All About Wainscoting: Materials and Applications

  • wall_trim_molding_wainscoting_shutterstock_23698627
  • Transcript

    LESLIE: Well, the raised, decorative panels known as wainscoting and other decorative elements, they can really add personality and sophistication to a room.

    TOM: Yeah. And wainscoting actually goes back to the colonial days. Here to tell us more is This Old House general contractor Tom Silva.

    Welcome, Tommy.

    TOM SILVA: Hey, guys. Nice to be here.

    TOM: You know, when you think about wainscoting, it really takes the form of several different architectural styles. So, what are some of those elements and most importantly, is this really a do-it-yourself project that homeowners can tackle themselves?

    TOM SILVA: Well, you do have to have some skills, because there’s a lot of carpentry skills in mitering and making the pieces fit.

    TOM: Right.

    TOM SILVA: There’s all different profiles and different details on simple moldings that you can simply apply to the wall. There’s also raised panels that you can put on a wall; you see a lot of that. And flat panels are pretty easy to do because you can actually let the wall be the panel. And you could put styles and rails and decorate around the interior with the molding detail there. So, there’s all kinds of patterns and details and heights that you can accomplish by applying the wainscoting to the wall.

    LESLIE: Now, Tommy, does it only have to be out of traditional wood or can we look to extruded PVC for something that’s more stable and maybe easier to work with?

    TOM SILVA: I like to use it in areas where it’s damp, like a bathroom, for example. You get a lot of steam and sometimes you get a lot of movement if you’re using a wood, like a poplar or a pine and you’re going to paint it. You get a lot less moving if you use a PVC beadboard or even a wainscoting made out of an MDF for moist or damp areas.

    TOM: It was not too long ago we got a call from a listener who wanted to put wood wainscoting in a bathroom and was concerned that the moisture was too much for it there. So, first, obviously, deal with the moisture issue. Make sure you have proper ventilation. And then, second to that, choose something that’s not wood.

    TOM SILVA: Right. But if you come to a situation and you really want that wood, for example, it needs to be sealed on all six sides before you install it. Because that wood has to be able to – stability. And it can’t take on the moisture.

    LESLIE: Now, what about some other non-traditional materials, especially if you’re just trying to create a lower area on a wall and then maybe just cap it off with trim? Have you ever seen tin ceiling tiles? I mean is that a possibility?

    TOM SILVA: Sure. People have taken tin ceiling and they have applied it to the wall. There’s hundreds of different patterns that you can use. The trick with tin is that it can dent easy. So sometimes what you want to do is you want to put the tin over plywood, because it will dent. But you also want to butter up the back with something like a joint compound. You’ve got to be careful that you don’t use anything that is brittle and will fall apart.

    So, a joint compound is always good for that, I think. Because joint compound will stick to anything and it will fill any void.

    TOM: And sometimes, in really old buildings, I’ve even seen it done with ceramic tile. Now, obviously, that’s a tough job but it’s incredibly durable.

    TOM SILVA: Oh, yeah. Ceramic tile is great. It comes in a lot of different patterns. And the tile manufacturers make all kinds of moldings and caps and detail, even baseboard, that will finish it off and dress it up really nice.

    You also can use a drywall. There’s an embossed drywall where they basically stamp the gypsum and they make a panel. There is a given size and you have to try to make them fit into a space. So it can be a little bit challenging in some situations.

    TOM: So, if it fits, the embossed drywall is a pretty easy way to go, then.

    TOM SILVA: Absolutely.

    TOM: What kind of rooms really lend themselves to wainscoting? Does it really have to be a kitchen or a bathroom or can it really, these days, go anywhere?

    TOM SILVA: Oh, it can go anywhere. A lot of people put them in dining rooms. Lots of times, you’ll see them in a mud room. It might go up like 5 feet, for example, to protect the walls. You see them in pantries. There’s a lot of different spaces – and basements, they sometimes – I see them in basements.

    TOM: And I’ve even seen wainscoting be done with non-traditional materials like, say, an old, wood door or something like that that can be very attractive.

    TOM SILVA: Oh, yeah. Yeah, you take an old, wood, four-panel door, for example, and a lot of people take them and they’ll tip them on its side.

    LESLIE: Turn it on its side.

    TOM: Right.

    TOM SILVA: Yeah. And it’s pretty.

    TOM: Put a little trim cap on the front of it and you’re done.

    TOM SILVA: Yeah, yeah.

    LESLIE: Yeah, we actually did that for an episode of While You Were Out. The only thing that made it tricky was now all of your boxes had to sort of pull away from the wall to accommodate the thickness.

    TOM SILVA: Yeah, the thickness.

    LESLIE: So, that was a little bit tricky but it made a really classic look a little bit more easy to do.

    TOM SILVA: Yeah. Yeah.

    TOM: Tom Silva from This Old House, thanks so much for stopping by The Money Pit.

    TOM SILVA: Nice to be here, guys. Thanks.

    LESLIE: You can catch the current season of This Old House and Ask This Old House on PBS. For local listings and step-by-step videos of many common home improvement projects, visit

    TOM: And This Old House and Ask This Old House are brought to you by The Home Depot. More saving, more doing.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


More tips, ideas and inspiration to fuel your next home improvement, remodeling or décor project!