How to Shiplap a Wall

By Amanda Lutz Updated February 5, 2024

Installing shiplap walls is a popular way to create a focal point or add natural features to a room. Though originally designed to repel moisture, shiplap has become a major trend in home decor due to its strong lines, handcrafted feel, and versatility. Shiplap can be painted, stained, or left bare to suit your preferences for a more rustic appearance. You can hire a professional contractor to manage your shiplap project or take on the installation yourself.

What Is Shiplap?

Shiplap is a type of wooden siding that can be used on a building’s interior or exterior. It’s often used in interior design to create accent walls, wainscoting, or other focal points that produce a rustic and charming appearance. You can install shiplap planks vertically or horizontally to add the illusion of space or height to a room or put them on ceilings and floors.

While shiplap is similar to nickel gap wood paneling and tongue-and-groove planks, it has some subtle differences. Real shiplap is characterized by rabbet groves that create a 90-degree notch between boards, allowing conjoining pieces to fit together tightly in an interlocking pattern. Since shiplap boards don’t feature the U-groove or beveled edges used in tongue and groove, a distinctive gap exists between boards.

As the name suggests, shiplap was first used to build watertight ships. When it made its way indoors, the purpose had little to do with interior design. In fact, it was typically covered with wallpaper or other smooth coverings. Today, shiplap is used in various interior design styles. It can be created using real wood, composite planks, or faux materials attached in different ways.

Planning Your Shiplap Wall

Although shiplap generally allows for a simpler installation process than tongue-and-groove wall paneling, careful planning is essential for success. Before purchasing supplies, determine the exact size of your project.

Once you’ve chosen the space you’ll cover, get out your measuring tape. Measure the length and width of the proposed area to calculate the square footage for your new wall and determine how many boards you’ll need. Locate and map wall studs; these strong posts will be used to anchor the shiplap boards safely. A stud finder is a handy tool to help you complete this step quickly and accurately.

Preparing the Wall

Having boards on hand doesn’t mean you can start nailing them up immediately. Walls must be flat and smooth to ensure no imperfections could affect alignment. Begin by removing protruding nails and filling any nail holes or cracks left behind. Gently pry baseboards, crown molding, and trim (including outlet covers and wall plates) to leave your wall clear of obstructions.

Once everything has been removed, sand filler materials and any other protrusions before priming the wall for a completely smooth finish. Shiplap has a gap between boards, so apply a fresh coat of paint.

Installing Shiplap Boards

For a stress-free installation process, begin by gathering your tools and supplies. You’ll need the following:

Many people purchase precut shiplap boards to install shiplap walls. If you’re experienced with woodwork and have precision power tools such as a circular saw and router, you may choose to cut your own boards and create rabbet joints.

If you’re cutting your own boards, begin your project by ripping plywood into eight-foot-long boards in your desired width with a table saw or circular saw. Accurate rabbet joints can be cut using a router with a bit designed for this purpose.

Begin installation by using your level to create a straight line along the wall to place your first board. If using construction adhesive, apply it to the back of the board and carefully put it in place. Use your nail gun to place a nail near the top and bottom of the plank, where each stud is located.

Once the board is firmly in place, measure the distance to the end of the wall and cut the next board to fit in the space. Use the leftover piece from the cut board to begin your second row above the first board you nailed in place. Using a spacer to ensure equal gaps between rows, continue applying wood planks in a staggered, unpredictable pattern. While using the nail gun, ensure nail heads are flush with the boards, gently using a hammer as necessary.

Common Mistakes

Installing shiplap isn’t complex, but it requires precision. It’s easy to make preventable mistakes that will detract from the finished appearance of your wall. These are a few of the most common mistakes during shiplap installation.

Finishing Touches

Your expectations for the final appearance will determine how much work you put into the finishing process. Nails can be left visible for a rustic look or filled with wood putty and lightly sanded for a smooth appearance. Your paint choice will also alter the results. Staining allows you to achieve a natural wood look, but white shiplap is also popular and can brighten a dark room.

Begin by filling and sanding nail holes (if applicable), and caulk any gaps that are visible around outlets or wall edges. Prime and paint your planks in your chosen color, following the manufacturer’s instructions for drying times. Replace the trim, molding, and baseboards, and stand back to admire your handiwork.

Where to Use Shiplap

You can use shiplap throughout your home to create unique accents and points of interest. You can use it in place of drywall for a complete wall or ceiling covering or as an accent in various places. Natural wood can add a rustic appearance to fireplace surrounds, while bright white shiplap is popular in farmhouse kitchens. To add texture and interest, you can also use shiplap in hallways and bedrooms. Installing shiplap is ideal for an existing home improvement project such as finishing your basement or renovating your living room.

While the right materials are durable enough to be used in most locations, apply a water- and mold-resistant finish to avoid warping when shiplap is used in damp areas such as the bathroom.

Shiplap Materials

Authentic shiplap requires real wood. However, various materials can be used to achieve the desired appearance. Wood choices include hemlock, cedar, fir, and southern yellow pine.

Interior shiplap materials are often chosen for lightweight properties and cost-effectiveness. They’re commonly made from pine, poplar, or medium-density fireboard (MDF). Recycled barn wood or authentic shiplap found behind wall coverings of older homes can be used to support sustainable decoration efforts.

Shiplap Sizes

Shiplap typically comes in lengths of eight feet or longer. The width and thickness of boards can vary based on your needs. Common widths of shiplap boards range from 3 to 10 inches, with those between 5 and 8 inches wide being the most popular. 

Thicknesses of precut boards for shiplap are typically 5/16 inches, 9/16 inches, or 1 inch. However, when you’re planning a unique home improvement project, you can customize it by choosing the board thickness that meets your needs rather than using precut shiplap.

Shiplap Colors and Finishes

Shiplap’s versatility is one of the reasons it’s so popular, and there are a range of finishes to achieve different effects. Natural wood shiplap can be used in various settings to accent different looks. You can apply lighter or darker stains to fit your decor. In contrast with the traditional white look, shiplap painted in dark colors, such as  charcoal or olive, creates a contemporary aesthetic.

Our Recommendation

Shiplap is an attractive, durable, and versatile wall covering that complements various home decoration styles. It’s popular for accent walls, special features, and focal points. Shiplap walls produce stunning results and can be installed yourself or by a professional contractor. Browse popular trends for inspiration and develop your own ideas to suit your home.

How to Shiplap a Wall FAQ

What is the best wood to use for shiplap?

According to Robert Johnson, founder of Sawinery (a woodworking education resource), cedarwood is the best wood for shiplap siding. Its water-resistant properties ensure it doesn’t bulge or shrink when exposed to water.

How do I cut shiplap boards?

Cut the length of shiplap boards with a table saw or circular saw. A router is ideal for cutting rabbet joints, but you can use other tools, such as an oscillating saw.

Does shiplap make a room look bigger or smaller?

Shiplap makes a room look bigger. It can be installed horizontally to make a room appear larger or vertically to heighten rooms with a low ceiling.

Is shiplap expensive?

Shiplap is usually more expensive than drywall, due to the cost of materials and precise installation. Shiplap boards cost between $2.50 and $7.00 per square foot, and professional carpenters charge between $35 and $100 per hour to install shiplap.* You can expect to pay between $1,000 and $1,700 for professional installation of shiplap in a 200-square-foot room. 
If you choose to complete the project yourself, the cost is likely to range between $500 and $1,400 for a 200-square-foot room. Your costs will depend on the tools and materials you already have and the type of wood you choose.
*Cost data from Angi and Home Advisor.