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How to Install Tongue and Groove Wainscoting

Updated: Mar. 22, 2023

Step-by-step instructions for installing this beautiful tongue and groove wainscoting right over your existing drywall or plaster.

tongue and groove wainscoting
Transform a room with the warm glow of beaded wood wainscoting. Install the paneling right over your existing wall, eliminating the hassle of demolition. It's the perfect project to bring character to a room and make it more inviting.

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Step 1: How to Install Wainscoting Prep work, tools and materials

tongue and groove wainscoting

The finished room

Wood wainscoting warms and adds character to any room.

Wood wainscoting is the perfect project to transform a plain room into a warm and inviting space to read, study or just hang out in. Historically, wood wainscoting runs the gamut from simple vertical boards to elaborate frame-and-panels. Traditional beaded tongue-and-groove boards like the ones shown have always been a popular choice. That’s not just because they look good. Tongue-and-groove boards make great wainscoting because they’re easy to install with just a few basic carpentry tools. We show you how to install wainscoting directly over your existing drywall or plaster so you don’t have to cut into the walls, and we include details for making custom brackets and mounting the shelf.

To install tongue and groove wainscoting, you’ll need basic hand tools, a circular saw, a jigsaw and a pneumatic finish nail gun to complete this project. Long cuts on a few of the moldings require a table saw. If you don’t own one, get help cutting these. A power miter box simplifies cutting the tongue-and-groove boards to length and mitering the moldings and shelves.

We used 9/16-in. thick “beaded” tongue-and-groove clear Douglas fir for the body of the wainscot. Each board is 3 in. wide, not including the tongue. Then we special ordered clear Douglas fir for the baseboard, cap, shelf and window and door trim. Knotty grades are about half the price of clear and may work fine for you, depending on the look you’re after. Beaded paneling is readily available in oak and knotty pine. Check your local lumberyard, or you can order other species from specialty millwork suppliers.

Order your wood early and allow it to acclimate
Prepare the room for wainscoting by prying off the window and door trim and baseboard. Then turn off the electrical circuits that serve the room at the main service box. Unscrew the receptacles and switches and pull them out a few inches from the wall (test the outlets with a voltage tester, to make sure they’re off). As an extra precaution in case the electricity is accidentally turned back on while you’re working in the room, cover the screw terminals on each switch and receptacle with a wrap of electrical tape. Protect tile, wood and vinyl floors with two layers of heavy paper or cardboard taped down (Photo 1). Cover carpeted floors with canvas dropcloths.

Stack the wood in your room about a week before you start installing it so it has time to adjust to the humidity level in your home.

Step 2: Replace door and window trim

Photo 1: Remove window and door trim

Pry off window and door moldings and baseboard with a flat pry bar. Measure up from the floor 67 in. and snap chalk lines around the room at that height. Locate the studs with a stud finder and mark the centerline of each with a level. Extend the stud marks about 1 in. above the horizontal chalk line.

Photo 2: Install new trim

Nail new 1×4 trim around doors and windows. Use 1-1/2 in. nails to attach the 1×4 to the door frame and 2-in. nails along the outside edge. Miter and nail outside corner molding to the trim with 1-in. finish nails.

Start your wainscoting project by replacing your door and window trim with the same species of wood as your tongue-and-groove boards. If you’ll be matching the finish color of the wainscot to the existing trim, you may get by with just adding the outside corner piece (Photo 2). The extra thickness of the outside corner piece allows the base and paneling boards to butt to the windows and doors without protruding.

Begin the new trim installation by nailing the 1x4s across the top of the openings, allowing enough length to butt the side pieces up to them (Photo 2). For windows requiring stools (Photo 13), fit the stool next. Then measure and cut the 1x4s for the sides. Spread wood glue on the joints and nail them up. Then sand them with an orbital sander and 120-grit paper before you miter and nail on the outside corner pieces (Photo 2). We couldn’t find fir outside corners, so we used a table saw to make them from 1-1/8 in. thick fir boards, and then eased the edges with a 1/8-in. radius router bit. This “little” detail added a half day to our project!

Figure A: Tongue and Groove Wainscoting Details

Note: You can download Figure A and enlarge it in the Additional Information section below.

Step 3: Install the baseboard

Photo 3: Cut and nail new baseboard

Arrange 1×8 baseboard around the room so the grain pattern and color of adjoining pieces match as closely as possible. Rough-cut the boards a few inches longer than needed. Then cut the boards to exact length and nail them to each stud with two 2-1/2 in. nails.

Photo 4: Miter outside corners

Miter the baseboard by clamping a large square in position and using it to guide the saw. Set the saw to cut a 45-degree bevel for outside corner pieces.

A radial arm saw or sliding miter saw works best for cutting the 7-1/4 in. wide baseboard, but you can make perfect cuts with a circular saw, too. Install a sharp blade (we like thin-kerf carbide blades with at least 24 teeth) and clamp a square to the board as a saw guide (Photo 4). A giant speed square also makes a great saw guide. For a great-looking job, arrange the boards for the best color and grain match before you make the final cuts, especially on boards that must be spliced to cover a long wall.

