Why Wainscoting Has Stood the Test of Time

By: Carrie Whitney, Ph.D.  | 

Wainscot is commonly used to keep walls safe from damage and blemishes in heavy-traffic areas like entryways, stairways and hallways. Musso Design Group

Wainscoting is a design feature dating back several centuries. But it's come a long way since its traditional British origins as oak paneling. Today, this decorative element can be found in a variety of materials and used with many décor styles.

It's also touted as easy enough for a DIYer and a relatively cost-effective way to dress up a room. From a rustic farmhouse home to one that is ultramodern, wainscoting fits in well. Let's look at how this simple wooden panel became a go-to design component.


What Is Wainscoting?

According to Merriam-Webster, the original definition of wainscot referred to "a fine grade of oak imported for woodwork," and it was a term used as early as the 14th century. By the late 1500s, it had become a verb meaning "to line with boards or paneling." Etymologically, the word stems from the Middle Dutch or Middle Low German wagenschot, meaning something like "wagon partition," so titled possibly because the same wood had been used in the construction of wagons.

Today, the term wainscot — and the more common wainscoting — simply refers to some type of wall paneling that is used on the interior of a space and covers the lower portion of the wall. While it has a protective function of adding a layer over the wall material and paint, wainscoting's main purpose is decorative. Despite periods of heightened popularity, like the Arts & Crafts movement, wainscoting has never gone out of style, so it offers an accessible and time-tested option for adding more flair to a room.

"[Wainscoting is used] to break the wall space visually," says Bill Musso, president of Atlanta-based Musso Design Group. "It doesn't really have a function these days, it's more visual. Over the years, it's become more of a decorative thing."

Nevertheless, Musso explains that wainscot can be used to keep walls safe from damage and blemishes in heavy-traffic areas like entryways, stairways and hallways — just the types of places people are likely to bump or run their hands over the walls. Think of children with sticky fingers, and you will understand the purpose of shielding your paint or wallpaper with this protective layer.

In dining rooms, topped by a wainscot cap, which is molding, the paneling can protect the walls from being banged up by chairs. Hence, the cap's typically being referred to as a chair rail, although a chair rail can also float on the wall solo. Baseboard molding can be added to the wainscoting panel to complete the look.

Wainscoting's ability to morph with different design trends might have some hand in its long-lasting acceptance.
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The Many Looks of Wainscoting

There is more to wainscoting than oak paneling. Musso explains that it can be styled in super-traditional looks that are heavily carved with motifs like those during the Art Nouveau movement, for example, to an Art Deco look that is more linear and geometric. Wainscoting's ability to morph with different design trends might have some hand in its long-lasting acceptance.

"In contemporary designs, it takes on a really clean, simple profile," Musso says. Not only can the façade offer a variety of styles from simple to ornate, the material also has now become more varied, too. Musso has used both metal and glass wainscoting in contemporary homes. Some panels can even be made of elaborately shaped PVC and painted.

Of course, beadboard wainscoting is a typical favorite, as is shiplap, which are long, wooden planks mounted horizontally. It's super popular as of late in farmhouse-style homes thanks to HGTV's "Fixer Upper" show with Chip and Joanna Gaines.

"There are so many different directions," says Musso. "Whatever you can think of, people are doing it. It used to be one thing, and now it can be many things."

Whatever you can think of, you can do with wainscoting. It used to be so traditional, but now it can be used with any design style.
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Installing Wainscoting

The great news, considering wainscoting's seemingly endless popularity, is that the feature offers a cost-effective way to add style to a room. "You do have to have some knowledge of cutting and installing," says Musso. The finished product looks like a panel attached to a wall, but there are actually several steps involved.

Similar to choosing cabinet door styles, selecting a more traditional type of wainscoting requires the choice between different types of panels like raised, flat and overlay. Each wainscoting design includes multiple elements, such as various moldings, panels, rails and possibly stiles. These are applied to the wall in the determined pattern.

Wood wainscoting should be sealed back and front before it's installed, whether you are planning to paint it or not, because sealing the wood helps guard against issues with contraction and expansion. Wainscoting can be applied even if your walls are out of plumb, but you will need to compensate for the lack of levelness during installation. If you have an uneven wall surface, you can fix the issue with horizontal filler strips. Finally, for an undulating floor, you just need to determine the height of the chair rail by the floor's highest point and shim the baseboards.

If this all sounds like it's beyond your carpentry capabilities, wainscoting is available as ready-made panels. For example, a beginning DIYer can purchase wall cladding in sheets, MDF or even a light fiberboard that can be cut to fit, Musso says.

"It's a lot easier than it used to be," he says. And when considering more contemporary designs, wainscot can be fashioned from all sorts of materials that may be less complicated to work with. He recommends checking out how-to videos on YouTube and renting a nail gun to make installation less demanding.

Throwing in the DIY towel in favor of hiring an installer will increase the cost of the project. But with an average cost of installing wainscoting in the thousands, it could still be a sensible and stylish investment for years to come.