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5 Wainscot & Wall Paneling Styles

Bare but for a thin skin of paint, modern walls are a stylistic aberration. For most of our history, the lower wall has been decently dressed in decorative wood paneling. By Mary Ellen Polson

    A wainscot of painted blind-nailed planks dates to the 1700s. (Photo: Sandy Agrafiotis)

    Before the age of gypsum and drywall, interior plaster walls were vulnerable to all sorts of potential damage. Hence the wainscot: a protective and decorative covering for the lower third (or so) of the wall. Early ones were always wood, but later innovations would introduce many alternatives. Wainscots have a habit of popping back into style in fresh and unexpected ways.

    Plank wall. A posh early American interior before 1750 might have had a wainscot of horizontal or vertical boards against the plaster. As the makings for paint became available or affordable, the planks might be smoothed over with rich color. Plank wainscots in First Period dwellings tend to look ancient, so it’s a bit surprising that the plank wainscot was under constant reinvention throughout the 20th century.

    Paneling. A favorite treatment for the main room in late-18th-century houses, paneling often covered the wall around the hearth, even entire rooms. Formal raised-panel wainscot consists of a floating wood panel with beveled edges, held in place between vertical stiles and horizontal rails. Beveling the panel’s edges creates a three-dimensional surface. A variation, the flat-panel wainscot, is probably a Shaker invention.

    Custom raised-panel millwork in creamy white is a new addition to a Colonial Revival-era house.

    Custom raised-panel millwork in creamy white is a new addition to a Colonial Revival-era house. (Photo: Eric Roth)

    Today, modular paneling systems create the look without the labor. These new materials are made of dimensionally stable composites of wood or resin easily cut by machine. They also install in sections, and, like tile, come with interchangeable trim components like cap rails.

    Dadoes. Formal Victorian rooms of the late 19th century demanded treatments that began at the baseboard and rose to the ceiling like a classical entablature. By then, wood paneling had become too expensive for all but the wealthiest of homeowners. Looking for ways to expand the market for linoleum, Frederick Walton created Lincrusta, a linoleum-based embossed wallcovering, in 1883. An embossed cotton rag-based paper, Anaglypta, soon followed. Embossed papers were ubiquitous as treatments for the dado—the section of the Victorian wall below a chair rail. Competing treatments included real and imitation embossed leathers and textured fabrics.

    Batten paneling. Board-and-batten siding is composed of wide planks laid vertically at a height that covers approximately two-thirds of the wall. Narrow strips of wood called battens cover the joints. Capped at the top with a molded plate rail, board-and-batten paneling was a suitably austere alternative to the perceived excesses of Victorian wallcoverings.

    Batten paneling (over paint) in a new house in Portland, Oregon.

    Batten paneling (over paint) in a new house in Portland, Oregon. (Photo: Philip Clayton-Thompson)

    Not every Arts & Crafts aesthete could afford solid wood, of course. Variations included “paneling” the walls between battens with other materials—leather, faux leather, an embossed wallcovering, and especially burlap. (This was called skeleton wainscot in period millwork catalogs.)

    Beadboard. A product of late-Victorian millwork, beadboard was (and still is) a low-cost alternative to fancier wall cladding. In the decades around 1900, it was the paneling of choice in back-of-the-house rooms like the kitchen, and was a cheap way to finish walls in seasonal cottages.

    About Proportion

    Original, reclaimed, or newly manufactured, beadboard spells charm.

    Original, reclaimed, or newly manufactured, beadboard spells charm. (Photo: Paul Rocheleau)

    Wainscots need to be installed with some sensitivity to the proportions of the room. Generally, the wainscot should be either one-third or two-thirds of the overall height of the room. It’s OK to add a few inches if you want a more imposing presence, but don’t deviate on the low side, or your wainscot may look skimpy. For a room with 8′ to 9′ ceilings, for example, the wainscot should be at least 32″ and up to 42″. Go proportionately higher for a room with a taller ceiling. Taller wainscots finished with a plate rail—in an Arts & Crafts dining room, for instance—should be at least 60″ to 72″ high. Never install wainscoting or a chair rail exactly halfway up a wall, or you’ll visually cut the room in two.