The 3/4-in. thick baseboard protrudes 3/16 in. past the 9/16-in. thick paneling, creating a nice-looking ledge, or reveal (Photo 7). If your tongue-and-groove paneling is 3/4 in. thick instead, shim behind the baseboard with 3/16-in. thick strips of wood to create the reveal. If your floors are unusually wavy or out of level, trim the bottom of the 1×8 boards to fit the contour of the floor. They don’t have to fit perfectly. The base shoe molding will cover gaps up to 3/8 in.

Step 4: Glue and nail the paneling

Photo 5: Plumb the first board

Plumb the first board with a 4-ft. level, apply glue and nail it to the wall.

tongue and groove wainscoting

Photo 6: Apply glue and nail

Drive 1-1/4 in. nails through the tongue into the drywall with a power nailer to hold the boards in place until the glue dries. Drive the nails at about a 45-degree angle. Use three nails in each board.

Photo 7: Shim the bottoms

Shim gaps between the wavy wall and the baseboard with layers of heavy paper so the reveal remains the same. Place shimming material so half is behind the base and half is behind the tongue-and-groove paneling.

Photo 8: Start at outside corners

Assemble outside corners by cutting off the backside of the grooves at a 45-degree angle and aligning the front of the grooves as shown. Glue and face-nail the boards to the corner studs with the tongues facing away from the corner.

Figure out approximately how many full-length tongue-and-groove boards you’ll need and cut them 59-3/4 in. long. A power miter box mounted on a stand and fitted with a stop block is the quickest, most accurate method for cutting all the tongue-and-groove boards to the same length.

Tip: Don’t assume the boards have a perfectly square mill-cut end. First trim one end square, then cut it to length.

While there are no hard and fast rules for where to start and finish each wall, it looks best to start with full-width boards at doors and outside corners (Photo 8) where they’re most visible and work toward corners. Just remember to face the tongue out so you can nail through it. Use a level to make sure the first board is plumb before you glue and nail it. You may have to plane a bit from the top or bottom of the groove side to fit a board against out-of-plumb door or window trim. Otherwise, start at inside corners (Photo 5), where gaps up to 1/2 in. will be covered by the paneling on the adjacent wall.

Follow the fastening procedures shown in Photos 5 – 7. The nails driven into the drywall hold the boards firmly until the glue dries. If you run across a board that’s bowed or crooked, save it for a spot where there’s a stud mark so you can bend it straight and nail it to solid wood. In this situation, or at corners or other tight spots, it’s OK to nail through the face of the board. Fill the nail holes with matching putty after the first coat of finish. Don’t worry if the tops of the boards don’t line up perfectly; you’ll cover them later with the cap and shelf.

Step 5: Notch around electrical outlets

Photo 9: Cut notches with a jigsaw

Notch boards for switches and receptacles with a jigsaw. Hold the board over the outlet and mark for the top and bottom cuts. Then measure and mark the side cut. Saw straight in at the top. Then cut a sweeping arch into the corner. Cut along the remaining lines and cut small notches for the outlet screws.

Photo 10: Install a box extender

Slide special box extenders through the paneling and into the electrical boxes to extend the box. Reattach the receptacles and switches with extra-long screws. Caution: Make sure the power is turned off at the main electrical panel.

Notch the boards to fit around electrical boxes. Don’t forget to make a small notch for the outlet screws—it’s hard to do after the paneling is in place (Photo 9). The electrical code requires that electrical boxes be flush with wood paneling. You could move the boxes out, but this would be a big job. Instead, buy box extensions, available at hardware stores and home centers, and install them before you reinstall the switches and receptacles (Photo 10).

Step 6: Space boards for an even corner fit

tongue and groove wainscoting

Photo 11: Measure the corner gap

Measure from the corner to the edge of the board, excluding the tongue, to determine the width of the last board. Measure every 12 in. along the corner and mark these dimensions on the final board. Connect the marks to create a cutting line.

Photo 12: Plane last board to fit

Saw 1/8 in. beyond the line with the saw set to a 30-degree bevel. Then plane to the line, checking the fit occasionally. Remove the back half of the groove by sawing it off or slicing it off with a sharp utility knife. Press the board into place and nail through the face into the corner stud to secure it.

Photo 13: Fit boards to trim

Notch boards with a jigsaw to fit around the window stool. Trim and plane the board to fit tightly to the window trim. Cut off the back half of the groove if necessary to get the board in.

Photos 11 – 13 show how to finish inside corners and notch around a window stool. When you get about 2 ft. from a corner, door or window, measure the space remaining at both the top and bottom of the paneling. If the distance is greater at the top, for example, leave some space (no more than 1/16 in.) between the tops of all the boards so the last board will be about the same width top to bottom. In old houses with walls that are drastically out of plumb, you may have to taper the final board to fit, but this isn’t very noticeable if the cut is in a corner. Use the procedure shown in Photos 11 and 12 to mark and cut the last piece.

