How to Install a Chair Rail

From ordinary to elegant in one weekend

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.

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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 to splice
    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.

Air nailer
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Prepare the walls

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.

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Prefinish for a faster, neater job

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.

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Cope corners for a perfect fit

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
    shift or wiggle.
  • 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.

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Test outside corners for a tight fit

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 the wood.

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 blade.

First, cut a return piece the width of the chair rail. Clamp a 1x4 to the fence so the saw blade won't mangle the return.

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 small.

Return
Cutting
Gluing
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Splice long runs

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.

Bevel cut
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Fill nail holes

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.

Chair rail parts
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