Want to make a classy and creative statement on your walls that others won’t regard as “off the wall”? Think wainscoting, a paneling tactic that can add elegance and esthetic charm to virtually any living space, say the experts.
Nikki James, the Dallas-based studio manager for Ashton Woods Homes, said wainscoting gives a room personality, character and instant style.
“In the 18th century, it was used to help insulate a room and provide a more durable surface than painted sheetrock wall. Now, paints are more durable for scrubbing and cleaning, so wainscoting often serves as a decorative accent to help make a room more visually appealing.”
That’s not to say that wainscoting still doesn’t live up to its time-honored tradition as a wall shield.
“It’s used today to protect walls from damage or cover areas where damage has occurred, provide architectural interest and add color contrast to walls,” said interior designer Ivee Fromkin.
Aaron Everitt, lead designer with Woodwol, agrees.
“Wainscoting’s benefits today are that it gives a basic wall an inviting look that delineates the space,” said Everitt, “providing opportunities for colors and textures to add interest.”
Areas that best profit from this strategy include dining rooms, living rooms, studies/dens, entryways, hallways, powder rooms, mud rooms and “spaces that showcase the beautiful architectural elements of a home, such as around an arched doorway,” said interior desinger Vicky Serany.
You can add wainscoting as an accent wall from floor to ceiling in a master bedroom, too, “where it can also serve as a headboard,” James said.
Many different materials are chosen for wainscoting projects nowadays, including medium-density fiberboard (MDF), wood, stone, tile, embossed metal or stone and PVC. MDF or wood panels are often tongue-and-groove type that can be installed vertically or horizontally.
Everitt says three main types of wainscot materials dominate the market currently: paint-driven — often made of MDF, which can be painted to match the trim or a complementary color in the room; texture-driven — featuring reclaimed wood or other substances that add topographical character and warmth to a space; and hardwood and formal-stained wood — to conform to tradition and add formality and richness to an area.
Popular patterns include raised, flat, recessed, shaker, beadboard, overlay, board and batten and shiplap. Depending on the materials, it can be painted, wallpapered, textured, stained or installed as-is, according to Fromkin.
“Wainscoting today starkly contrasts from the paneling of the past,” Serany said. “Elevated by natural materials, contemporary patterns and painted hues that complement the rest of the home, it’s not surprising that wainscoting has risen in popularity, as there are more design options now to truly make each installation custom.”
Traditionally, wainscoting was installed across the bottom quarter or third of the wall, including the cap or top molding. But the old rules have been thrown out, and now homeowners are taking wainscoting higher — sometimes covering the entire wall.
“It can be as unique as you want it to be,” said James.