How to Install Wainscoting
With guests on the way I already knew what my instructions were: Knock the spider webs off of the entry door and make sure the powder bath was presentable. My lovely young bride was not amused when I suggested that we install a magazine rack to distract would-be critics from the shortcomings of this diminutive water closet.
Reeling from the rack rejection, I suggested upgrading the lowly commode with some wainscoting and a fresh coat of paint. Ah, a green light to get out the tools!
Wainscoting can be almost any treatment you give to the lower portion of a wall that is in contrast to the upper portion. Traditionally, it girds the lower third of the wall with a paneling, which is capped by a molding called a chair rail. Both the wainscoting and chair rail are designed to protect the wall from chair backs and low-flying children.
Today, however, wainscoting can come in many shapes, sizes and colors. It can be raised panels, bead-board, sheet paneling, MDF with picture-frame molding or a framework of rails and stiles to create a recessed panel look. These were all among the options we considered for our powder room project.
Here’s what we settled on and how you can transform your hapless half-bath into a guest-welcoming sanctuary:
Step1: Choose what kind of board to nail up. In the end, we decided on a bead-board style MDF panel because it met several criteria, including pattern size for a small room, thinness, cost and availability. We also decided to cap the wainscot with a homemade molding. This would keep the profile lean, would balance well with the simple lines of the paneling and meet our budget criteria.
Use a laser level to determine the elevation for the
wainscot. This is a quick and easy way to see how the
transition will affect fixtures and tie into the vanity
Step 2: Determine the wainscot elevation. We used a self-leveling laser to set our layout height. Several factors were taken into account. With the laser beam at the top of the toilet tank level, we decided it would look better if the treatment extended above the tank.
Once you’ve decided on a height, mark the elevation
in several places.
This elevation brought the fan switch into play, so we decided to go a little higher yet and see how this level would tie into the backsplash at the counter top. Setting the elevation at the top of the backsplash would clear the toilet tank and just miss the fan switch.
Step 3: Remove the door. One of the first things I do in a project like this is to remove the door so I don’t have to spend the whole project trying to work around it. Whenever possible, I prefer removing the hinge pins by driving a nail up through the opening below the pin.
Step 4: Remove any switch plate or outlet covers within the install area. Keep track of any screws, nuts, bolts and skyhooks that may be associated with re-installing these items later.
Step 5: Remove any hardware. Remove the toilet paper holder and any other bath hardware that may be in the way. This install was a perfect opportunity to get rid of the recessed toilet paper holder in favor of a surface-mount model.
Step 6: Remove the toilet. Turn off the water supply. Flush. Disconnect the water supply. Remove the floor-mount nuts. Grab it and growl.
Note: You may need to carefully cut the caulking around the base of the toilet. Be particularly careful if you have a vinyl floor surface.
Toilet moving is best done with the help of a friend but a reasonably healthy adult can do it with a minimum of hospital recovery time.
My favorite place to park a toilet while working on a bathroom is right out in front of the house, but in a pinch the kitchen or even the garage will do. In general, the place that prompts the most comments is preferable.
Step 7: Remove the baseboards. It’s almost always a good idea to cut the caulk at the top of the base before removal. This prevents damage to the base as well as to the wall. If you are going to re-use the base, pull the nails through the back of the boards to avoid damaging the face.
Note: Some base is thick enough to accept the wainscot right on top of the baseboards. If this is the case, don’t remove it!
Above: Measure from the floor to several of the marks and cut the sheet to the smallest measurement.
Step 8: Mark the layout. Mark the top layout in several places, especially the corners.
This full width piece can be adjusted and
moved until it fits.Then measure for the next
piece into the corner.
Step 9: Plan the pattern. Decide the order in which you would like to install your panels. A full panel works better in more conspicuous places. In our case, we wanted a full piece at the vanity, which would have to be notched at the counter top. We used a smaller piece to finish the wall out to the corner.
We also wanted the outside corner to lap in the right direction to cover the connection. This same connection would best be made with the factory edges exposed at the corner, so we wanted to plan the cuts accordingly.
You will have better results with less effort if you take time to plan the order of the installation of your panel sections.
Above Left: A combo square square is useful for marking the notch where the wainscoting ties into the vanity counter top.
Above Right: We used a jigsaw to cut out the notch. Notice that the cuts are made from the back of the material to avoid tear-out from the teeth exiting the face of the finished product.
Step 10: Measure, mark and cut the panels to the layout height. If you have removed the base and are planning to install base over the panels, leave yourself some extra room at the bottom of the panel. This will make it easier to set the top of the panel to the layout line without interference by any high spots on the floor.
Above Left: One quick method to make an adjustment scribe is to use a
piece of material that is the same thickness as the gap you are
trying to close.
Above Right: Use a gap-sized piece of material to trace along the full length of the board to be adjusted.
We notched our first panel out for the vanity counter top before bringing it into the room. We then scribed the panel for adjustment while keeping it level with our marks.
Above Left: Use a power planer to shave to the line to make your adjustment.
Above Right: When you are sure the panel fits, apply construction adhesive to the back before installing.
Step 11: Glue the panel. Apply panel adhesive to the back of the panel or to the wall surface and put the panel in position.
Step 12: Mark the studs. Determine the stud locations with a stud finder and mark the stud locations on top of or above the panel.
Nail the panel into the studs using a brad
Step 13: Nail the panels. Use a brad-nailer to nail the panel to the studs.
Step 14: Measure, cut and install remaining panel sections.
