A little more than a century ago, Peggy Worthy's great-grandfather built Savo Homestead out on the prairie grasslands of what is now northern South Dakota. In 1987, Peggy jumped at the chance to move back into the old place, but first she had to evict birds from the eaves, which were rotted through in spots. Leaks in the roof above had let rain pour onto the overhanging eaves resulting in rusty nails and fungal decay. The first four carpenters she talked to wanted to slap up cheap aluminum soffit stock all around the house and call it good enough.
As a longtime Old-House Journal reader, Peggy knew there was a better way. She finally found a carpenter who recognized that the material he was looking at was beadboard. Even better, he was willing to repair what was good and replace the few boards that were completely shot, if only they could find some that were the same size and shape. They didn't have to look far; the lumberyard in the next town had an exact match. Because often it can cost less to make spot repairs like this than to cover a whole house with modern building products, here's the lowdown on what beadboard is and how it was traditionally used in finish carpentry all over old houses for decades.
What Is Beadboard?
Like many common building materials that went the way of the buffalo after World War II, beadboard is a garden-variety millwork product that for half a century came in a surprisingly wide range of styles and sizes and still goes by many names. In some parts of the country it's called wainscoting (after its common use as a lower wall paneling), and in many old carpentry texts it's referred to as ceiling, no doubt a reference to the overhead application in porches. By 1900 it was widely known as sheathing in New England and even matched sheathing around Boston.
Whatever the name, beadboard is defined by two characteristic features. First, beadboard is edge-matched—that is, milled with a tongue on one side and a groove on the other so that the boards fit together to make an integrated surface like strip flooring. Second, beadboard incorporates one or more half-round beads milled into the finished surface. At the very least there's one bead and quirk (a sharp recess) running along the tongue side of the board that serves the purpose of disguising the joint, especially when the boards move subtly with seasonal moisture changes. Beadboard also may be the center bead type, which is milled with one, two, or even three beads in the center of the board face to add to the paneling's decorative effect.
Beadboard also varies in size and thickness. The common widths recommended in the past for good workmanship were 3" and 4" (showing 2 1/4" and 3 1/4" on the face). Nominal thickness ranged from 3/4" to 5/8" to 1/2" and as thin as 3/8" depending upon the manufacturer. The beadboard that was sold by catalog in the 1910s was often western yellow pine, but regional markets regularly took advantage of local wood, such as cypress in the Gulf states, depending upon the customary use or finish (varnish or paint).
Beadboard in Practice
Historically, beadboard was a basic, slightly decorative service finish that was common by the 1880s and remained in use well into the 1930s in rural areas. Its popular use in most buildings was as a full or partial wallcovering in kitchens, back halls, stores, and schoolrooms, but it also appeared widely on porch ceilings and eave soffits (also known as planciers) where it attained something of a featured presence. Beadboard was never designed to be a showcased material, but at its height of popularity at the turn of the century it captured center stage in summerhouses or shore cottages, where it sometimes doubled as both finish and wall material all over the building. Beadboard was also a regular component in site-made cabinetwork and joinery, where the beadboard was used to make panels in doors or cabinets.
Beadboard is put up one board at a time and blind-nailed like flooring so that no nail heads show in the finished installation. The need to joint butt ends of boards was seldom an issue because a century ago beadboard was easily obtained in 12' and 16' lengths that could run floor to ceiling or wall to wall without a break. On walls it generally runs right to the floor without a baseboard of any kind. However, at the top of the wall or wainscot, it is necessary to finish off the edge of the boards with a cap molding or with a cornice molding for a smooth transition to the next surface. Despite the simplicity of its installation, there is a catch to working with beadboard: The boards must be nailed to some sort of support running perpendicular to their length. In a vertical wall installation then, the carpenter must add horizontal blocking every 24" up the wall and also account for the thickness of the beadboard if it is to be flush against any plaster.
In many old houses you will see beadboard run vertically up a wall, as a wainscot or floor-to-ceiling finish, and then carried across the ceiling in the same direction. However, in some areas of the country, such as the South, it is just as common to see beadboard running horizontally for wainscots or diagonally for effects such as "book-matched" panels of beadboard in a door, or as framed panels.
From here, the problem-solving installations of this prosaic material can be surprisingly creative. Changing direction with beadboard, as in the ceiling of a wraparound porch, may be accomplished by simply mitering the boards, but carpenters of the past often made a practice of alternating boards in a herringbone pattern. In kitchens and halls, where a 40"-high wainscot had a good chance of being interrupted by a window or two, the cap over the beadboard could be integrated right into the window trim. The thinnest varieties of beadboard also have the capability to go around corners readily, a unique attribute for wood products. Narrow boards can be nailed up to follow a radius of 24" or so to make a rounded bathroom vanity or lecture podium, and long boards can easily cover a ceiling with a graceful camber.
The beauty of beadboard is its versatility, which is really only limited by the user's ideas. The story of my neighbor, Mara Love, is a good example of just how adaptable and reusable beadboard can be. A trailer full of trash, just down the block from her old house in Portland, Maine, caught Mara's eye when she noticed a few beadboards sticking out of the top. From her neighbor, she learned the load was headed for the dump that very minute. If she wanted the boards, she'd have to go along and help unload it. Afterward Mara said, "The salvage operation was worth it. I rescued just enough fine old beadboards to line the china closet in my parlor!"