On uneven or cracked walls, nail a grid of furring strips to the studs; shim low spots solidly.

How to Panel a Room

Paneling a room with plywood or hardboard sheets is a great way to finish a basement or cover badly damaged walls. On smooth, level interior walls, install the paneling directly over the old wall; otherwise, provide a sound base with a framework of 1×2 or 1×3 furring strips. Do not install paneling directly on an unfinished stud wall. The panels are hard to handle, so you'll need an assistant.

Tools:

  • Measuring rule
  • Long straight board
  • Putty knife or paint scraper
  • Sanding block
  • Magnetic stud finder
  • Pencil
  • Chalked plumb line
  • Hammer
  • Staple gun
  • Small paintbrush
  • Two sawhorses
  • Two long 2 × 4's
  • Fine-toothed saber saw or circular saw, coping saw, and keyhole saw
  • Safety goggles
  • Scribing compass
  • Level
  • Tape
  • Scissors
  • Caulking gun
  • Padded wood block
  • Drill
  • Miter box
  • Fine-toothed backsaw for cutting molding
  • Nail set

Materials:

  • Plastic dropcloths
  • Spackling compound
  • Coarse-grit sandpaper
  • 1×2 or 1×3 furring strips
  • Shims
  • 8-penny common nails or steel masonry nails
  • Heavy polyethylene sheet plastic
  • Heavy-duty staples
  • Paint to match panels
  • Plywood or hardboard panels—the standard size is 4×8 feet, but if your ceilings are high, you can order 4×10 foot sheets
  • 2-penny or 4-penny finishing nails or colored nails provided by paneling manufacturer
  • Panel adhesive
  • Masking tape
  • Prefinished ceiling and baseboard moldings
  • Wood putty

Time: About 2 to 3 days

Measuring and Buying Paneling

Before buying wall paneling, calculate how many panels you'll need. Because the panels are a standard 4×8 feet -- or, for high ceilings, 4x10 -- you need to figure only in terms of width. Measure the total diameter of the room in feet and divide by 4; subtract 1/2 panel for each door and 1/4 panel for each window. The result is the number of panels you need. Ask the lumber dealer to calculate the amounts of furring strips, polyethylene sheet plastic, adhesive, and nails for you; buy a bundle of shims. Buy prefinished ceiling and baseboard molding by the foot, to match your paneling.

Preparing for Installing the Paneling

At least 48 hours before you start to work, move the panels into the room where they'll be installed. Lay several furring strips parallel on the floor and set the first panel flat on the strips; stack the rest of the panels the same way, with furring strips separating them. This is so they can adjust to the room's temperature and humidity.

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Make sure the walls of the room to be paneled are smooth and level. Remove baseboards and molding from walls. With your assistant, hold a long straight board horizontally against each wall surface; slide it up and down over the wall to identify high spots and depressions. Spread plastic dropcloths to protect the floor. Fill low spots in the walls with spackling compound, smoothed on with a putty knife or paint scraper; sand high spots level with coarse-grit sandpaper.

Installing Furring Strips: If the wall is very uneven or badly cracked, you must nail 1×2 or 1×3 furring strips up to give the paneling a solid base. Use a magnetic stud finder to locate the studs across each wall; mark these points. Snap a chalked plumb line from each marked point to mark the nailing lines for the furring strips.

Nail furring strips horizontally across each wall with 8-penny common nails, nailing into the marked studs. Place one strip at the ceiling and one along the floor; space strips 16 inches apart, center to center, between ceiling and floor. Wedge shims behind the strips at any low spots, and drive a nail through both furring strip and shim into the wall.

When all horizontal furring strips have been nailed up, cut vertical pieces to fit between the horizontals. Set vertical strips from floor to ceiling in each corner, nailing them along the chalked stud lines. Nail vertical furring strips the same way, floor to ceiling, at wall studs at every point where two wall panels will meet. Paint these verticals with any paint roughly the same color as the panels, so the furring strips won't show behind the finished wall.

Preparing Masonry Walls: Masonry walls must be specially treated. Attach furring strips horizontally with steel masonry nails: one strip at the floor, one at the ceiling, others at 16-inch intervals up the wall. Set vertical strips at the corners and at panel joints, shimming them out where necessary. Paint the joint-line strips and let dry. Then, before going any further, cover the walls with heavy polyethylene sheet plastic from floor to ceiling to protect the paneling from moisture. Staple the plastic carefully and evenly into place over the furring strips, making sure it's drawn smooth over the walls.

Final Preparation: Finally, before you start to panel, remove switch and outlet cover plates. Pull the boxes out from the wall to match the thickness of the paneling, being careful not to disturb the wiring.

Cutting the Paneling

With the walls prepared, stand the paneling up around the room so you can see how it looks. Arrange it to balance full and partial panels and to match wood grains, and number the backs of the panels; start at a corner. Restack the panels in order, with the first panel up.

