How to DIY Wainscoting

Dining room with concrete floors, light wood dining set, white wainscotting, and plants.

Experience Interiors / Getty Images 

Overview
  • Working Time: 3 hrs
  • Total Time: 4 hrs
  • Yield: 3-foot by 8-foot wainscoting
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Estimated Cost: $100 to $200

When you need a visual flourish with tons of impact, sometimes it's the simple things that count. Wainscoting is easy to construct, and it can be anything from spare and lean to showy and elegant. This traditional wood panel lends itself to all sorts of embellishments and variations to dress up dining rooms, living areas, halls, and other areas that need a quick refresh.

Definition

Wainscoting is wood paneling that is installed on the lower one-half to one-third of a wall. It is used as both a design element and to protect the wall from damage.

Basics of DIY Wainscoting

At first glance, wainscoting looks like a solid, molded unit, especially when it has been painted one color. Wainscoting, though, is constructed from many pieces. A cross-section of traditional wainscoting in historic homes reveals eight or more pieces comprising the wainscoting as a whole. But your DIY wainscoting is far easier to build, with just four components:

  • Backer Board: A sheet of 1/4-inch plywood forms the base of the wainscoting. Everything else is built on top of that.
  • Chair Rail: Chair rail is a thin strip of trim meant to protect walls from accidental chair bumps. Make sure that you purchase wainscoting chair rail, as this type has an overhang that you will need for this project.
  • Moulding: Strips of 1 1/4-inch moulding cut at 45-degree angles form the picture frame-style wainscoting boxes.
  • Baseboard: A piece of 3 1/4-inch baseboard runs along the bottom of the backer board.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Electric miter saw
  • Cordless brad nailer
  • Cordless drill
  • Laser level
  • Square
  • Putty knife
  • Stud finder
  • Pencil

Materials

  • 1/4-inch smooth finished plywood, 4-foot by 8-foot
  • Chair rail
  • 1 1/4-inch molding
  • 3 1/4-inch baseboard
  • 1-inch wide painter's tape
  • Drywall joint compound
  • 1/4-inch electrical receptacle box extensions

Instructions

  1. Plan the Wainscoting Height and Width

    • Height: Ending the top of the wainscoting halfway between the floor and ceiling gives the wainscoting a uniform, balanced look. Or you may want the top to end slightly above or below the halfway point, depending on the height of your ceiling. For this project, the wainscoting is 36 inches high.
    • Width: Wainscoting can wrap around a room's entire perimeter or it can run along just one wall. Either way, it should always encompass an entire wall. Ending the wainscoting mid-point in a wall feels unfinished.
  2. Create a Wall Template

    Run painter's tape across an 8-foot wide section of wall to help you visualize how the wainscoting will look. A horizontal strip 36 inches high forms the chair rail. Another horizontal strip 4 inches above the floor indicates the top of the baseboard. Use the tape to create three boxes 24 inches wide and 18 inches high. Place the boxes on the wall 6 inches apart from each other. If the arrangement is satisfactory, remove the tape.

  3. Rip the Plywood Base

    Use the circular saw to rip the plywood sheet at 36 inches high. Keep the 8-foot length of the sheet intact.

  4. Prepare the Wall

    The wall must be smooth and flat. Use the putty knife and joint compound to fill in small holes or gaps. Remove all outlet covers. Remove the baseboards.

  5. Locate the Studs

    Use the stud finder to locate the studs in the wall. Lightly mark the positions on the wall with the pencil slightly above the intended location of the wainscoting (about 38 inches high).

  6. Extend the Electrical Outlets

    The electrical code requires outlets to be flush with the wall. Mount electrical receptacle box extensions on the boxes to bring their edges flush with the wainscot.

    Warning

    Before working on the electrical boxes, remember to first turn off the circuit breakers at the electrical service panel or breaker box.

  7. Create Cut-Outs For Outlets

    On the wall, measure the vertical and horizontal positions of the outlets. Transfer these measurements to the wainscoting base. Cut out sections to allow the outlet extenders to pass through.

  8. Cut Moulding For the Boxes

    With the miter saw, cut six pieces of 1 1/4-inch moulding to 24 inches wide and six pieces to 18 inches. Cut the pieces at a 45-degree angle.

  9. Nail the Wainscoting Boxes

    With the base placed on the floor or a work table, draw a light pencil line 6 inches below the top. Use this as your reference line to create three boxes that are each 24 inches wide and 18 inches high. Place them 6 inches apart. Tape them down securely with painter's tape, then nail into place. Remove the tape.

  10. Mount the Wainscoting Base

    Nail the wainscoting base to the wall with the cordless nailer on the studs. Leave 1/8-inch at the bottom between the wainscoting and the floor.

  11. Add the Chair Rail

    Nail the chair rail across the top of the wainscoting base. Part of the chair rail will hang over the top of the base and rest flush against the wall.

  12. Install the Baseboard

    Lay the baseboard across the bottom of the wainscoting and nail it into place.

  13. Finish the Wainscoting

    Paint or stain the wainscoting. When dry, replace the outlet faceplates.

DIY Wainscoting Variations and Tips

  • Build a second, smaller box with the larger box for a more elaborate look.
  • Run a horizontal strip of trim an inch or two below the chair rail.
  • To save time, instead of making the picture frame boxes from scratch, consider purchasing pre-assembled picture frame moulding.
  • Paint the wainscoting a single color for a smooth appearance.
  • Or, paint the picture frame boxes, chair rail, or baseboards different colors for a more dramatic look.