For some, the word “wainscoting” conjures up the ornate sets of “Downton Abbey.” Others may hear the term and picture the brown wood paneling popular in the 1970s and ‘80s. So what exactly is wainscoting?
We’ll teach you everything you need to know about this decorative paneling, including types, cost, and styling tips.
Wainscoting is decorative paneling on the lower wall
“Wainscoting is an umbrella term that covers several types of wood cladding used on the lower half or third of a wall,” explains Elyse Moody, the former editor for Martha Stewart Living, who currently serves as the head of content for Designer Appliances in New Jersey. “You can buy new wainscoting or source vintage at architectural salvage shops.”
Wainscot originally referred to a particular type of fine-grain oak, imported from Russia, Germany, or Holland as early as the 14th century, specifically for intricate woodworking. This is why, in some circles, you’ll still hear floor-to-ceiling wood paneling called “wainscot,” especially if it is made from oak.
In the last few decades, however, it has become generally accepted that paneling refers to floor-to-ceiling panels applied to interior walls, whether made from wood, marble, or other materials. Wainscoting, on the other hand, is widely accepted as a term to describe any wall treatment of the lower part of a wall that differs from the upper half.
Wainscoting serves functional and decorative purposes
Wainscoting didn’t start as the decorative accent it is considered today. Originally, wainscoting was a functional feature that helped insulate interior walls and protect them from wear and tear.
Today, wainscoting is primarily considered a decorative finish that elevates the design of a room.
“Wainscoting looks beautiful and makes a big statement in a relatively affordable way, especially when it’s brushed with durable, high-gloss paint,” Moody comments. “It’ll add texture and color to the wall while serving a very practical purpose of making it easy to wipe down.”
Wainscoting comes in a wide range of styles and materials
Wainscoting is available in various styles, including heavy moldings reminiscent of 18th century England and cozy country beadboard.
“Wainscoting hasn’t lost its appeal, although the styles are changing. In the eighties and nineties, wainscoting was more ornate, but these days homeowners are selecting simpler options, like the Craftsman style trend,” explains top real estate agent Melanie Cameron, who works with 77% more single-family homes than the average agent in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Wainscoting, by today’s definition, can be made out of almost any material, including wood, plastic, and wallpaper. Here is an overview of the most popular materials:
Traditional wainscoting is made of wood. Solid wood is ideal if you want a stained wood look as it offers beautiful, natural grain that will shine through most stain colors.
Solid wood wainscoting is the most expensive option. However, many companies sell paneling that has a solid wood veneer applied to a manufactured wood panel. While not true solid wood, these panels give you the real wood look at a lower cost.
If you’re committed to wainscoting that’s solid wood all the way through, your best option is to order directly from a small supply company.
MDF stands for medium-density fiberboard, which consists of wood shavings and sawdust pressed tightly together with resin and wax to form a sheet. MDF is inexpensive because it’s made from lumberyard byproducts.
Aside from the price, another plus with MDF is that it is relatively easy to cut and carve into any wainscoting style you desire. The downside is that MDF is softer and more susceptible to gouges and water damage unless properly treated with durable paint.
PVC, vinyl, and polyurethane wainscoting are all essentially plastic panels molded to mimic the look of painted wood wainscoting. You can mold plastic wainscoting to mimic almost any material, including stonework, beadboard, brick, marble, and geometric shapes.
Simulated with trim
Sometimes referred to as panel molding, this wainscoting look is achieved by applying a minimal amount of molded trim in a pattern that mimics paneling. Some suppliers even offer trim-only kits as a more affordable option.
While this is a less expensive option than solid paneling, it’s a much more precise and painstaking process to attach dozens of pieces of trim than it is to simply nail a solid panel into place.
Wallpaper isn’t traditionally considered as wainscoting, even if it’s only applied to the lower half of the wall and separated from the upper part by a chair railing.
However, recent innovations in raised wallpaper mimic the look of wood paneling for a fraction of the price.
“We offer custom-made wainscotting effect wallpapers, which is a lot easier to do than making your own wainscoting,” explains Amy Hillary from Wallsauce. “All our paneling wallpaper is custom-made, so you can easily order it so that it only goes halfway up the wall like traditional wainscotting. Our wallpaper is made to measure and supplied in panels for easy installation.”
Wainscoting costs $5 to $40 per square foot
In general, you can expect to pay between $7 to $40 per square foot to purchase wainscoting and have it professionally installed. How much wainscoting costs really depends upon the type of material you choose.
- Wallpaper: $5 per linear square foot
- Plastic wainscoting: $14 to $19 per linear square foot, depending on style and whether you’re getting full panels or just trim
- Solid hardwood paneling: Solid wood is the most expensive; the price per square foot is only available on a job-by-job basis since the cost of lumbar fluctuates.
Wainscoting doesn’t necessarily add value to your home
Wainscoting enhances your home’s appearance, but it doesn’t increase its value.
“An appraiser isn’t going to add an extra $5,000 to $10,000 to your home’s value simply because it has wainscoting. However, while it will not add a real monetary value, wainscoting is a relatively inexpensive way to add salability value to your home,” advises Cameron.
Don’t write off the value of boosting marketability, though. Wainscoting adds visual interest to the interior, attracting buyers who appreciate thought-out details.
3 Tips to maximize salability with wainscoting
Just like any home feature, not every buyer will love the wainscoting look — but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go for it if you’re into this trim. Here are three tips to help you choose the best wainscoting look possible:
Tip 1: Limit where you put it
Wainscoting is a beautiful architectural detail that quickly loses its luster if it’s in every single room and hallway in your house. Rather than going nuts with the look, limit yourself to a few spaces where the wainscoting will make the most dramatic impact.
“I’m in the South, so we like accents, but you don’t want to put wainscoting all over the house. The key areas you’d want to put wainscoting are dining rooms, home offices, foyers, and even kitchens. In those spaces, it can be very attractive,” explains Cameron.
“Bedrooms are the wrong place for wainscoting because it’s a little too formal. It’s better to do one accent wall in a bedroom by painting it a different color or putting up wallpaper than to put wainscoting throughout the whole bedroom.”
Tip 2: Don’t DIY unless you’re a professional
Just because you can install wainscoting yourself doesn’t mean that you should. If the quality of your work can’t pass for that of a professional installer, you may just be hurting the value of your home.
On the surface, installing wainscoting seems pretty simple — you’re just nailing panels in place. However, this project is difficult due to the straight lines and patterns involved. If your measuring is off by even a few centimeters from one corner of the room to the other, your paneling will be crooked and make the whole room look off-kilter.
You also won’t have the professional know-how to handle situations like when your final panel is two inches too long—and cutting it to fit will destroy the pattern and result in an amateur look.
Tip 3: Take care with your color and style selections
When designing, it’s easy to work in a bubble thinking only of the look you’re trying to capture and not thinking about how it fits into your whole home or even your region. Wainscoting isn’t as easy to change out as paint color or even a light fixture, so you really need to consider the overall design impact of this addition carefully.
For example, you probably don’t want to install modern geometric wainscoting if you’ve got original millwork throughout the rest of the house.
“We live in a coastal area, so we’re mainly seeing painted white wainscoting with a wall color above. In more historic houses with original woodwork, you’ll see wainscoting kept the natural wood color, which is absolutely beautiful and attractive to buyers,” Cameron shares.
Choose wainscoting that works for your unique home
Wainscoting is a gorgeous architectural detail that makes a big impact with minimal construction required compared to other architectural projects. While this feature might not do much to increase value, it goes a long way toward improving your home’s appeal to buyers when you’re ready to sell.
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