Here’s How: Install a Wainscoting Kit for Beautiful Walls

September 8, 2020 Updated: September 8, 2020

Dear James: I have always liked wainscoting on walls. The old drywall has dents and loose joint tape. Is it possible to install wainscoting myself over the old walls? —Aleta N.

Dear Aleta: Wainscoting is not as popular these days because of its high cost compared with drywall. It does create beautiful, unique, and durable walls. In order to reduce the cost, you may want to do only one or two walls. You can always do more at a later time.

Wainscoting used to be made with individual small pieces of solid wood oriented in a perpendicular pattern surrounding larger wood panels. Real wood expands and contracts with humidity and temperature changes, so it is expected that the joints’ spacing will change a bit throughout the seasons.

Currently, wainscoting kits are available, and this would be your best option for a do-it-yourself project. The kits are not inexpensive, and some cost as much as $20 per square foot. By comparison, though, this is still less expensive than having a woodworker install scratch-built wainscoting.

Most wainscoting materials used today are made from engineered lumber. This is basically very high-grade plywood with a veneer of cherry, maple, walnut, oak, etc., on the top surface. With the plywood-type layers beneath the veneer, each piece is more stable than solid wood as the humidity level changes.

Most people stain the wood for a rich, warm, natural appearance. If you plan to paint the wainscoting, select a kit made with a lower-priced synthetic veneer. This can also look very nice when finished in contrasting colors to the basic wall color.

For a completely unique design, you may be able to locate a local woodworking shop to make wainscoting pieces per your specific design. Expect this method to be very expensive. Hyde Park Lumber and Elite Trimworks offer standard wainscoting kits for do-it-yourselfers. Elite Trimworks sells small samples of patterns for $15 so you can actually see the pattern before ordering a complete kit.

When you determine the cost to do a room, keep in mind most people do not install wainscoting on all the walls. It actually looks better and more tasteful when just one or two walls are done. Plan on doing the plain walls without windows or doors, because installing wainscoting around window openings takes some practice to fit properly.

The key to a quality installation of a wainscoting kit is accurately measuring the wall initially. Always measure twice to be safe. The wainscoting pieces can be glued or nailed directly over the old drywall, so you will not have to spend much time preparing the wall surface. Use a stud finder to locate the position of the wall stud. Make small marks on the wall above where the wainscoting will be installed.

Another important installation tip is to use a level to be sure the initial base rail is perfectly level. How well all of the other pieces will fit together is based upon the base rail. Electrical outlets look best when they are located in one of the flat panels. This may require you to reposition an outlet or two.

installing wainscoting infographic

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