Chair Rail Installation Tips and Ideas

The design element adds sophistication to any room

Chair Railing in Formal Dining Room

akurtz / Getty Images 

Project Overview
  • Working Time: 2 - 3 hrs
  • Total Time: 1 - 2 days
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Estimated Cost: $25 to $50

Chair rail moldings installed along the walls first came into use as a buffer to prevent the backs of chairs from hitting delicate plaster walls in dining rooms, where chairs were constantly being moved back and forth around the table.  As plaster walls turned into wallboard and formal dining rooms lost their popularity, so too did chair rails. But now the chair rail, along with other traditional types of ornamental trim, such as wainscoting, tall baseboards, and crown molding, has surged back into homes as a desirable design element. There are plenty of modern, simple, and inexpensive chair rail ideas for all rooms of the house, from bedrooms and stairways to hallways and kitchens. For example, chair rail tile trim (often called pencil tile) in a bathroom often offers a clean divide for a tile and wallpapered wall.

Chair rail molding is easy to install, and there are many styles to choose from. If you're considering adding a chair rail to any room, here are some considerations to keep in mind and then read on for instructions on how to install chair rail.


What is the difference between wainscoting and chair rail? Wainscoting is paneling that goes on a wall. Chair rail is the trim that is placed on the top edge of wainscoting to give it a finished look. However, chair rail can be installed on a wall without wainscoting.

Determining Chair Rail Height

How high should you install your chair rail molding? In the past, when a chair rail was actually used as a bumper for chair backs, the answer would have been "as high as the backs of the chairs." But chair rails are now used more as a design element than as a practical device for protecting walls. You can look at chair rail height from two perspectives:

  • Height above the floor: In rooms with 8-foot-high ceilings, you can place chair railing between 30 and 48 inches above the floor. In most instances, though, a chair rail will be between 32 and 36 inches from floor level.
  • Relative placement: Not all ceilings are 8 feet high; some ceilings are 10 or 12 feet. In this case, the room could easily accommodate a chair rail that is as high as 48 inches. The general rule of thumb is to position a chair rail in the lower one-third of the wall height. If you imagine the wall height divided vertically into three sections, the chair rail is best placed at the line between the bottom and middle thirds of the wall. For example, in a 10-foot-high room (120 inches), the chair rail can be placed 40 inches above the floor. 

Of course, in rooms where the chair rail serves its classic function of protecting dining room walls, it should be installed where it will successfully protect the walls from being marred by the backs of dining room chairs. Measure the height of the chair backs and position the chair rail molding at this height. In almost all instances, this will fall into the classic zone for chair rails. 


A chair rail is the ultimate DIY project since few tools are needed and almost anybody can do it. This is a project that provides a lot of satisfaction for a modest investment in time and materials. Even though chair rail molding can be fairly pricy stuff, you won't be using a lot of it. Even so, you don't want to waste any of this precious product by making mistakes with the installation.


Consider painting your chair rail molding before attaching the pieces to the wall. This can be considerably easier than trying to paint a chair rail after it is attached.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Tape measure
  • Chalk line
  • Pencil
  • Stud finder
  • Circular saw
  • Coping saw
  • Power nailer with long brads, or hammer and finish nails
  • Drill and 1/16-inch twist bit (if necessary)
  • Hammer and nail set (if you are using finish nails)


  • Chair rail molding
  • Wood putty (if necessary)


  1. Mark the Wall

    Mark the wall at one end to indicate the top of the chair rail molding. Normally, this will be between 32 and 36 inches above the floor. Make an identical mark at the opposite end of the wall. 

  2. Snap a Chalk Line

    Snap a chalk line between the two marks to make a reference line to indicate where the top of the chair rail molding will fit. 

  3. Check for Studs

    Use an electronic stud finder to find the positions of the vertical wall studs where they intersect the chalk reference line. Mark the line at these points, using a pencil. In most cases, the studs will be spaced 16 inches apart, measured on-center. 

  4. Cut Molding

    Cut a length of chair railing molding to fit across the first wall. If possible, use a single length of molding to cover the entire length of the wall If two pieces are necessary, use a scarf joint—a joint where the ends are angled at 45 degrees—where the two pieces meet in the center. The ends of the molding should be cut square at 90 degrees to fit tightly against the adjoining walls of the room. 

  5. Attach Molding to Wall

    Nail this first piece of molding to the wall, driving brads or finish nails into the wall at the stud locations. If you are driving finish nails with a hammer, use a nail set to recess the nail heads slightly below the surface of the wood. Thin pieces of chair rail, especially if they are hardwood, may benefit by drilling pilot holes for the nails to avoid splitting the wood. 

  6. Repeat on Next Wall

    Repeat steps 1 to 3 on the wall next wall on either side of the first wall. But, at the end that meets the already installed piece, cut the molding at a contour to match the profile of the adjoining moldings, using a coping saw. These joints are known as coped joints, and are tighter and provide a more professional look than angled miter joints. 

  7. Repeat on Remaining Walls

    On the remaining two walls, repeat the entire process. The final piece will need a coped joint on each end.

  8. Fill Nail Holes

    Use wood putty to fill any nail holes in the molding. 

Pairing With Wainscoting

It's popular to use chair rail as a top finishing edge for wainscoting. Traditionally, wainscoting was made from wood panels set within moldings. But in the modern form, it often takes the form of "faux wainscoting," in which vertical lengths of molding are attached to the wall from the chair rail to the baseboard to create the look of panels.

This entire bottom section of the wall can be painted a different color to create the look of a solid wainscot, or the faux panels within the molding outlines can be painted a different color to contrast with the moldings. Any rough edges where the vertical lengths of molding butt against the chair rail and baseboard can be smoothed over with caulk or wood putty. 

  • Does chair rail add value to a home?

    Chair rail is a classic design element In addition, chair rail is an elegant architectural detail that when added, this small touch can increase the value of your home.

  • What can I use instead of chair rail?

    If you love the look of chair rail, but don't want to permanently install it, use an alternative, such as peel-and-stick decals that can include the look of wainscoting with chair rail. You can also look for actual peel-and-stick chair rail that goes on the wall with adhesive instead of nailing it on.

  • How do you modernize a chair rail?

    Designers often put modern wallpaper above a chair rail to freshen up a room. For an even more modern appearance, add flattened wood trim in place of traditional rounded chair rail trim.

  • Does chair rail have to match the baseboard?

    Matching the color of your chair rail to the baseboard will give your room a more unifying look.

  • Should a lighter or darker color go above or below a chair rail?

    Most people paint the wall above the chair rail a different color than what's below. Here's a good rule of thumb when choosing paint colors: Use a darker color below the chair rail to ground the room and a lighter color above the chair rail to highlight the space. If you have dark furniture, you may want to paint the bottom a lighter color, or white, and the top of the rail a shade or two darker (but not too dark).