Two Ways of Installing Wainscoting

You can lend a room a bit of visual interest and protect wall areas exposed to daily wear and tear by installing wainscoting.

| January/February 1989

It is said that someone once remarked that "90% of British tradition is less than a century old." Fact or fiction, he no doubt had to confess that wainscoting had a much more hoary place among the ranks of the legitimate. After all, Shakespeare was a pup when English woodcrafters were importing select oak to decorate the walls of contemporary trendsetters — and when compared to the stone or wattle of the time, installing wainscoting is simple. So much so that wainscot paneling must have seemed the greatest discovery since the longbow.

Traditional or not, wainscot (a term that covers any use of paneling on the lower part of a wall) has a lot going for it. In a practical sense, it's hard to beat the durability of wood in places that get kicked, scraped, and thumped as a matter of course. In fact, dry wall or plaster that's been damaged to the point of cracking can often be covered with wood at less expense than would be required to restore the walls outright.

Better yet, a well-planned wainscot job is adaptable to almost any room. Panel widths and shapes can be modified to suit doorways, windows, fireplaces and other details that, aside from their function, sometimes seem to get in the way. Chair rails can be muted for a modern look, or extended to serve as a working shelf in a bath or kitchen area.

A lower-wall treatment also offers an opportunity to experiment with the change of textures and colors, either to put some life into an uninspired space, or to lend an air of formality to a room that needs a bit of urging.

Built to Please

Though all wainscot may have a distinctive look, there's no end of variety in the ways in which it's presented. Probably most familiar is the raised-panel style you might see in a library or study — individually framed sections with beveled or routed borders, a lower baseboard, and a horizontal chair rail along the top. Alas, that bit of convention doesn't come cheaply, since the panels are solid wood and must be thick enough to display their relief.

Another treatment uses beaded tongue and groove strips, capped and skirted with casing or molding to define the horizontal borders; the vertical field may be framed or left to run continuously. This style is less elegant but still offers a substantial surface that can be installed without a lot of difficulty.

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