The last step before installing the shelf is to cut the 2-1/2 in. wide rail and tack it up. Install the rail in front of the tongue-and-groove boards, aligning the top edges (Fig. A). Butt inside corners and miter outside corners just as you did with the baseboard.

Step 7: Install the brackets and shelf

Photo 14: Shape the brackets

Cut out brackets with a jigsaw and sand the curve with a belt sander or sandpaper wrapped around a wooden dowel.

Photo 15: Fit the rail and brackets

Cut 1×3 boards to fit on top of the paneling and drill two 3/32-in. pilot holes at each stud location. Temporarily fasten them and position the brackets. Attach them temporarily with a pea-size dab of hot melt glue. Stand back and look. Adjust the bracket locations if you like. Then mark the location of each bracket. Remove the brackets and 1x3s.

Photo 16: Fasten brackets to the rail

Drill two 5/32-in. pilot holes at each bracket location and attach the brackets to the 1x3s with 2-in. drywall screws. Reinstall the 1x3s. Drive two 2-1/2 in. finish nails into each stud and use a nail set to sink the nailheads slightly below the surface.

Photo 17: Install the shelf

Cut 1×6 boards to fit over the brackets. Miter the corners. Nail the shelf boards to the brackets with 1-1/2 in. finish nails. Cut 1-1/8 in. wide edging strips from lengths of tongue-and-groove paneling for the shelf edging. Leave a “bead” on one edge and align this edge flush with the top of the shelf. Nail the strips to the shelf with 1-in. finish nails.

Cut custom brackets with a jigsaw using our pattern as a guide. Start by figuring out how many brackets you’ll need and cutting enough 4-15/16 in. wide x 7-in. long rectangles from a full 1-1/8 in. thick board. (Note: Decrease the width to 4-3/4 in. if your tongue-and-groove boards are 3/4 in. thick.) Again, getting wood thicknesses like this in the species you want can be troublesome. One way is to have a local shop or woodworking friend mill a 2×6 to 1 in. thick.

Draw a grid of 1-in. squares on a block of wood and transfer the bracket pattern (Fig. A) to it. Saw it out with a jigsaw and sand the curve (Photo 14). Use this completed bracket as a pattern to mark the remaining brackets.

Arranging the brackets along the top of the paneling is a lot like hanging pictures—there’s no precise formula for what looks best. That’s why we decided to install the brackets temporarily with hot melt glue so we could stand back and take a look (Photo 15). As a starting point, space brackets 7 in. from inside corners, 4 in. from outside corners and 6 in. from doors. Space intermediate brackets about 42 in. apart, or halfway between the other brackets. When you’re happy with the arrangement, mark the bracket locations. Then take down the rails and mount the brackets with screws driven through the back of the rails (Photo 16). Nail the rails, with brackets attached, to the wall with two 2-1/2 in. finish nails driven into each stud.

Complete the carpentry work by cutting 1×6 shelf boards to fit and nailing them to the brackets. Edge the shelves with 1-1/8 in. strips cut from the tongue-and-groove paneling (Photo 17). Use a table saw and plan the cuts to get two strips from each tongue-and-groove board, retaining the rounded “bead” on one edge.

Fir and Pine Can Be Tricky to Stain

Oak takes stain beautifully—you can hardly go wrong. But other species, such as pine, cherry, birch and fir (which we used), tend to get blotchy because some areas absorb more stain than others. Here are two solutions.

The easier is to use an all-in-one stain and sealer, which is available at most home centers and paint stores. You have to be careful to get even coverage without runs or buildup, though, because thicker areas show up darker.

The second method is to “condition” the wood to even out the stain penetration. Many stain manufacturers make a conditioner for this purpose. Follow the directions on the label.

We finished our fir wainscot with the first method, using Minwax Polyshade Satin mixed one part Olde Cherry to eight parts Golden Oak (1 cup Olde Cherry to 2 qts. Golden Oak). We followed up with a second coat of untinted, satin, oil-based polyurethane varnish. Sand the bare wood with 150-grit paper and vacuum before staining and varnishing. Check the label for drying times and instructions for sanding between coats.

Additional Information

Required Tools for this How to Install Wainscoting Project

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

  • 4-in-1 screwdriver
  • Belt sander
  • Block plane
  • Caulk gun
  • Chalk line
  • Circular saw
  • Drill/driver - cordless
  • Hammer
  • Hot melt glue gun
  • Jigsaw
  • Level
  • Miter saw
  • Non-contact voltage tester
  • One-handed bar clamps
  • Pry bar
  • Stud finder
  • Table saw
Finish nail gun,
4-ft. Speed square, 12-in.

Required Materials for this Project

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

  • 1-1/2" finish nails
  • 2-1/2-in. finish nails
  • 2-in. finish nails
  • 2-in. screws
  • Construction adhesive
  • Paneling material (See Fig. A)