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Clean lines and perfect joints
Using a plate joiner, you can create perfect, rock-solid joints that look as if they were carved from a single piece of wood.
If your dining room or home office reminds you too much
of a workplace break room, it could be time to transform
it with this simple woodworking project.
At first glance, this panel design may look too complex for
your average do-it-yourselfer, but it’s not. The panels are made
from three horizontal 1x6 bands that run around the room, with
narrower vertical boards spaced every 30 in. or so. The panels
are the wall itself. Once you nail on filler pieces and trim, the
project takes on a traditional wainscot panel look.
In this article, we’ll show you how to plan your layout and
cut, fit and finish the wood for any room in your house. We’ll
also show you how to make clean, tight joints using a plate
joiner (Photos 5 and 6). If you haven’t used this tool before,
don’t be intimidated. Although this tool can perform complex
joinery, its only purpose here is to cut slots in two adjoining
pieces to accept a glued “biscuit” that will then bond the pieces
permanently. A plate joiner (also called a biscuit joiner) is a
worthwhile investment. You’ll marvel at how
simple it is to set up and operate.
Because we planned to paint
the wainscot panels rather than
stain them, we decided to use
moderately priced poplar. This
hardwood is easy to cut, nail and
sand. You can build the project from
any wood you choose and then stain it to your liking, but
if you stain it, be sure to hand-pick each board carefully
to match the grain and tone. Also, buy long boards that will run full length from wall to wall to avoid unsightly butt joints that could shift over time and develop a crack.
Figure A: Wainscot details
Figure A: Wainscot Details
To make clean, smooth joints, cut slots with a plate joiner and slip in biscuits to keep the stiles and rails perfectly aligned.
Planning your layout
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Photo 1: Before
Pry off the baseboard in the room and make any
necessary wall repairs. Paint the walls.
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Photo 2: Establish a level line
Measure up the wall 31-1/2 in. and use a level or laser level to mark a level line around the entire
room. Mark stud locations using a stud finder.
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Reasonably priced laser levels are available at home centers, and greatly simplify the task of establishing a level line around the room.
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Photo 3: Tack the horizontal rails
Tack the 1x6 top rail even with the 31-1/2-in. mark. Nail the bottom 1x6 rail parallel at 9 in. above the
floor. Then mark the best positions for the vertical stiles.
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Photo 4: Mark the stiles
Rip the stiles to width, then cut them to length. Position them according to your layout and mark
their centers on the rails.
First, remove the baseboard and patch any holes. If you
plan to repaint the room, do it now, at least above the
wainscot area. You’ll be able to easily touch it up after
completing the project. You’ll also have to adapt your
window and door molding now to accommodate the
1-1/2-in.-thick profile that your walls will take on as you
build the panels (Figure A).We changed out all the window
and door molding in the room. We used 3/4-in. x
4-in. boards and then nailed a Princeton stop molding
on edge (Photos 10 and 11) to the entire perimeter to
build the trim out 1-1/2 in. from the wall.
It’s possible to complete this project in sections in
your shop or garage and carry them in as you go, but we
had some tricky hallways and corners that made it difficult
to get longer sections into the room. We found it
much easier to cut and assemble right in the room.
Plan the wainscot height at about 32 in. Then divide
the wall into equal sections so that the panel inside the
rails and stiles has a height/width ratio of about 1 to 1.6
(vertical to horizontal). This will create panels with good
proportions. Lay it out with masking tape and move the
tape until you’re satisfied. You can vary the positions of
the stiles (the vertical pieces) a couple of inches either
way. However, as the panels approach a square shape or
get too long (closer to a 1-to-2 ratio), you’ll find that
they begin to look awkward.
Here are some tips for planning the panel layouts
around doors and windows:
- Start with the longest wall without doors or windows
and establish your panel sizes as described in Photo 3.
- Try to have equal-size panels along the wall. It takes a
bit of head scratching, but with a little masking tape,
you can keep changing the sizes until they work.
- Take into account electrical outlets. Don’t let them fall
in the middle of stiles.
- Keep in mind that you can leave smaller panels in the
corners, as long as they’re of equal size on each end
(Photo 11). When it comes to doors and windows,
you don’t have much choice but to reduce the panel
size as we did in Photos 10 – 12. To compensate for
the smaller panel size under and beside window trim,
reduce the width of rails and stiles to 2-1/2 in. to avoid
chunky-looking spots. Divide the panel under the
windows with a stile in the middle (Photo 14). The
proportion rules tend to go out the “window” here,
but the overall effect of wrapping around the window is a custom built-in look.
