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How to Install a Chair Rail

You don't have to spend big bucks or hire a designer to redecorate a room. A simple, but elegant chair rail will do the trick. A well-designed chair rail is an attractive accent that also provides a clean dividing line so you can paint the upper part of a wall one color and the bottom another. Or wallpaper either one. But this project's most attractive feature may be its simplicity. It's made from two simple boards and two standard moldings. Even a novice can install it following the steps in this story.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

Key tools simplify this project

Since we planned to paint our chair rail, we used pine moldings and clear boards (Figure A). They're also available in oak.

We used a safe, simple, hand powered miter box (rented), since soft pine boards and moldings cut easily. If you're working with oak or a large room, rent or buy a power miter saw for more accuracy.

You can hand nail all the boards and moldings, but we chose to hand nail only the 1x4 horizontal rails. We used a small air powered brad nailer to secure everything else. With brad nailing, there's less chance of splitting wood or leaving ugly hammer marks. Decorative chair rails look best about one-third of the way up a wall. If in doubt, place a few strips at varying heights to get a feel for the right proportion.

Chair rail parts

Chair rail parts

Figure A: Chair Rail Parts

Cut and nail the flat rail first

Make marks equal distances above the floor in all the corners of a room (Photo 1) as well as next to all door and window casings. Connect these marks using white chalk in a chalk box, then locate and mark the studs. First install the horizontal 1x4s (the actual dimensions are 3/4 in. x 3-1/2 in.). Cut the rails to length, hold them in place, and then pre-drill small holes based on the stud marks on the wall. Align the top edge with the chalk line, then nail the rails using 8d finish nails. You can use simple square cuts where they meet at inside corners (Photo 4).

Your outside corners will look neatest if you miter them. Align one board with the chalk line and trace along the wall to mark the back where it intersects the corner.

Use your miter saw to cut the angle, leaving the board about 1/8 in. too long, then temporarily tack it in place (Photo 3). Use a small test piece with a 45-degree angle to see if the other mitered 1x4 will meet it right. If it won't, use your miter saw, sanding block or belt sander to adjust both miters until they fit.

Cut and add the top rail

Next, cut the 3/4-in. x 2-in. top rails and nail them to the 1x4 rails. Test-fit the ends of the boards on the inside corners (Photo 4), then cut to fit. If several layers of drywall compound hold the boards out from the wall, sand or plane the board edges until they fit tight. At the outside corners, again use miters and “test pieces” to get a tight fit.

Now add pizzazz with the decorative moldings

Cutting and installing the bed molding is the most challenging part of the project, since it perches at an angle to the rails. As you work, keep picturing how it will sit against the rails after it’s installed. There are three details you need to contend with:

Outside corners. Outside corners meet with simple 45-degree miters. Position an overly long piece of bed molding in place, then make a little “tick” mark on the back lower edge where the 1x4s meet at the corner. This is the short side of your miter. Position the molding in your miter saw upside down (Photo 6) and use clamps or cam pins to hold the molding square to the fence. Set the saw at 45 degrees, line up the tick mark with the blade and carefully make the cut. It's easy to screw up here—remember that your tick mark will be the shortest part of the miter. After one piece is cut and tacked in place, use a test piece to make certain the second piece will meet it at the correct angle.

Inside corners. Since inside corners are rarely square, mitered moldings usually leave a gap. It's best to run one piece square into the corner (that’s the easy one!) and then “cope” a second piece to butt into it. The best way is to cut a 45-degree angle on a molding, then use that profile as a guide for cutting out the shape.

Returns. You need to “cap” the ends where the chair rail overlaps window and door casings. Cut the long piece of molding at a 45-degree angle so the long point is 1/8 in. shy of the outside corner (Photo 8) of the top rail. Then miter a small piece to turn the corner and “return” the molding to the horizontal rail. It's like an outside corner, but the second piece is really small. Glue and tape the piece in place. You'll bust it if you try to nail it. The smaller glass bead molding, which covers any gaps between the wall and bottom of the 1x4 rail, is a breeze compared with the bed molding. Cut and test-fit the outside corners the same as you've done with other outside corners. Since the molding is so small, you can miter (rather than cope) the inside corners.

Finish with a touch of filler and paint

Fill the nail holes and gaps with sandable wood putty, then smooth all surfaces with fine-grit sandpaper. Lightly run the sandpaper along the edges of the boards to ease them. If you have gaps larger than 1/8 in. where the 1x2 rail meets the wall, run a small bead of paintable caulk in the gap. Prime, then paint the wood. You're done.

Tip: If you live in an old house with slanted floors, use a 4-ft. level to draw lines around the room, making sure that by the time you come full circle, the starting and ending heights are the same.

Tip: If your miters don't meet perfectly, don't panic. Moldings will cover gaps along the top and bottom edges and you can use putty (within reason!) to fill gaps before painting.

Tip: If you have moldings with a cope or angle on one end and a square cut on the other, always cut the cope or angle first. After you test-fit and fine-tune the piece, you can make the final (simpler) square cut to create the right length.

Rosette solution

Rosette solution

More Simple Chair Rail Ideas

A chair rail like the one we show is thicker than most contemporary moldings it butts to. Here are a couple of ideas for dealing with common situations:

  • If your existing door and window moldings are thin, you can cut out a small section of casing at chair rail height, install a thicker rosette, then butt the chair rail into that. Rosette blocks are available at home centers and on line.
  • Use single, flat chair rail moldings that don’t protrude past the casings. There are many embossed or fluted moldings that will work.
  • You can run a thicker band of wood, say a 1/2-in. x 1-1/2 in. strip, entirely around existing casings to provide a thicker edge to butt the chair rail to. You can use different moldings and boards in any of hundreds of combinations to create your own chair rail. Always try to match the look, feel and scale of the other moldings in the room.
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