A Simple Way To Build Wainscoting Panels

Few details can enhance a foyer, dining room or office more than adding wainscoting, but you don’t know where to start. While there are more complicated ways to build wainscoting panels, we will discuss the simple way to get professional results without the need of an elaborate workshop. Let’s discuss the types of panels you could build. Starting with the most difficult to the simplest, you could build raised panels, flat panels, beadboard panels, or picture frame panels. Though the raised panels could be cut with a table saw, it is not the preferred piece of equipment and requires gluing and clamping several boards together, which always has the concern for warping using large panels. Picture framing is simply the assembly of 4 pieces of molding of equal lengths and heights across a given wall or set of walls. This method is applied between the chair rail and base board with equal spacing on all sides of each frame. The methods we will be discussing in detail are the flat panels and beadboard styles.

  1. As with any home improvement project, we should discuss the tools needed to complete the project. You will need a table saw, miter saw, finish nail gun, belt sander, orbital sander, and safety glasses.
  2. Take off any outlet covers, quarter round, and existing baseboards. Be careful to save the existing baseboards and quarter round.
  3. The layout plan is crucial to a smooth job. First, you need to determine if any electrical outlets could possibly interfere with the layout. A little pre-planning will help you avoid an outlet falling half-way in or out of a panel.
  4. The anatomy of a wainscoting panel consist of; a backband, top and bottom rail, vertical styles, style and rail molding, panels, baseboards, and cap. (before installing each piece, add glue to each joint and the back each piece)
  5. The backband should be the first element installed and it is used to provide a thicker edge around the doors and windows for the wainscoting panels to join into. This can be purchased at place which specializes in millwork or moldings. It is a piece of trim approximately 3/4″ x 1 1/2″ with one edge shaped. It installs on the edge against the wall, around the perimeter of any door or window casings.
  6. The overall height of wainscoting is generally around 36″ from the floor, depending on your preference, this could differ 6″ either way. A “mission” style wainscoting is around 54″. Either way, establish your height and level a line across the wall/s you intend to apply wainscoting.
  7. You need to determine the rough width you would like each panel to be either for a given wall or room. Either, you can make all the panels the same width for a given wall or you can make all panels the same width for a given room. If you choose the latter, you will usually end up one panel next to a corner or doorway smaller than the others. I suggest you treat each wall separately and make the panels the same size for a given wall, but within a few inches of the panels on the adjacent walls. While it is nice to have all panels in a given room the same size, the most crucial element to a professional job is the same margin between all sides of each panel, corner, moldings or doorway.
  8. Your margins are determined by the widths of the vertical styles and the top and bottom rails. For the top rail and vertical styles, I recommend using 3/4″ x 3 1/2″ lumber. The width of the bottom rail depends on the width of the base board trim. If using a 3 1/4″ baseboard, I will use a 3/4″ x 6 3/4″ bottom rail, so it will give me a 3 1/2″ margin after the baseboard is installed.
  9. Cut and install the top and bottom rails an equal distance apart. Install the top rail 3/4″ below the horizontal level line you established as top of the wainscoting. When installing the bottom rail, make sure it is installed at equal distances apart from the top rail. Any gaps between the bottom rail and the floor will be covered by the baseboard and quarter round.
  10. Next take an overall measurement of each wall to a corner or doorway. Subtract the number of vertical styles between each panel, as well as the styles used at each corner or doorway, from the overall measurement. I have found a 36″ panel width is a good place to start, so take the overall width and divide by 36″. If you end up with 3.68″, for example, which means you can either use 3 or 4 panels. Then divide the overall measurement by 3 or 4. This calculation will give the width of each panel.
  11. Install the vertical styles in each corner and next to each doorway. Then lay out the panels, remembering to allow for the width of the vertical styles used between each panel. I suggest you layout the entire room before installing the first individual panel or style used between each panel, in order to see if you have any interference or spacing issues. If all is well, install the remaining vertical styles. Now you have the frame for the wainscoting, the rest is easy.
  12. Measure, cut and install the plywood or beadboard for each opening. (Glue the back of each panel or vertical style which does not have a stud to nail to.)
  13. Then use a molding, like a “base cap”, to install around the inside perimeter of each opening, while mitering the corners.
  14. Cut and install the baseboard and wainscoting cap. The cap is similar in size and shape to the backbanding and is nailed to the top of the wainscoting as a ledge. You can also install some cove molding under the cap to give some stability.
  15. Sand the surface areas, where the rail and styles join, flush and smooth. Fill and caulk, as needed, and then paint.

Once you have completed this project, you will be able to sit back and enjoy a; “Job well done”. Just remember to be careful, methodical and determined. The true secret to any woodworking project is the planning and layout, being able to foresee potential problems before installing the first piece.