All about chair rail
The original purpose of chair rail was to protect walls from being
damaged by chair backs. Today, this molding is a fast way to
stylishly define a dining room, living room or entry hall, especially
when used to separate wallpaper from paint, or between two different
colors of paint.
This article will show you how to install chair rail, with tips to make the
job go faster and easier and with less wasted material. Chair rail is available in a variety of woods and styles, from inexpensive paint-grade pine to large, very expensive
hardwood profiles. You can also make your own chair rail with standard
trim or clear “1-by” material. The special-order cherry molding we
used cost $5 per ft.
To cut the chair rail, you'll need a miter saw and
a coping saw with extra blades (they break easily).
A finish nailer isn't absolutely necessary
but will give you faster, better results.
Make a sketch, then go shopping
Sketch out the floor plan of the room, noting the exact length of each section of wall. Add a foot to each length for waste to get the minimum size you need for each wall.
Once you decide on a style, you'll need to do some juggling to make the standard lengths that the lumberyard sells fit the lengths that you need. The best way to keep track of what piece goes where and avoid wasting expensive wood is to make notes on the sketch. Here are some shopping tips:
- When possible, buy pieces long enough to span the
entire wall; otherwise, you'll have
sections (Photo 7).
- If you plan to stain and varnish
the trim, select pieces with similar
grain pattern and color.
- Check each piece for flaws such
as splits and tear-out.
- To avoid heavy sanding, select
pieces that have a smooth surface.
Watch out for deep “chatter
marks” (a wavy surface left
by the milling machine).
- Home centers only carry a few
pine and oak chair rails. For a
larger selection, ask about special-order profiles or visit a lumberyard that caters to professional contractors.
- Many types and combinations
of moldings can be used as
chair rail, even if they aren't
called chair rail.
Also use your sketch to plan the location of coped cuts,
so that you don't end up with pieces that have to be
coped at both ends. If possible, locate coped pieces on
walls where the non-coped end can be marked in place.
That way you can shave the coped cut down, or even
recut it if you have to, before you cut it to length. Even pros have to tweak their cuts, so leave yourself a little
extra wood to work with.
Get Better Results With an Air Nailer
Until the 1990s, air nailers were so
expensive that many carpenters didn't use them. They're a
whole lot cheaper now; even if you do only
occasional carpentry, they're well worth the investment.
Not only can you nail trim faster and easier, but
you'll get better-looking results. The skinny nails are less
likely to split wood, and they leave smaller holes that
are easier to hide. Hammer dents and bent
nails are no longer a concern.
Prepare the walls
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Photo 1: Mark studs
Locate studs and mark them with masking tape. If
new wallpaper or paint is part of the project, complete
those jobs before you install chair rail.
Apply wallpaper or paint high enough (or low enough)
for the chair rail to cover the edge. Chair rail is usually
placed 36 in. above the floor but can be installed anywhere
from 30 in. to 42 in. up, with wallpaper either
above or below.
Lightly mark the bottom of the chair rail every 3 ft.
around the perimeter of the room. Measure from the
baseboard, the ceiling or the floor—whichever is most
consistent. Find and mark all the studs (Photo 1).
Split the Difference
In older houses, where level
floors and ceilings may be
only a distant memory, perfectly
level chair rail can
actually look crooked. The
best solution is to ignore
the level and follow a compromise line halfway
between level and the closest
visual reference point—usually the baseboard. If in doubt, tack up a test piece or a piece of tape, then
stand back and see if it looks right.
Prefinish for a faster, neater job
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Photo 2: Finish before installing
Prefinish the chair rail for less mess and smoother
results. Apply the final coat after installing the chair
rail and filling nail holes.
For a job with sharp, crisp edges, stain and varnish (or
paint) the chair rail before nailing it up (Photo 2). Before the first coat, sand all the chair rail lightly but
thoroughly with 180-grit sandpaper. Test the finish on
scrap pieces to make sure the color looks right. To match
existing trim, you'll have to experiment on scraps of
chair rail. Don't assume that stain colors will look the
same on your chair rail as they do on store displays.
Cope corners for a perfect fit
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Photo 3: Cope cuts
Cope inside corners by cutting along the profile left
by a 45-degree miter cut. Hold the coping saw at an
angle to “backcut” the chair rail.
