Installing Wainscot in a Powder Bath

By Larry Walton

You know the place. It’s the little room where your wife tells you not to use the good towels that match the decor. It’s the one that gets checked before the guests arrive. The powder room, sometimes called the guest bath or half bath, usually contains no bath at all. Located on the first floor or convenient to the living areas, it can be a good candidate for an update.

Wainscot can make a nice change to this room, transforming it into a diminutive oasis of tranquility for a momentary respite from the… You see where a little paneling can take you?

There are few areas in the house where trades can collide like in a bathroom, which can have a big build list in a small area. Trying to figure out the best sequence to schedule carpenters, plumbers, electricians, tile setters, painters and others can be a challenge for a general contractor. Often compromises must be made to get the job done.

The same project for a homeowner can be much easier to schedule, since you will wear the tool belt (or coveralls) of each of these trades. You can even mix and match partial installations typically done by different trades as the project comes together. For example, you can remove a toilet, do the work that needs to be done under and behind it, then reinstall it before the rest of the room is completed. A real plumber would want to come back to set all of the finish fixtures at once, which could leave you without a pot to… well, you get the idea.

We recently tracked a small powder room remodeling project where the work was done by general contractor and jack-of-all-trades Brian Monroe, who had the flexibility to get it done much like a homeowner project. As you will see in the wainscot project, the sequence of different tasks can be quite fluid on this type of job.

Pushing ahead to get one part done quickly can get in the way of other necessary tasks if you don’t give thought to the order of operations and how things will tie together. It might be fun to jump right into wainscot paneling, but it can leave you scratching your head on how to transition to the vanity countertop or how to install baseboard that now protrudes past the face of the casing.


Step by Step

As handy as an indoor toilet can be, it’s best to get it out of the way for a wainscot installation. Monroe shuts off and disconnects the water, flushes, removes water from the bowl, disconnects the floor bolts, cuts the caulk, loosens and lifts.

After removing the toilet, trim, outlet covers and pedestal sink, Monroe marked a level line around the room at an elevation he knew would be below the chair rail.

He used a utility knife to cut the wallpaper along the line. Notice that he did not bother to use a straight edge for this step. This is the cover-up principle in operation. Because the wainscot and chair rail will cover it up, there’s no need to waste time making a perfectly straight line on the wallpaper cut.

Before installing the panels, Monroe installed the baseboard. The sequence for this operation depends on the baseboard design and the look you want. In this case, the panels were thin enough that they could rest on the baseboard. This created a more desirable reveal (visible area) on the baseboard tops and eliminated an awkward caulk bead where the flutes of the beadboard panels meet the baseboard.

To determine the wainscot elevation, Monroe brought in the new vanity and sink and put them in position. Using the actual fixtures can help eliminate measuring mistakes. He used a short piece of chair rail to test the look compared to the vanity. Would it look best to hold it a couple of inches above the sink or below? In the end, he decided to use the chair rail much like a backsplash.

After cutting the panels to a height that would fall about the middle of the chair rail, Monroe started installing the panels on the powder room walls. There are a number of things that can dictate the sequence for installing paneling like this, including stud locations, placing joints where they are hidden, and making adjustments such as scribing on smaller pieces that are easier to handle.

With the two larger panels already in place, Monroe can easily handle this smaller piece to fit it just right into the corner. Since it’s best to sneak up on scribe adjustments by taking off a little material, testing it and taking off a little more, working with small pieces makes this process easier and quicker.

You can make adjustments to MDF paneling using a variety of tools such as saws, files, sanders, grinders and power planers. Monroe applies some back bevel here with his utility knife. A back bevel takes away more material from the non-face side of a panel, leaving less material to remove as the adjustment gets finer.

In general it’s preferable to connect panel sections on studs. If there is any doubt about the fasteners finding good grip in the framing, adding a little adhesive helps. Panel adhesive is formulated for this task, but a caulk with good adhesion can be substituted in a pinch.

Note how Monroe left out the baseboard on the wall that connects to the back of the vanity. He used a scrap of base as a spacer so the baseboard could be cut and fit to the vanity after it was installed.

If a panel joint falls on a wall opening, using the cut-out from the first panel can help make the layout for the second piece much easier.

No one will likely see the opening for plumbing inside the vanity, but making neat holes with a hole saw makes it a clean job just in case someone climbs in there.

Monroe worked toward the corner where the vanity cabinet would soon live. Placing joints in out-of-sight locations is a good strategy. Another good strategy is leaving the water supply stop valves in place and cutting around them. This not possible with a pedestal or wall-mounted sink, but given the opportunity inside a vanity cabinet this can be a real time-saver and allows you to keep the water to the house operational.

After painting the wall and the wainscot panels, Monroe installed the vanity cabinet and put the sink in place so he could determine the exact height of the chair rail. The design included furring strips behind the top of the chair rail to bring it on plane with the face of the paneling.

After setting the elevation of the chair rail furring strips at the vanity sink, Monroe used a level and finish nailer to install the furring strips around the room.

With the furring strips installed, chair rail installation is as easy as following the top edge of the furring strips. Monroe handled the corner connections with a cope joint.

Although the cope joints will be caulked, it’s a good idea to plan the copes so they face away from the door, which is the angle from which they will always be viewed.

Tools and Materials

  • Medium density fiberboard (MDF) panels with bead design
  • Panel adhesive
  • Chair rail molding
  • Chair rail furring strips
  • Coping saw
  • Jig saw
  • Circular saw
  • Table saw
  • Utility knife
  • Compressor
  • Nail guns
  • Stuff to smear paint



Cover –Up Principal

Watch for opportunities to save time and materials by skipping details on areas that will be covered up. Drywall finish is not a factor in areas that will be covered by paneling. Plumbing escutcheons can get a wide berth inside a cabinet where they are out of sight. The top edge of the wainscot panels don’t have to match precisely because they will be covered with chair rail.

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