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
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
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
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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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.