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Photo 4: Fine-tune the cut
Perfect the fit of coped ends with a file, rasp, utility
knife or sandpaper. Don't try to shave off thin slices
with a coping saw.
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Photo 5: Solve problems with hidden shims
Close a gap with a shim. Slip the shim under the
uncoped end to force it against the coped end. This
only works if the gap is along the lower half of the joint.
Wall corners are almost never perfectly square, but coped
joints cover this problem by fitting tightly against the
adjoining piece even if the corner is a few degrees off.
Cut the piece for the first side of the corner at 90
degrees and nail it in place—but keep the nails a foot back from the corner for now. Cut the coped end of the next piece and tweak it until the joint is tight (Photos 3 and 4).
Here are some tips for making smooth, accurate cope cuts:
- Make sure the saw teeth point
toward the handle. That way,
the blade will cut smoothly on
the pull stroke.
- Practice on scraps. You'll be
surprised at how much your
copes improve after a couple
of practice cuts.
- Clamp the chair rail to a solid work surface. Cuts are
smoother and easier if the molding can't
- Don't force the saw forward. Make smooth, even
strokes, applying light forward pressure.
If the first wall isn't perfectly plumb, you may need to glue a thin shim under the bottom edge to tighten the joint (Photo 5). Don't cut off the shim in place—you may damage the wall. Instead, mark it, and then pull it out
to cut it.
Once the coped joint looks right, hold it in place and
mark the cut at the other end. Only one end should be
coped. The other end will always be either an outside corner or a 90-degree cut.
Test outside corners for a tight fit
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Photo 6: Use scraps for test cuts
Find the miter cut angle on outside corners with an angle finder or just by cutting
and recutting test pieces until they form a tight
Outside corners often flare out slightly, so that the chair
rail needs to be cut at more than 45 degrees. To get the
exact angle, cut two scrap pieces at 46 degrees, then
adjust the angle of the cut until the joint is tight (Photo
6). Both sides should be cut at the same angle.
Spread wood glue on one of the ends before nailing the
pieces to the wall. Don't nail within 2 in. of the end unless
you're using a brad nailer or predrilling, to avoid splitting
Create a “Return” at an Archway
To end chair rail at an
archway or corner,
form a return an inch
from the corner. When
you cut the return,
leave the saw blade
down until the blade
stops spinning to avoid
nicking the return as it
falls away from the
First, cut a return piece the
width of the chair rail.
Clamp a 1x4 to the fence so
the saw blade won't mangle
Next, push the return into place with a little wood glue
and hold it for a minute
until the glue starts to set.
Don't nail the return—it's too
Splice long runs
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Photo 7: Scarf joint
Join sections of chair rail with a 30-degree “scarf”
joint at a stud. For a strong joint, use glue in addition
If your wall is too long for a single piece of chair rail, you
can inconspicuously join two pieces by cutting the ends
at 30 degrees and gluing them together (Photo 7).
Select two pieces with similar grain. Measure and cut the two pieces so that the splice occurs on a stud. Position the top piece so that all the edges line up, then nail it to the wall. Wipe away glue drips and touch up with filler and additional finish if necessary.
Cut a “Bevel” at Thin Window Casing
Some types of chair rail are thicker than window and door casing. To solve this problem, bevel-cut the chair rail as shown in the photo with a shallow 45-degree bevel cut. Apply finish to the cut before you nail it up to avoid getting finish on the casing.
Fill nail holes
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Photo 8: Fill holes
Fill nail holes with colored putty. Blend different
colors of putty to perfectly match the color of the
wood. Then apply the final coat of clear finish.
Before applying the final coat of finish, fill all nail holes.
Use colored wood putty—either oil or water-based—to fill holes in natural woodwork (Photo 8). If you don't have the right shade, blend different colors with your fingers
for a better match. Wipe away excess filler with a rag
dipped in thinner for the oil-based putty, or water for the water-based product.
Use spackling paste for painted chair rail. Sand it flush, spot-prime the nail holes, then repaint.
Figure A: Plate or Chair Rail Design
The techniques used to install a chair rail can also be used to make a plate rail or a heavier, built-up chair rail. In addition to being visually interesting, a built up rail like this can be used to display photos, artwork and knickknacks. Plate rails are usually installed about five feet above the floor.