Wood Paneling Revival: An Alternative to Drywall and Paint

Wood panelling surrounding dining space with sliding doors

The Spruce / Sarah Crowley

For many, the concept of wood wall paneling carries uncomfortable associations of 4-foot by 8-foot fake wood panels from huge lumber mills, the type of panels that were everywhere in homes in the 1960s and 1970s.

This wood paneling made a point of announcing that it was wood. No real wood could ever look so wood-like as these panels of cherry, oak, beech, or other showy wood species. In some cases, the visible part was indeed real wood—a thin slice of wood veneer atop the pressed board. But many were cheaper panels that used a plastic-paper laminate film to convey the impression of wood.

Wood paneling has gone around and come back again. Often replaced in the period from the 1980s onward, wood paneling is now in vogue again, though in a modified form.

Today's wood paneling is in some ways a jump backward over the cheap products of the 1960s and 1970s to the glory days of solid wood paneling, but with many modern improvements.

Modern wood paneling has:

  • Hardwood veneers
  • Premium plywood backing
  • Lower-grade hardwood on back to control movement
  • Variable sizing
  • Sustainable sourcing of wood
  • Suspension metal fasteners

Older vs. Modern Wood Paneling

Wood has long been used to dress up a room. In years long past, carved wood panels of mahogany, oak, walnut, or even pine provided some insulation and sound-absorbing qualities and announced a room's importance. You can still buy an entire room's worth of antique paneling but these cost in the tens of thousands of dollars.

While the photo veneer version of paneling is still available, it has largely been replaced by genuine hardwood veneers—not quite the same as solid wood panels, but far better than the older ones.

What about truly solid paneling, the solid hardwoods that once graced colonial mansions? Except in exclusive architectural antique stores, you'll be hard-pressed to find solid wood paneling.

Forests of mahogany aren't being felled to provide solid slabs for homes. Whatever you end up buying, it will almost certainly be a veneer.

Today's products feature exciting solid hardwood veneers, including wenge, mahogany, zebrawood, Macassar, or teak—not to mention the standard favorites, such as oak, maple, and birch.

Rather than the razor-thin veneers used in the 1960s, these veneers are thicker and more substantial. Modern paneling features better mounting systems, improved edges, and custom sizing.

Variable and Custom Sizing

The 4-foot by 8-foot sheets found at home improvement stores can give a room a paneled look. One downside is that these large sheets can impose their look on a room. Typically, panel manufacturers have tried to mitigate this by creating vertical grooves, imitating the look of long individual boards.

To avoid this, try two things. First, simply choose wood panels of smaller sizes, such as 2-foot by 4-foot, and piece them together. Secondly, position the panels on the horizontal rather than the vertical. Horizontals, too, will give your room a more spacious feeling.

Cost of Wood Paneling

Cost is where the real difference lies. With the traditional, home center-style pressed wood paneling, you can pick up 32-square-foot sheets for as little as $12 and ranging up to as much as $40.

Higher-quality wood paneling is far more expensive. Horizontal-oriented ebony wood paneling is around $400 for a sheet of the same size. Still, this is considerably less expensive than solid ebony.

For more typical hardwoods, the price difference will be less dramatic. For example, a sheet of walnut veneer paneling costs less than $90 per sheet, while a photo-generated walnut look-alike panel might cost $20. 

When paneling is veneered with real hardwood, one of the cost drivers isn't just the hardwood on front, but the hardwood on the back.

Usually, a higher grade of hardwood is used for the front. The same hardwood, but of lesser quality, is used on the back of the wood paneling. Manufacturers do this to control the rate of expansion and contraction. If only one side of the board were veneered, movement on the back side might stress the entire board, causing cracking.

An economical option is peel-and-stick panel strips that come with self-adhesive strips on the back. These products require no nailing; just peel away the backing and apply to walls. In addition to requiring no nailing, these products come bundled in packs of planks, allowing for varied layouts. 

Reclaimed Wood Wall Paneling

It's a look that's often seen in commercial properties such as bars, restaurants, brewpubs; a retro look that may include subway tiles and attractively aged solid timbers of wood-paneled walls. For the most part, these solid timbers aren't thick at all.

In many cases, you're looking at wood veneer, but not just any kind: this is reclaimed wood. Reclaimed wood is good for everyone, all-around. It's a classic win-win, preserving living hardwood trees while repurposing wonderful existing lumber that might otherwise be discarded.  

A company that offers reclaimed woods is Stikwood. It also offers traditional off-the-tree hardwood planks that are 1/8-inch thick by 5 inches wide. But their reclaimed wood line is thicker, at 3/16-inch thick by 5 inches wide, an accommodation to the inherent fragility and brittleness of this older wood.

Wood Panel Mounting Systems

Older style wood paneling was attached to the walls by brads or finishing nails, plus a squirt of construction glue. Done correctly, you could hardly see the fasteners.

But sticking panels directly to wallboard or plaster can present a problem if the wall's imperfections are transmitted to the panel's surface. In the long-term, every shift and movement of the walls only further dislodge the wall panels.

A better way to attach wood panels to walls are suspension metal fasteners that attach to the back of the board, allowing you to slide the board onto metal rails attached to the wall. No metal is visible.

Also, these fasteners provide an approximate 1/4-inch stand-off from the wall, a feature that reduces the impact of uneven wall surfaces. 

Off-Set Horizontal Wood Strips

Another advantage of wood wall panels: It doesn't take much to make them look great.

One favorite type of wood paneling installation is to start with a black background on the drywall. This background is then overlaid with vertical sleepers every 18 inches. Laid horizontally on top of the sleepers are 3-inch-wide strips of clear-finished hardwood.

This is a do-it-yourself wall paneling system most homeowners can do, and it doesn't require you to transport large sheets of veneer wood.

While hardwood is preferable for many people, if cost is an issue you can even use a low- or mid-range priced softwood, such as cedar or pine. Stain with an oak or walnut stain, then finish with Danish oil or a low-gloss polyurethane coating.

Wood Wall Paneling Horizontal

Martin Barraud / Getty Images

Article Sources
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  1. Hardwoods: Before you Buy Hardwood Flooring. World Floor Covering Association.