In early house building, homes often suffered from something called “rising damp” – a wicking effect caused by poor drainage or construction upon damp ground. The lower sections of walls required reinforcement, either with wooden panels or tongue-in-groove slats called beadboard. In an effort to make this a decorative effect or camouflage the differences in the lower and upper parts of the wall, a strip of molding capped the panels, which also prevented chairs from damaging the wall.
While the problems of “rising damp” have largely been eliminated, the effect of wainscoting remains a popular design element. Many materials are now used, from oak to tile to laminated particle board. Beadboard is still popular, although nowadays it is rarely made from individual tongue-and-groove slats but more likely a sheet of MDF or plywood impressed with the pattern is used.
A piece of decorative molding still caps off the panels, and is often referred to as a “chair rail” in reference to its protective feature.
One source states that early wainscoting was made from wooden wagon siding, a plentiful commodity, which is why it was used so frequently in people’s homes.
Installation Techniques Vary According to Materials
Depending upon several factors, the installation of wainscoting can be simple or complicated. If the intent is simply to provide a decorative visual contrast between the lower section of a wall and the upper section, a homeowner might use a patterned wallpaper above, and a textured paint below, separated by a half-round strip of molding painted in a co-ordinating color. Going a bit farther from simple to more involved, the bottom section could be papered or covered in fabric, such as burlap (for a casual look) or polyester silk moiré for a formal effect. Because this is the part of the wall that receives the most wear, tear and fingerprints, applying a protective finish to the fabric is advised.
If the lower part of the wall will contain joints, patched drywall or plaster, mended cracks, or stains, a more permanent wainscoting might be a better choice. Economical solutions could include recycled raised-panel doors, veneer-finished plywood panels, MDF panels, etc. There are even pre-manufactured kits available which a do-it-yourselfer could install without a lot of difficulty.
Wainscoting heights vary, depending on use, materials, and the age of the structure. Some are only extensions of the upper edge of the baseboard. Others end approximately 1/3 to ½ of the distance from baseboard to ceiling, from 48″ to 54″. Homes built between the late 18th and early 19th century carried the height somewhat higher, which was revived in the late 19th and early 20th century home construction styles.
High-end Treatments Require Fine Craftsmanship
Where money and time are no objects, perhaps in the restoration of an historic structure or a high-end traditional home, installing ceramic or porcelain tile is an option. This is expensive and requires craftsmanship that is not always locally available, but in small sections might be a very successful decorative element. Using the historically accurate tongue and groove board also requires installation by an expert, but will look very handsome when completed.
Arts & Crafts bungalows frequently used quarter-sawn oak paneling that reached to within one or two feet of the ceiling, topped by a wide rail which held plates or paintings. This is called a “plate rail” rather than a “chair rail.” Perhaps the design was meant to mimic the look of a medieval castle?