For many people, wood wall paneling carries uncomfortable associations: 4 x 8-ft. panels from Georgia-Pacific or Weyerhauser that seemed ubiquitous in most homes from 1960 to 1976. During that period, these wall panels seemed to be present as the inner skin of every den, every basement romper room, every rec room.
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! In some fortunate cases, the visible part was indeed real wood—a thin slice of wood veneer atop MDF. But many were cheaper panels that employed a plastic, contact-paper film to convey the impression of wood.
As with other elements of home decor style, wood paneling has gone around and come back again. Largely ridiculed and often replaced in the period from the 1980s onward, wood paneling is now in vogue again, though in a modified form.
First, let's disassociate this wall paneling from the "Brady Bunch"-era products. Wood wall panels have a long, storied history, with the fake panels of the 60s/70s being just a momentary bad dream.
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.
From some outlets, you can still buy an entire room's worth of antique paneling. Do you have a spare $22,623 lying around? If so, that room of mahogany panels, including arched fireplace overmantel, could be yours.
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. But you'll soon see why today's paneling is not the same as your grandfather's 1970s paneling.
The Virtues of Today's Wood Paneling
While the photo veneer version of paneling is still available, it has largely been replaced by genuine hardwood veneers—not quite the same as solid wood panels, but a lot better than the 1960s version.
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 American 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 whisker-thin veneers used in the 1960s, these veneers are more legitimate and substantive. Modern paneling features better mounting systems, improved edges, and custom sizing.
Variable and Custom Sizing
The 4 x 8-ft. sheets found at big-box home improvement stores can give a room that "paneled look"—and not in a good way. Big 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 get away from this, you can do two things. First, simply choose wood panels of smaller sizes—2 x 4, 3 x 4, or 3 x 6 feet. Secondly, position the panels on the horizontal. This gives your room a more spacious feeling.
Wood Paneling Cost
Cost is where the real difference lies. With the traditional, Home Depot-style MDF wood paneling, you can pick up 32-square-foot sheets for as little as $11 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 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.
Another option is peel-and-stick panel strips that come with self-adhesive strips on the back. These products require no nailing; just peel away that backing and apply to walls. In addition to requiring no nailing, these products come bundled in packs of planks, allowing for varied layouts.
Gastropubs, bars, and restaurants in New York's Chelsea or Greenwich Village, Seattle's Belltown or Capitol Hill—or practically anywhere in San Francisco, or in L.A.'s up-from-the-ashes Downtown—are beginning to have a universal look that involves chalkboard menus, subway tiles, and attractively aged 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-round. It's classic win-win, preserving living hardwood trees while repurposing wonderful existing lumber that might otherwise be discarded.
One company beginning to offer reclaimed woods is Stikwood. It also offers traditional off-the-tree hardwood planks that are 1/8 inch thick x 5 inches wide, but their reclaimed wood line is a thicker, at 3/16 inch thick x 5 inches wide, an accommodation to the inherent fragility and brittleness of this older wood. Their Reclaimed Weathered Wood is an attractive yet delicate product.
Old-style wood paneling was adhered to walls by brads or finishing nails, plus a squirt of construction glue. Done correctly, you could hardly see the fasteners. But adhering panels directly to wallboard or plaster can present a problem if the wall's imperfections are transmitted to the panel's surface.
Even better are a recent innovation—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.
Horizontal Wood Strips
Another advantage of wood wall panels: It doesn't take much to make them look super-swanky. Which is quite surprising when you consider that the version shown here is nothing but a black background overlaid with vertical sleepers every 18 inches. Laid horizontally on top of the sleepers are 3-inch-wide strips of clear-finished hardwood. It's a DIY wall paneling system most homeowners can do, and it doesn't require hauling (or paying for) large sheets of veneer wood.
While hardwood is preferable, if cost is an issue you can even use a mid-range priced wood, such as cedar.