How to Install a Chair Rail

Chair Railing in Formal Dining Room
akurtz/Getty Images 

Installing a chair rail on your wall is highly functional and high style, yet with so little effort or cost. This classic type of molding can instantly lend an elegant, traditional style to any room. Chair rail is installed in dining rooms, living rooms, walls next to staircases, and home offices.

Chair Rail Basics

Classified as a type of trim, a chair rail is a long, narrow strip of molding that is attached to a wall. Traditionally, chair rails were installed for the practical purpose of protecting fragile plaster walls against impact from chair backs.

Over the years, chair rails have evolved into a decorative element. In rooms with tall ceilings over 8 feet tall, chair rails provide a visual break and help make the room feel less imposing. 

When wainscoting is being installed, chair railing acts as the top edge of the wainscoting. It serves to cover up the cut top edge of the wainscoting and to hold it in place.

Correctly positioned, chair railing does perform its original duty of protecting the wall from chair damage. Small dining rooms especially are prone to damage because they have a smaller buffer between the backs of the chairs and walls.

Tools and Materials

An electric miter saw is typically recommended for trim and molding work because it saves labor and it cuts cleanly. However, this is one trim project where you can use a manual miter box and hand saw because so few cuts are required and these cuts are simple.

Electric nailers work better for trim because they drive very thin nails with a single blow. Yet because the amount of nailing is so limited, you can do an adequate job with a hammer and finish nails.

Materials

  • Chair rail moulding
  • Interior trim paint

Tools

Instructions

Measure the Height of the Chair Rail

There is no single, perfect height for chair rail on your wall. You may wish to consider one of several options based on your needs:

  • One-third high rule: Conventional chair railing advice says that chair rail tends to look best when it is one-third of the height of the room. For a ceiling that is 8 feet high, this would place the chair rail in the 30- to 36-inch height range.
  • Chair back height: Since the original purpose of the chair rail is to act as a buffer between the wall and the backs of chairs, you may wish to measure the height of your chair backs and use this as chair rail height. Be sure to use the chair backs' leading edge when measuring.
  • Visual feeling: Easily experiment with various heights by running a strip of painter's tape horizontally across the wall. Try different heights over a period of a few days until you are certain.

Measure the Length

With a tape measure or laser measuring device, measure the horizontal length of all walls where you intend to install the chair rail. Add 10-percent to account for wastage.

Purchase the Chair Rail

It is helpful to purchase chair rail that is long enough to cover an entire wall run without having to splice together two separate pieces of molding. Chair railing is found in the trim section of the store. Or you can purchase any type of molding that has the width and thickness that you desire. Popular widths for chair railing tend to be in the 1 1/2-inch to 2 1/2-inch range. Popular thicknesses are in the 1/4-inch to 3/4-inch range.

Tip

If installing the chair rail with wainscoting, purchase wainscotting chair rail. This special kind of chair rail has an overhang to fit over the top of the wainscoting.

Snap a Chalk Line

Use your laser or bubble level to determine the level for the chair railing on the walls. Continue this level across for all walls that will receive chair railing, snapping a chalk line to mark this line. 

To snap a chalk line, drive a finish nail at one end of the run, then hang the chalk line's hook over the nail. Extend the line, then snap it.

Cut Chair Railing

Measure and cut lengths of chair railing to correspond with wall lengths. Cut the ends of the pieces of chair railing at a 45-degree angle, so that when two adjoining pieces meet, they form a 90-degree angle.

Prime and Paint the Chair Rail

It is helpful to prime and paint your molding prior to installation. While you will still need to paint the trim again after it is installed, painting as much as possible in advance significantly reduces the amount of painting required when the trim is on the wall. Installed trim is more difficult to paint because of the taping involved and the possibility of creating a mess on the floor and walls.

Attach the Chair Rail to the Wall

Use the stud finder to locate all vertical studs in the room. Mark studs with small pieces of painter's tape. If you are intending to paint the room, you can mark lightly with the pencil instead of using tape. Attach the chair rail to the wall with the electric nailer or with a hammer and finish nails.

If you need to join two runs of chair rail, use a scarf joint. A dot of wood glue on the joint helps the joint stay together over the long-term.

Patch and Paint

Patch visible holes with wood filler. Finish with a final coat of paint.