    For sources, please see the Products & Services Directory.

    Published in: Old-House Interiors January/February 2011


    Joe User December 4, 2010 at 5:29 pm

    You are completely wrong with the height of the lower wainscot. If you need some guidance or facts, look into the excellent resources provided by Brent Hull, who has researched this exhaustively.

    Mary Ellen Polson December 6, 2010 at 3:34 pm

    Are you referring to something specific Brent said in one of his books? Throughout American history, wainscot heights have varied greatly depending on architectural styles, ceiling heights, available materials, and the taste of the builder or homeowner. My intent was to give general guidance for a wide range of folks, not to tell someone specifically where, for example, to place the top bit of molding on a wainscot in a Second Empire house.

    Craig February 14, 2011 at 8:28 pm

    I agree with Marry Ellen, the classical idea was to have the wainscoting low. What was done 2000 years ago does not need to be copied. People are taller than they used to be so everything needs to be made taller. There is no right and wrong height.

    Maureen Braga August 1, 2011 at 8:08 pm

    The custom raised panel millworks is just great however could you please tell me the color paint and brand you used. You calledit creamy white however I need more info it was the colonial revival and the npicture was taken by Eric Roth. Thank you.

    Ken - the OldHouseGuy November 22, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    This is a topic that has been studies for centuries. There has been many variations as to the height over the years but if you prefer to follow time tested architectural concepts that please our inner senses it would be best to follow the classical principles. Notice the image with the Colonial Revival white paneled wainscot above – although nicely done feels too high and closed in. Check out this article by Brent Hull for more information.

    maude February 18, 2013 at 10:01 pm

    I have been wondering about lincrusta for a while now. The photos I have seen of it look so beautiful, yet, it doesn’t seem to be available for purchase anywhere. Nor does it seem possible to find someone in the US who can hang it..

    A11_Thumbs June 22, 2013 at 8:04 pm

    I am thinking of putting baseboard molding along with a few baseblocks
    for an added touch but my problem is how do I apply them if all my walls are
    completly plaster.

    All replies are welcomed.

    WISHIWEREHERE July 26, 2013 at 11:35 am

    A11_THUMBS; if you are talking about adding baseblocks to a Craftsman or other bungalow, I’d suggest not doing so. “Baseblocks” (PLINTH BLOCKS) are found in Victorian and Colonial style interior, primarily. Craftsman design eschewed such excess in favor of clean lines. Baseboards are of course found in all home styes. Be certain to research height & style of these as a generic baseboard off the shelf at a big box store will not be appropriate.

    An excellent reference for all interior trim methods and guidelines for A&C interiors is “SHOP DRAWINGS FOR CRAFTSMAN INTERIORS—CABINETS, MOLDINGS & BUILT INS FOR EVERY ROOM OF THE HOME” by Robert W. Lang.

    To fasten ANYTHING to plaster it’s best to drill pilot holes and drive long finish nails through the molding, the pilot hole and secure to a stud inside the wall. Recess the nail heads with a punch and fill the hole to match the stain. It’s not recommended to drive nails directly into plaster as it will crack.

    Sharon Zikri October 18, 2014 at 4:50 pm

    I would like to put wall paneling in my hallway stairs and landing but I am finding it difficult to find someone who does this. Can anyone help and suggest a contact.

    Many thanks.

    Wade Ferris January 7, 2015 at 5:24 pm

    Sharon- It would help in recommending someone if you include your location (hopefully I’m not missing it and it’s actually there). If you live in the Minneapolis /St. Paul area, you can contact me for any home remodeling needs. I own Simply Beautiful Remodeling, LLC in Shakopee, MN and you’ll find us online at

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