Wainscoting: Everything to Know

By Amanda Lutz | January 23, 2024

Beige sofa near wainscoting paneling wall. Mid century interior design of a modern living room.

Wainscoting is a popular interior design method that involves installing detailed wall paneling along your home’s walls. It can add a luxurious finish to any room, and there are many styles, materials, and installation options from which to choose. Read more about available style options, costs, and installation methods in our guide below.


What Is Wainscoting?

Wainscoting is a style of paneling that is primarily decorative and adds eye-catching details to your home’s walls. Panels are typically made of plywood or medium-density fiber (MDF) boards. They can stretch across a full wall or extend up from the baseboards to cover the lower portion of a wall.

Wainscoting boards originally functioned as insulation, but today’s homeowners use them as home improvement features to enrich their interior design. Styles range from traditional white wainscoting with rectangular patterns to shiplap with bold color choices.


History of Wainscoting

Wainscoting originated in England, and linguists believe the term derives from the German word for “wall-board.” The practice of installing wainscoting is historically associated with the English Renaissance period when grand homes and castles boasted richly detailed and embellished wainscoting along walls. Humbler English homeowners used wainscoting to block out damp, chilly air from their homes’ interiors.


Popular Wainscoting Styles

There are many popular wainscoting styles and materials from which you can choose. Raised panel wainscoting emphasizes the traditional look of ornate, rectangular frames, while options such as beadboard paneling, reclaimed materials, and shiplap are more modern. Real wood panels are a traditional but pricey option, and budget-conscious homeowners can choose MDF board or vinyl alternatives to replicate the look and feel of wainscoting.

Read about the most popular wainscoting styles in more detail below.

Beadboard

Beadboard wainscoting panels have parallel, vertical grooves that create the appearance of vertical boards around the lower portion of a room. Baseboards typically cap the edges along a beadboard’s bottom, and a chair rail or panel cap-style topper caps the beadboard’s upper edges. 

Raised Panel

Raised panel wainscoting includes raised rails that form squares, rectangles, and borders along boards, which gives the wainscoting a dramatic texture. This style is compared to recessed wainscoting, which includes rails that sink into boards. This makes the interior and exterior panel surfaces appear raised.

Reclaimed Wood Panel

Reclaimed wood panels are used panels that carpentry experts can restore and install as wainscoting. Rare, reclaimed wood panels from historical buildings can give your home a rich, elegant feel.

Shiplap

Shiplap includes vertically or horizontally arranged wood panels that can cover the lower portion of interior walls or cover an entire wall from floor to ceiling. The shiplap style can also include larger panels that have horizontal or vertical grooves. This look is often associated with farmhouse or rustic design aesthetics.

Vinyl

Vinyl and PVC wainscoting are durable, modern alternatives to traditional wood panels. You can install vinyl wainscoting panels in high-moisture rooms, such as bathrooms, laundry rooms, or mudrooms. The vinyl material repels water and adds a fun style to small, functional spaces.


Cost of Wainscoting

The cost of wainscoting installation projects varies significantly. Factors such as materials, room size, and do-it-yourself (DIY) or professional installation dictate the final cost. The average cost for adding wainscoting to a 12-by-12-foot room is approximately $3,600.*

Here are the primary costs associated with wainscoting installation:

We recommend requesting quotes from multiple service providers before committing to a professional team.

*All cost data sources from Fixr.


What Rooms Should Have Wainscoting?

Wainscoting can go anywhere, but it makes the biggest splash in the following spaces: 

Whether you use wainscoting for style or function will dictate where it fits best in your home.


Installing Wainscoting

Installing wainscoting requires a lot of precision. If you’re not an experienced home renovator with a full wainscoting kit, we recommend leaving the project to the professionals.

Wainscoting installation projects have six basic steps:

1. Measure the Area and Choose Your Materials

Measure the walls onto which you plan to install wainscoting. This will help you decide which materials and styles fit your budget. Once you know how much paneling you need, order flat panels and installation materials, such as nails, adhesives, and paint.

2. Prepare the Space

Prepare the installation space by performing the following tasks: 

3. Mark and Cut the Panels to Size

Measure and mark the cutouts on the back of the wainscoting panels. Account for the length and height of the walls you want to cover, and mark cutouts for light switches, outlets, and pipes. Double-check your work, then cut the panels. Dry-test them to make sure they fit neatly into place.

4. Finish the Panels

Apply the finishes you’ve chosen before installing the panels. Most panels require sanding and painting or coating.

5. Install the Wainscoting

Secure the panels to the wall. We recommend using a stud-finder tool to locate attachment points and anchors. Digital stud finders can help you identify and avoid pipes or electrical lines.

Once you have installed the panels, apply a thin bead of caulk around the raw edges for a seamless look.

6. Add the Molding and Reinstall the Outlets

You may end up with raw edges depending on your chosen wainscoting style. Install molding or chair rail molding along the top of the panels to give them a smooth, finished appearance. Apply caulk along the edges between the wainscoting and molding, too. Reattach light switches and outlet panels.


DIY vs. Professional Installation

Some of the advantages of a DIY approach to wainscoting installation include the following:

Professional installation has its merits, too, including the following:


Painting and Staining

You will likely need to paint or stain panels before installing them. Most homeowners choose between these popular finishing options:


Our Recommendation

Installing wainscoting is a simple way to enhance the visual appeal of your home’s interior. Choose styles and materials that fit your interior design scheme, and remember that you can call in the professionals if installation seems too difficult.


Wainscoting FAQ

What is the purpose of wainscoting?

The purpose of wainscoting has changed over time. Homeowners once used it primarily as a means of insulating and protecting their homes, but modern homeowners use it for decorative appeal.

What style of house has wainscoting?

Colonial- and Queen Anne-style homes most frequently use wainscoting. However, it can suit any home with the right approach.

How much does wainscoting cost?

Expect to spend approximately $3,600 per 12-by-12-foot room for wainscoting installation. The cost will vary depending on materials, style, labor, and the room in which you plan to install wainscoting.

What rooms should have wainscoting?

Wainscoting is most popular in highly visible or high-traffic spaces in your home, such as entryways, stairways, and dining rooms.

What kind of trim do you use for wainscoting?

There are two kinds of trim that you typically use for wainscoting: chair rail molding, which is a thinner trim for wainscoting that stops at chair height, and crown molding, which is thicker and creates a dramatic look.

Can wainscoting get wet?

Some wainscoting can get wet without damage. Vinyl wainscoting panels hold up well in high-moisture rooms, such as bathrooms. Sealing wood panels or painting wainscoting with water-resistant paint can help to protect panels from moisture damage.