How to Install Wainscoting: A DIY Project With Major Results

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If you’re looking to jazz up your walls, here’s a handy guide on how to install wainscoting—a fine alternative to a new paint job or an expensive redesign.

Wainscoting is the term for decorative wood paneling that lines the lower portion of interior walls. You can use wainscoting in just about any room, whether it’s to make a drab dining room pop, improve the look of a hallway, or create a classy study or library. There are multiple styles at varying price points, so there’s plenty of flexibility.

One word of caution: Installing wainscoting isn’t a DIY task for total beginners. Richard McMurray at DFW Crown Moulding in Fort Worth, TX, says that “unexpected things” can crop up, and that you may need expensive tools for the project. An experienced do-it-yourselfer may be able to handle the project, but novices should hire a pro.

One common mistake: Don’t buy wainscoting material that clashes with the design of your home.

“You always want to make sure that whatever you do with the wainscoting matches the rest of the trim," says McMurray. "Some people have a hard time making transitions around windows and wrapping corners where the wall turns."

How to install wainscoting

Here’s a step-by-step look at how to install recessed panel wainscoting.

1. Measure carefully
Get out the tape measure. Finish Carpentry TV/YouTube

At one end of where the wainscoting will begin, measure the top height for your wainscoting on the wall.

2. Mark the top height
Mark off at the top height. Finish Carpentry TV/YouTube

Hold the tape measure from the floor and mark off at the top height. Then, measure the other end too.

3. Draw a line from one end of the project to the other
Connect the two ends of the project.

Draw a line to connect the dots and mark it off, including the one where the chair rail will go.

Next, figure out the layout of the square panels.

“The most important thing to keep in mind when installing recessed panel wainscoting is to make sure the panel layout is proportional,” McMurray says.

Measure the entire length of the project, then calculate the number of squares you can fit on the wall.

4. Measure for the wall sockets
Please, please, do not cover up outlets.

Measure for any wall sockets in the wainscoting panels. Cut out the areas for the outlets.

5. Apply drywall adhesive to the panel
Get out the sticky stuff. Finish Carpentry TV/YouTube

Cover the board in drywall adhesive. If you don’t use adhesive, McMurray warns the board is likely to move during your work.

6. Smooth out the adhesive
Smooth it out! Finish Carpentry TV/YouTube

Smooth out the adhesive on the board. You want the sticky stuff to be even on the wall when you install the panels.

7. Draw reference points for the board
Draw reference points. Finish Carpentry TV/YouTube

Before installing the board, draw reference points at the top height line where the panels will go. You need to do this because once you install the board, you won’t be able to see where you marked off your squares. This also lets you know where to put nails, because that area will be covered later.

8. Put the board in place
Put the board into place. Finish Carpentry TV/YouTube

Put the board into place and pull the outlets through. Try to not get any adhesive on the outlets. Pound the board into place with your hands.

9. Nail along the style line to secure the board
Make sure the board is in place.

Look for your reference points of where the style will go and nail along that line. Then, lean on the board to make sure the adhesive is in place. If you have more boards to install, redo the process for each board.

10. Drill pocket holes in the styles
Drill pocket holes. Finish Carpentry TV/YouTube

Now, let’s move on to building the paneling system. You’ll need a pocket hole jig to help attach the styles to the rails. Use a drill and pocket hole jig attachment to create pocket holes on the styles.

11. Attach the rails and the styles
Lay the styles and rails together.

Lay out the styles between the bottom and top rails, and screw in the boards. McMurray recommends using spacer blocks to make sure that the distances are correct.

12. Nail the paneling to the wall
Use a nail gun to nail on the paneling.

It’s now time to nail the paneling to the wall. Look for areas that you will cover with molding and the chair rail. That way, you won’t have to fill in nail holes later, because the holes will be hidden.

13. Sand the paneling
Get sandy. Or sandpaper-y. Finish Carpentry TV/YouTube

Sand down any rough parts of the paneling.

14. Install the chair rail and baseboard. Screw the outlets back in.
Install the chair rail and baseboard.
15. Add the panel moldings
Cut and install the moldings.

Cut the inside panel moldings, and nail them into place. Make sure they’re pushed flush against the board.

16. Finish up … and enjoy!
Prime, paint, and finish the wainscoting.

Prime the wainscoting, fill in nail holes, sand it once more to smooth out any rough spots, then paint. McMurray recommends that you not underestimate the importance of paint in a wainscoting project. He strongly recommends spraying the paint with a trim enamel or equivalent rather than using brushes. Once you’re done painting, you add the plate covers for the plugs.

For more information, take a look at the video below.

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