Note: Be sure to keep the factory edges in tact where panels will be joined together. The panels are designed to maintain the look of the pattern when joined together at the factory edges.
Above Left: An under-table mounted router makes a good shaper. Extending the bit to different heights changes the shape of the cut. We used a round-over set for a deep cut because we wanted to include the shoulder cut in the shape.
Above Right: Set the table saw width and depth to make a rabbet cut that will fit over the panels.
Hide cuts inside corners by lapping over a cut end with a factory end.
Above Left: We used a larger round-over bit to shape the top of our chair rail.
Above Right: A foam sanding block conforms to the shape of the moulding to ease the sharp edges.
Step 15: Mill the chair rail molding. You can rabbet (notch) the bottom of the molding to lap over the panels or install the rail on to the top of the panels and caulk the connection. We made our rabbet on the table saw by setting the depth of cut and the width both at 3/8 inch. After shaping the outside you can ease the edges with sandpaper. Foam sanding blocks work well because they conform to the shape of the material.
Above Left: Use a short section of the chair rail to test how the termination points will fit. When you have the end where you want it, measure from
the corner to the long point of the cut.
Above Right: When choosing the length of the nail to use for the chair rail, remember that you are shooting through the molding and the drywall before you
hit any framing. We like to use 2-1/2″ brads for this application.
Step 16: Install the chair rail. Begin by using a short piece with any returns necessary to determine where the long point of the mitered return will be. A return is when an uncovered end is mitered to “return” it to the wall without exposing end grain.
We used a coping saw to notch where the
panel interfered with the chair rail return piece.
Small pieces lke this return can be glued into
place without nails.
In our installation, we made a mitered return at the countertop backsplash that needed a little notch in the back to accommodate the backsplash. We cut this notch with a coping saw, but I’ve done it with a dovetail-saw, chisel, utility knife, hatchet—it’s hidden.
Sometimes it works better to leave your tape
in the belt, and put the molding in place and
mark where it needs to be cut.
Step 17: Measure, cut and install the baseboard.
Small pieces of MDF can be nailed through
the face without splitting because the layers
run parallel to the face.
Don’t worry about a little gap where the chair
rail meets the wall. This can be caulked. It’s
better to make sure the miter fits tight on the
We always use cope cuts for inside 90-degree corners to keep the fasteners from forcing the joints open. With a cope connection, measurements can be made less precise, and you don’t risk damaging the wainscot to get the pieces in place.
With the woodwork done, it’s time to think
about prepping for paint.
Step 18: Caulk. Change into your painting clothes; take a deep breath and dive into the paint-prepping process. This is where some projects get bogged down, but by following the next few steps you can finish all of the details and have the bath ready for use again promptly.
Caulk the gap between the chair rail and the
wall, between the base and the panel, between
the panel and the cabinet face, between the
panel and the door casing and at the points
where the panels meet in the corners.
Spread and shape the caulk with your finger,
frequently wiping your finger clean with a wet
There are several keys to a successful caulk job, including using a good paintable caulk, cutting the tip at an angle not too far from the end, keeping a wet rag handy and using your finger tip to shape the caulking into the corner.
Force spackle into the nail holes with a putty
knife leaving extra above the hole for shrinkage.
After the spackle dries, sand flush to the surface.
Step 19: Spackle. Use light spackle to fill the nail holes leaving a little extra material above the surface.
Step 20: Sand. After the spackle has dried, sand the areas flat. Virtually all of the spackle is removed from the surrounding area of the nail hole, leaving the now-filled hole flush with the surface.
Remove dust from the surface to be painted.
Step 21: Remove dust. You can use a tack cloth, or a combination of fine bristled brush and vac to remove all of the dust particles from the work surface and the floor.
Step 22: Mask. The purpose of masking when using a roller or brush is to keep any stray paint off of the floor surface. It is not intended to receive a full coverage of paint as when you are spraying. Excess paint on the masking will seep under or leave a heavy line when the masking is removed.
Apply primer paint with a roller. Brush into the
cracks where the roller bridges over them.
With all of the wood surfaces primed, repeat
the process with the finish coat and reinstall
Step 23: Smear on primer. Use a primer recommended for the surface you are painting. I prefer to use a water-cleanup latex primer whenever advisable. The primer coat is a good time to practice the roller and brush techniques you will need to get good results. Because of the way paint runs and tends to build up, keep the brush marks flowing in the direction of the paneling design.
Step 24: Paint. Apply the finish coat of paint. Two tips that will help this process give better results. First, keep the roller and/or brush well loaded with paint except when finishing the lower edge of the base next to the masking. Second, do not over-work an area. Apply the paint with as few strokes as possible to get the desired coverage, to remove any runs and to get the brush marks moving in the right direction. Over-working the paint will cause it to get sticky and ball up.
Remove the masking after the paint has dried for an hour or so.
Step 25: Re-install the toilet. It’s a good idea to purchase a new wax ring to reinstall the toilet. In our case we needed an extended ring because the tile floor was a bit above the flange.
Clean off any excess caulk from the base of the toilet and place it over the new wax ring in line with the floor mounting bolts.
Put the nuts back on and tighten slowly taking care not to over-torque the nuts, which would crack the toilet base.
Step 26: Install switch plates, bath hardware and door stops. You’re almost there. Stay focused on these little finishing touches, and the other occupants of the house won’t be afraid next time they see you getting out tools.
Step 27: Enjoy the admiration of bathroom visitors and drop the magazine rack idea—at least until you get that new exhaust fan installed.