Taking Wainscot Up Stairs
Raised MDF panels and stock moldings bring this elegant trim detail to the rest of the house.
Synopsis: In 2004, FHB published Gary Striegler’s cover story about a simple approach to installing raised-panel wainscot. Since that article first appeared, Striegler has had the good fortune to address many questions about his process. In this years-later follow-up article, Striegler describes his process for continuing a run of wainscot up a stairway. As with other wainscot projects, he draws a full-size layout on the wall, and starts by establishing the height of the landing panel. From there, Striegler can determine the angles for the top- and bottom-rail miters; then he has the measurements to cut the pieces. He also notes that it’s important to know and heed local codes regarding handrail height and placement. Next, he assembles the frames, which are connected with biscuits and glue. To make the raised panels, Striegler builds a jig, which helps him to cut the pieces properly. Finally, he trims out the frame and panels.
I credit a lot of the success of my business to the trimwork we do in our houses. In fact, I have been told more than once that we got a job solely because of our woodwork. Perhaps that’s why I shouldn’t be so surprised that my article “A Simple Approach to Raised-Panel Wainscot” was received so well. It has been more than seven years since that article was published, but I still get a call or an email at least once a month from a reader who wants to know more. Many times, they want to know how wainscot should run up a stairway.
Here, I’ll show how to continue raised-panel wainscot up a set of stairs. Many of the techniques in the original article apply here, but with a few subtle differences. You’ll learn how to achieve an accurate layout on the wall, how to assemble and apply the frames and trim pieces in proper sequence, and how to create a simple jig that makes cutting angled, raised MDF panels a cinch.
Establish the landing, then work up and down
I start a wainscot project for a stairway just as I would for an ordinary room — with a full-size layout on the wall. Although you typically don’t have to worry about trimming around windows and electrical boxes in a stairway, you have to plan for handrail details. The code in my area demands that the handrail be between 32 in. and 34 in. above the front edge of each stair tread. On this project, the top rail of the wainscot runs about 3⁄4 in. above the top of the handrail.
I start the layout by marking plumb lines for the end stiles of each run of wainscot. I then snap lines for the top and bottom rails. The point where the top rail intersects the landing panel’s plumb line determines the height of the landing panel. I could forgo the bottom rail and integrate the skirtboard into the wainscot, but that would make it much harder to let the stair treads into the skirtboard, and a lot tougher to fit the skirtboards behind the rough staircase.
I draw layout lines for the stiles after the landing panel is assembled. It’s more accurate to butt your tape up to a landing stile when marking stile locations along the stair.
Odd numbers of panels are more pleasing to the eye, but the proportions of the panels are more important than the amount. I always want a panel to be at least 4 in. longer than its height, but the length should be no more than 1.75 times the height. The height of all the panels is constant. The length of each panel within a run of stairs will be the same, but it may differ from run to run based on the number of panels. Slight variations in panel length are OK.
For more photos, drawings, and details, click the View PDF button below: