Prefab Paneled Wainscot
On-site measurements and off-site production yield a traditional wainscot look at a more affordable price.
Wainscot adds a striking level of sophistication, depth, and visual interest to a space. While wainscot is a catch-all term for a variety of wall treatments, the job shown here centers around the timeless painted frame and flat panel reminiscent of the Shaker style. It’s a classic look that makes a room come to life.
However, this style of wainscot is both labor and material intensive and its price is a bit surprising to most homeowners. My system of on-site measurement and off-site production balances traditional methods, quality workmanship, speed, and efficiency, allowing me to be as competitive as possible while still offering a superior product.
Panel size depends on the moldings you’ll use. The bottom rail is sized to show about 2 in. of wood above the base molding, enough to hide discrepancies between wainscot and base molding that follows a floor that may not be flat or level. The top rail receives a 5/4 cap supported by a panel molding, and the top rail is wide enough to leave a 3-in. exposure, matching the width of the stiles. The panel height is what’s left after subtracting the base height, bottom rail, top rail, and cap assembly. The panel width varies from 15 in. to 20 in.
I remove the existing drywall or plaster and install the wainscot directly onto the studs. This puts the assembly behind the existing door and window casing. This detail is key to the overall look, replicating the style of an older house that was originally built with wainscot. My crew makes the frames from 3/4-in. poplar and uses 1/2-in. shop-grade maple or birch plywood for the panels. The simplicity of the design means all the components can be made on a tablesaw.
In most spaces, wainscot looks best at about one-third of the height of the wall. However, two-thirds of the wall height is often chosen for large rooms, or for dining rooms and other spaces where intimacy is desired. In either case, I use those proportions as a starting point and fine-tune the wainscot height based on the customer’s preference and existing obstacles (I will stay below light switches, for example).
Measure on site, build in the shop
Measure the room (a laser measure works great) from an intuitive starting point. Number each wall and make a plan drawing. Sketch elevations of walls interrupted by windows. Plan to install the larger assemblies first, making their corner stiles 1 in. wider to accommodate the lap of the intersecting panels. after the measurements are taken on site and drawings for each wall are made, it’s back to the shop, where the wainscot is planned out, the stock sized and machined, and the frames and panels assembled.
Open the walls, install the panels
In this phase, tear out the existing drywall, being careful to make clean edges at the top and at the casings. With the drywall out, fit the wainscot panels into place. Doing this puts the face of the wainscot behind the faces of the casings.
Details tie the wainscot to the room
With the panels installed, treat the rest of the job like everyday trimwork of fitting caps, panel molding, and base. All the normal techniques apply—you want tight, gluereinforced joints, and careful work that leaves the wood looking pristine.
Andrew Young owns Young & Son Woodworks in Portland, Ore.
Photos by Andy Engel, except where noted.
From FineHomebuilding #272
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