Wainscot is a style of wall finish most often made of wood. Initially used as insulation, it is now primarily a form of decoration that covers the lower half of a wall, and can be topped with a chair rail. Styles range from informal and simplistic to ornate and sophisticated. The classic categories of wainscot styles include raised panel, flat panel, beadboard, and board and batten. Alternatives, including those made of plastic, tile, or metal, are also available.
Raised panel wainscot has a simple, box edge with a beveled effect; it looks like a series of large rectangles that have had material removed just around the edges. This type originated in the European Colonial period, and often looks best in rooms that share a similar style, including Colonial, Federalist, and Queen Anne. It is used primarily in formal settings, such as libraries, studies, and living rooms. Raised panel is one of the most common and classic styles.
Recessed or flat panel wainscot has a similar look to raised panel, but instead of the beveled edge with a raised center, the entire rectangle is flat. This style is a good fit with homes in the Mission, Shaker, and Arts and Crafts style. It has a simple look that is most often used in family rooms and other family-oriented areas of a house.
Beadboard wainscoting, also called tongue and groove, became popular during the Victorian period of the 19th century. Like the other types, it typically features beveled edges on the top and bottom, but the center panel has vertical grooves that resemble pleated curtains or shutters. The distance between the grooves can vary to create wider planks or very narrow strips, depending on the desired look. Beadboard is often found in more informal settings, such as bathrooms, cottages, and vacation homes.
Board and Batten
A simple style that looks somewhat similar to the flat panel, board and batten wainscot often does not have the standard beveled edges around the center panels. Instead, narrow boards extend vertically between the chair rail and baseboard. Traditionally, the vertical boards — called battens — were designed to hide the seams in the underlying wood panels. This look works well in homes with a simple or rustic feel, such as those in the Shaker style.
Different styles of wainscot can also be combined for a more unique look. Since there is no "right" height for this wall treatment, two or more rows of raised or flat panels, for example, can be used for a taller wainscot that provides more visual interest. Beadboard can be used at the bottom of a wall, while a narrow row of board and batten can be placed above it. When combining different types, it's important that a homeowner keep the overall style of the room and house in mind, or he might create a wall treatment that is interesting to look at, but seems out of place.
Rather than installing classic wainscoting, homeowners may also want to consider overlaid panels. These have a very similar look, but can incorporate a wider range of style options. When using overlay panels, the chair rail or other molding is attached to the wall above the wainscot area and a baseboard below; in between, the raised decorative panels can be attached directly to the wall. Because they are not built to a specific size, there is more flexibility about where they can be placed. Overlays can also be used on top of flat panel wainscot rather than attached to the wall.
Wood is a popular option for wainscoting material because it can be milled to fit nearly any room or space. It can also be stained or painted to better fit the look and feel of a room; darker colors, for example, usually look best in a formal room, while wood that is left its natural color or painted white could fit well in a family room or vacation house. Wainscoting can be made from many different species of wood as well, including pine, oak, cherry, and mahogany. As with the choice of paint or stain, the wood used should match the room's decor.
For a less expensive option, some homeowners use wainscot made of PVC plastic. These sheets can be preformed, and will not warp, rot, or be damaged by insects in the way that wood can be. Plastic also can be painted easily. It may not be the best choice for a very formal room, however, as it is not likely to have the same grain lines and clear, sharp edges that characterize wooden wall treatments.
Embossed metal and ceramic tile are other options for wainscoting. These materials will give a very different look to the wall, but can serve the same decorative purpose. Tin can be pressed into very intricate designs, for example, and may be left silver or painted to coordinate with the room. Tile could be a good choice for a kitchen or bathroom, where moisture damage to wood might be a concern.
Other options include pre-molded medium-density fiberboard (MDF) or drywall. MDF is made from wood fibers that have been mixed with binders, making it strong and less likely to warp or crack. It can also be covered in a veneer that makes it look like natural wood. Drywall, which is the same material that forms the walls of most houses, can also be formed to look like wainscot, although it won't provide any additional protection to the wall the way that wood will.
The original purpose of wainscoting was to make rooms in stone buildings more comfortable, insulating the room from the cold stone walls. It also helped to hide any seeping dampness that could stain the lower parts of walls. In modern times, wainscot is primarily used for decoration, but it is also has a functional purpose: to protect the lower part of the wall from damage. Chairs or other objects can dent or scuff a wall if they are pushed against it roughly, but this treatment prevents the wall itself from taking the blow.