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What Is Wainscoting? Pros, Cons, and Costs of This Trendy Wall Decor

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Many homeowners and interior designers appreciate these wooden panels for their ability to make any room look a little more buttoned up. It’s a decorative wall trim that’s never really been seen as a home decor “don’t,” likely due to its versatility—there’s a type of panel that suits just about every design style.

Here are some details on where the heck this trend came from, and (more importantly) the many ways wainscoting can be used to boost your home’s interior appeal.

By Cathie Ericson | Oct 17, 2021

What is wainscoting and what is it used for?

Wainscoting started out in the 18th century as a wall covering used to help insulate a room and provides a more durable surface than a painted Sheetrock wall.

Photo by Upside Development

The height of this detail can vary depending on your rooms’ designs and the look you are trying to achieve.

According to Barbara Mount of Barbara Mount Designs and Windermere Realty Group, in Lake Oswego, OR, wainscoting often goes up as high as 5 feet for more impact. It can also be taken up well beyond chair-rail height—most of the way up the wall for an extra layer of protection, leaving the top 2 feet for paint or accent wallpaper.

Wainscoting comes in a wide variety of materials

Today’s wainscoting designs run the gamut of wood products. Depending on the value of the home, some contractors will use medium-density fiberboard, an engineered product also known as pressed wood—a fine, cost-effective choice for any room except those with water, says Mount.

“If you want this paneling element in a bathroom or kitchen, use real wood because it will hold up to spatters and spills,” she adds.

Another choice in bathrooms and other areas prone to moisture is wainscoting made from ceramic tile, which appeals because it is nonporous and easy to clean.

Photo by C&M Woodworking

If you’re going for that shabby chic, rustic farmhouse look in a kitchen or den, you might want to consider beadboard wainscoting, which is historically made from a series of vertical plywood planks separated by half-rounded vertical grooves, or “beads.”

Another option you can choose to create your wainscot look is shiplap, which uses a horizontal pattern of interlocking boards.

“While in the past white shiplap has been on-trend, painted shiplap can give a room a much different look if you’re not going for that country feel,” says Nikki James, studio manager for Ashton Woods, a homebuilding company in Dallas.

Other iterations of this trim include PVC plastic, embossed metal, and molded drywall—any of which can add texture and style to a room.

Wainscoting is a versatile trim for many rooms

Traditional wainscot designs in white or dark shades can add sophisticated trim, with either straight or beveled edges, to a living room, dining room, or study.

Mount’s favorite uses for this panel treatment are in an entryway and along stair walls, as these spaces typically lack architectural interest.

James loves wainscoting panels or beadboard designs in the powder room.

“Most of your guests will see this room during their visit.” she says.  

To achieve a less formal look, Hairston recommends painting wainscoting panels an accent color rather than the conventional white.

The one look to avoid? Installing wainscoting all the way up to the ceiling for a full wall of brown paneling, which is too reminiscent of the ’70s-era rec room, say experts. If you’re dying to install trim near the ceiling, consider crown molding.

Is wainscoting expensive?

Wainscoting is a valuable investment from a design standpoint as it can add value and warmth to your space. That said, the cost of this wall treatment can vary greatly depending on the substance it’s made from, the type of panel used, the height (whether to chair-rail level or higher), room size, and local market conditions.

Hairston recommends manufactured wainscoting panels as the most cost-effective, ranging from $8 to $10 per panel. Hardwood panels are higher in price, with costs varying by wood species, but professionals estimate $12 to $20 per square foot for average quality. Higher wood grades and intricate designs will run about $40 per square foot.

“Installing wainscot paneling can certainly be done as a DIY project, provided the user is skilled in precise measurements and knows their way around a chop saw,” Hairston says. However, typically she will recommend you call on a skilled carpenter to install it. She recommends sourcing a local installer from the National Association of the Remodeling Industry site.

Labor costs for wainscoting vary based on local conditions, the scope of the project, and the materials, but she recommends a ballpark installation budget of about $2 to $4 per square foot for an average dining room.


Cathie Ericson writes about real estate, finance, and health. She lives in Portland, OR.

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