How to Build a Wainscoted Wall

Add elegance to your favorite room with easy-to-build wood panels

Elegant, traditional wainscoting looks like an intimidating project, but with this simple, easy-to-assemble design even a moderately skilled DIYer can transform an ordinary room into a showplace.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

TIME

Multi-day

COMPLEXITY

Moderate

COST

$100 - $500

Overview

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

To make clean, smooth joints, cut slots with a plate joiner and slip in biscuits to keep the stiles and rails perfectly aligned.

Figure A: Wainscot details
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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.

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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 (Photo 9).

Wainscot clamps
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Special situations

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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Finishing

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.

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Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

  • Air compressor
  • Air hose
  • Belt sander
  • Biscuit joiner
  • Brad nail gun
  • Combination square
  • Cordless drill
  • Drywall sander
  • Dust mask
  • Framing square
  • Glue
  • Hammer
  • Hearing protection
  • Level
  • Miter saw
  • Paintbrush
  • Rasp
  • Tape measure
  • Wood chisel
  • Orbital sander

A laser level is helpful, but not required. (Note: plate joiners are also called biscuit joiners.)

Required Materials for this Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here's a list.

  • 1 x 6
  • 1 x 4
  • 1 x 2
  • 1/2 x 2 cap molding
  • 3/4-in. cove molding
  • 1/2-in. quarter round
  • Base shoe molding
  • Construction glue
  • Wood glue
  • Biscuits for joiner
  • Finish nails
  • (All wood is paint or stain grade)