A Chair Rail Gives Your Home a Classic Look

Family room chair railing
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  • 01 of 04

    Chair Rails: Not Just For Historic Homes

    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 fade from prominence. But in the last few years, 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 design element.

    Chair rail molding is extremely easy to install, but whether or not it's right for your home depends on the house style and on your design sensibilities. Homes with some degree of grandiosity (or those just longing for grandiosity) might be able to pull off chair rail; meek little cottages need not apply.

    If you're considering installing chair rail moldings, here are some considerations to keep in mind

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  • 02 of 04

    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: But not all ceilings are 8 feet high. Some ceilings are 10 or 12 feet. In this case, the room could easily accommodate 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. 

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  • 03 of 04

    Installation

    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.

    Note: You may want to 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. 

    Tools and Supplies You Will Need

    • Chair rail molding
    • 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)
    • Wood putty (if necessary)

    How to Install Chair Rail Molding

    1. 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 between the two marks to make a reference line to indicate where the top of the chair rail molding will fit. 
    3. 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 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 against tightly against the adjoining walls of the room. 
    5. 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 steps 1 to 5 on the wall opposite the first wall. 
    7. On the remaining two walls, repeat this process, but at the ends, cut the molding at contours to match the profile of the adjoining moldings. These joints are known as coped joints, and are tighter and provide a more professional look than angled miter joints. 
    8. Use wood putty to fill any nail holes in the molding. 
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  • 04 of 04

    Pairing With Wainscoting

    One of the most popular chair rail designs is to use it as a top finishing edge for a wainscot. 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.