Once all pieces are cut to proper length, test the against the wall, make any necessary corrections, and test that the corner connections are joining well.

STEP 6 – Drill 1 – 2 holes towards the end of each chair rail piece, slightly smaller than the gauge of the nail you will use.  Have someone hold the chair rail up against the wall to the pencil line previously drawn, with level on top, and nail in 3/4 of the way into all drill hole openings.  Continue this will all chair rail pieces until they are all secured to the wall.

STEP 7 – Determine how many vertical rails you would like to place around the room.  We did this by determining a point (under the centered window in the room) at which centering everything was crucial, and measured out ~16″ on center from that point.  Working our way around the room using this 16″ measurement, and also our eye for what “looked right”, we determined we would need 16 vertical rails around the room.  TIP:  Use painters tape to mark the vertical rail locations and leave them up for a few hours or even days to get a better idea of how it will look.

STEP 8 – Once you’ve determined how many vertical rails you want, now you can determine how many linear feet of wood you will need for the vertical rails.  Measure the distance between the bottom of the chair rail (already installed, right?) and the top of the base molding.  You will need to take this measurement at every point where you plan to put one of the vertical stiles.  Write all these measurements down, add them up, and convert from inches to feet.  We needed 16 vertical rails averaging 31-1/2″ in height, totaling ~42 linear feet.

STEP 9 – Purchase necessary quantities of vertical rail wood (We used the same 3-1/2″ x 3/4″ pine as was used for the chair rail above in order to have all surfaces flush with one another).  Be sure to purchase in proper lengths to avoid having non-continuous pieces within individual vertical rails. 
(ex: Lowes offered 8′-0″ lengths of the pine we used, so with our average height of 31-1/2″ we got 3 full pieces out of each 8′-0″ piece with very little scrap left over.  This is risky if you make errors, but great for not being wasteful!)

STEP 10 – Now that you’ve purchased the necessary quantities for your vertical rails, cut them to proper length.  We numbered ours so we could keep track of where each one went.  You want them snug between the chair rail and base molding to avoid any gaps where they meet.  Place them against the wall without any adhesive first to check that they are level and look level compared to the base molding and chair rail, and mark its location with pencil.  Then rest face down on the floor and apply the Liquid Nail adhesive to the back in a snake pattern.  Then apply to wall, hold it in place for a few seconds, step back to see that it looks right, and use tape the secure it while it dries.

STEP 11 – Now that all of your vertical rails are in place, its time to nail in the the chair rail along the perimeter to make it more secure.  Use a stud finder to locate studs, drill 1-2 holes throught chair rail wood at stud, and nail into place.  At this time you can fill nail  holes, as well as any seams, with wall fixer or woody putty.  Let is dry and sand down to a smooth surface.

STEP 12 – Prime.  Prime all wood, as well as the wall behind it if you have not done this yet.  Remember to tape up your walls above the wainscoting if you’ve painted this already.

STEP 13 – Paint.  After the primer layer dries, get your paint color (bright white semi-gloss in our case) and paint all wood as well as the wall behind it.  This may need 2 coats.  Again, remember to tape up your walls above if you’ve painted that prior to painting the wainscoting.


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17 Responses to How To: DIY Wainscoting

  1. Colleen says:

    Lovely! I’m also curious about the ceiling lamp. Where did that come from?

  2. The light fixture is from Crate & Barrel. “Finley Small White Pendant Lamp”.
    I love the way it looks and it lights the space well, but it was pretty difficult to install.

  3. Linds says:

    Do you have an estimate for how much this cost you?

  4. Unfortunately we did not keep a record of how much we spent, but if I had to guess I’d say around $300 for all the materials (wood, glue, nails, paint, etc).


  6. Katie says:

    Hello! I have a quick question for you! When you painted, did you use any type of textured brush/roller? Thank you SO much!


  7. Hi Katie! Thanks for your question. We did not use any type of textured brush or roller, just your typical brushes and rollers. I’m not sure if we mentioned this in the original post, but we used the same semi-gloss white paint on both the sheet rock wall surface and the wood panels to give it the same sheen and make it appear to be the same material. Hope this helps!

  8. Yve says:

    Love the idea…looks fantastic! (Spelled inspiration wrong… )

  9. David Prince says:

    I love what you guys did. I am assuming your walls were flat, un-textured drywall? What would you suggest if the walls that you wanted to do this on had a slightly textured surface?

  10. Thanks, David! Our walls are plaster so they have a bit of a texture, but not enough to create large pockets or seams between the flat pieces of wood and the textured wall. We did run some wood putty or spackle down the edges to conceal the crease before painting!

    I think as long as you use the same application for the paint (all roller or all paint brush) they should look close enough to the same!

  11. Joanna says:

    Hi – the room that I am considering giving this a try in is about the same size as the one you have based this post on. Could you give me a rough estimate on how long it took from start to finish? Thank you!

  12. From measuring, buying materials, and putting it all together and painting – I’d say it took us 4-5 evenings (after work) to get it all completed. Not too bad :)

  13. Joanna says:

    Thank you for the quick response! and you are right, 4-5 evenings isn’t bad at all. This is probably a dumb question but do you cut the corners where the walls meet at the 45 degrees?

  14. Yup, 45 degrees! But you may need to adjust it a degree or two because walls usually aren’t perfectly perpendicular to each other, especially old walls! Trial and error should work fine.

  15. Joanna says:

    thank you!

  16. Winnie says:

    Did the pine lumber you used have knots in them? If so, did the knots leave the texture uneven after painting? We are considering using pine lumber as a cheaper alternative to primed MDF. Thanks!

  17. I’m looking at the pictures of the wood unpainted and it looks like the boards were free of knots, just some grain lines which didn’t have much texture.

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