To cut the first panel, measure the distance from floor to ceiling at several points along the first 4-foot span. The panels must be nailed into place with a 1/4-inch gap at both floor and ceiling, to allow for expansion of the wood. Mark the top of the panel to be trimmed, using the measured floor-to-ceiling distance and subtracting 1/2 inch for the gaps at top and bottom. Turn the panel face down over two sawhorses, with two long 2 × 4's under it to keep it from bending, and cut it to measure with a fine-toothed saber saw or circular saw. Wear safety goggles while you make the cut.

Scribing the Corners

The first panel must be scribed so that it fits exactly into the corner. Stand the panel upright in the corner and wedge shims under it to raise it 1/4 inch off the floor. Use a level to make sure it's exactly vertical.

There will probably be an uneven gap between the panel edge and the corner. With your assistant holding the panel in place in the corner, set a scribing compass at the top of the panel, point in the corner and pencil on the panel. Hold the compass steady and draw it down the corner, pressing firmly enough to mark a fine pencil line down the panel. Trim the panel carefully along this line with the saber saw or a fine-toothed coping saw.

Installing the Paneling

Install the panels with nails, adhesive, or a combination of the two, according to the manufacturer's recommendation. Heavy plywood panels should always be nailed up, and even lightweight panels should be nailed along the floor and the ceiling. The moldings used at floor and ceiling will cover these nails.

Installation with Nails: To install the panels with nails, use 2-penny finishing nails over furring strips, 4-penny finishing nails if you're setting the paneling right over the old wall; or use the colored nails provided by the paneling manufacturer. Set the first panel, with edge trimmed, carefully into place in the corner. Set the bottom of the panel on shims again to maintain the 1/4-inch gap at the floor, and make sure it's plumb.

Start nailing at the furring strip or on the stud line at the center of the corner edge. Drive a row of nails across the center of the panel at 12-inch intervals; use a nail set to sink the heads without damaging the paneling. Move up 16 inches to the next horizontal furring strip and repeat, working from the center of the panel up and out. Continue nailing up to the ceiling and then down to the floor, setting nails 12 inches apart along every horizontal furring strip, or on each marked stud line of a wall being covered directly. When the entire panel has been nailed down, drive nails every 6 inches around the edges, and remove the shims under the bottom edge.

Continue around the room, butting each new panel against the last one, measuring and trimming each panel as you go. Scribe each corner panel. To work around doors, windows, or outlets, use the protective paper sheets that come between the panels. Hold a sheet of paper against the wall, exactly where the panel will go, and have your assistant tape it firmly into place, top and bottom. Trace the outline of each obstruction with a pencil.

Untape the sheet and cut out the traced areas; lay the paper over the panel and trace the cutouts onto the panel. Cut out large openings with the saber saw or circular saw; drill small holes and use a coping saw or a keyhole saw to cut holes for switch plates.

Installation with Adhesive: To install the panels with adhesive, use the brand recommended by the panel manufacturer; apply the adhesive with a caulking gun. Start in the corner with the scribed and trimmed first panel. Run a solid bead of adhesive over all furring strips the panel will cover; if you're paneling over a solid wall, apply adhesive in a grid pattern. Set the panel into place in the corner, resting on shims to maintain the 1/4-inch gap at the floor. With the panel exactly positioned, drive a row of nails at 12-inch intervals across the top of the panel.

At this point, reread the instructions for the panel adhesive. Depending on the adhesive you're using, you may have to pull the panel away from the wall until the adhesive is tacky. If this is the case, pull the bottom of the panel out from the wall and prop it in place with a piece of scrap wood for the time specified by the manufacturer; then remove the prop and press the panel flat against the wall.

As soon as the panel is flat against the wall, set it permanently: using a padded wood block to protect the panel's surface, pound it firmly into place with a hammer. Go over the whole panel with the hammer and padded block. Finally, drive nails at 6-inch intervals all along the floor and ceiling edges of the panel, and remove the shims under the bottom edge.

When the first panel is pounded down and nailed into place, continue around the room, measuring and trimming as you go. Finish installing each panel before you go on to the next one.

Completing the Paneling

To complete the newly paneled room, fill all nail holes with wood putty. Finally, install prefinished ceiling and baseboard molding. Miter corners with a miter box and a fine-toothed backsaw, and nail the molding into place.

Few homes are made from brick these days, but that doesn't mean you can't bring that look to your house. In the next section, you will learn how to cover a wall with brick.

For more information on do-it-yourself home improvement projects, try the following links:

  • If your floors need work, you won't need to hire expensive specialists with our article on How to Repair Floors.
  • Learn how to create your own walls with our article on How to Drywall.
  • For instructions and tips on doing a good paint job, see our article on Painting Walls.