Electrical Outlets Can Give You Fits
We designed the lower rail of the wainscot so that it just fits under electrical receptacle cover plates. Measure the height of your cover plates before you start because you may need to lower the rail to accommodate the receptacles. Also consider shifting your layout left or right if one of the receptacles falls halfway onto a stile.
Using the biscuit joiner
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Photo 5: Cut the slots in the stiles
Adjust the plate joiner to cut slots in the center of the 3/4-in. boards. Then cut a biscuit slot in the
center of each stile at the top and bottom.
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Photo 6: Cut the rail slots
Cut a biscuit slot into the top and bottom rails at each stile center location. Then pull the temporary
nails and remove the top rail.
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Photo 7: Start gluing
Glue the biscuits into the lower rails. Then add glue to the top of the biscuits and set the stiles into
place. Push tight.
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Photo 8: Fit the top rail
Glue the biscuits to the tops of the stiles and gently fit the top rail onto each glued biscuit.
Work fast before the glue begins to set.
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Photo 9: Clamp
Drive homemade friction clamps at an angle to tighten the joints. Nail the top rail into the wall
studs as you go.
We used No. 20 biscuits for joining the rails and stiles.
Set your biscuit joiner fence so it cuts exactly in the middle
of the 3/4-in.-thick boards. Take a few practice
plunges to get familiar with the tool. You’ll notice that
when you cut biscuits near the corners where the side
wall prohibits the tool from cutting the middle of the
board, the slot will be off center, causing the biscuit to
protrude. If this happens (Photo 17), just let the glue
dry and chisel the exposed biscuit away. The 1/2-in.
quarter-round molding will cover the blemish.
The homemade clamps do a good job of tightening
the joints, but it’s important to work fast before
the glue sets. Have all the slots cut and enough biscuits
on hand. Have a helper spread glue while you insert the biscuits. You should clamp within about five minutes.
Make Simple Clamps
We made our own clamps from 1x2 pine boards with blocks glued and nailed to the ends. The clamps are made to knock quickly to the side and squeeze the rail and stile pieces together (Photo 9). The friction will hold long enough for the glue to set up. When gluing up the assembly, you'll need to pull the nails to free the top rail that you tacked earlier. Once you glue the joints, insert the nails into the same holes in the top rail so they’re ready to drive as you knock the clamps tight
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Photo 10: Add rails and stiles at windows
Fit 2-1/2-in. rails under the windows, biscuit the ends and then nail them into place. Fit the
stiles to the window trim, then cut the biscuit slots.
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Photo 11: Butt top rails to the window
Cut biscuit slots into the top rail and fit the rail onto the stiles, butting it tightly to the corner
and window trim. Clamp and nail it.
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Photo 12: Preassemble small sections
Preassemble small rail and stile sections in tight areas and nail or glue them into place as a unit.
Prefit and trim corner boards for a perfect fit.
There are no exact rules for working around doors and windows except to plan ahead. Before you nail each piece to the wall, consider where the biscuits need to go. It may be impossible to add a biscuit once the piece is fastened to the wall, so cut the slot before
you install it. If there are no studs to nail into, apply a bead of construction adhesive to the backside of the assembly and then toenail it to the drywall with your finish nailer (1-1/2-in.-long nails only). The nails will hold the pieces until the glue sets. You’ll also notice in Photo 16 that the cap molding protrudes a bit and needs to be rounded where it meets the window or door trim. Use a quarter from your pocket to outline the radius on the end of the molding, and use a belt sander or wood rasp
to shape it before nailing it into place.
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Photo 13: Sand thoroughly
Scrape off glue "squeeze-out" as soon as possible. Then sand every joint with 100-grit
sandpaper once the glue is dry.
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Photo 14: Nail the baseboard
Nail the 1x2 filler strips to the wall near the floor. Then nail the 1x6 baseboard to the filler
and the lower rail.
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Photo 15: Add the cap molding
Fit the top cap molding and nail it to the top rails. Round the corner (Photo 16) to fit it
against the window and door casing.
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Photo 16: Nail the cove
Nail the cove molding tightly under the cap molding. This will hide the nails that hold the
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Photo 17: Cut out exposed biscuits
Cut any exposed biscuit ends near the edges of narrower stiles with a sharp chisel to make
way for the quarter-round trim.
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Photo 18: Finish the last details
Miter the ends of the 1/2-in. quarter-round molding and nail it into place. Add the remaining
trim, fill the nail holes and touch up the paint.
Whether you paint your wainscot or varnish it, you'll need to sand it. Be sure to sand the rail and stile joints before adding the base and moldings. A random orbital sander works best and cuts fast. If you plan to paint the project, you only need to sand with 100-grit sandpaper, but if you plan to varnish it, give it another sanding with 150-grit. Once you install the moldings, be sure to ease
any sharp edges with a final sanding.