DIY Wainscot Paneling

With a recent renovation project that added a bathroom and reinvented another, a doorway in the kitchen was moved. That left a wall only half-covered with tongue and groove wainscot panels:
Using discarded tongue and groove from the bathroom project and some other pieces we refined to make our top and bottom edges, we were able to create our own custom wainscot panels for free.

Here's a simple step-by-step guide if you'd like to give this a go—it's a great way to dress up any room.

Wainscot Paneling

  • Basic hand tools
  • Circular saw
  • Jigsaw
  • Pneumatic finish nail gun to complete this project
  • Table saw
Step-By-Step Instructions
1. Allow your wood to acclimate. Stack the wood in your room about a week before you start installing it so it has time to adjust to the humidity level in your home.

2. Prep your space. We removed the existing panels so that all our boards would be uniform. Protect tile, wood and vinyl floors with two layers of heavy paper or cardboard taped down. Cover carpeted floors with canvas dropcloths.
 3. Install the baseboard. A radial arm saw or sliding miter saw works best for cutting baseboard, but you can make perfect cuts with a circular saw, too. Install a sharp blade and clamp a square to the board as a saw guide. A giant speed square also makes a great saw guide. For a great-looking job, arrange the boards for the best color and grain match before you make the final cuts, especially on boards that must be spliced to cover a long wall. If your floors are unusually wavy or out of level, trim the bottom of the boards to fit the contour of the floor. They don't have to fit perfectly. Base shoe molding will cover gaps up to 3/8 in. Arrange baseboard around the room so the grain pattern and color of adjoining pieces match as closely as possible. Rough-cut the boards a few inches longer than needed. Then cut the boards to exact length and nail them to each stud with two 2-1/2 in. nails.
4. Glue and nail the paneling. Figure out approximately how many full-length tongue-and-groove boards you'll need and cut them to your desired height. Don't assume the boards have a perfectly square mill-cut end. First trim one end square, then cut it to length. Use a level to make sure the first board is plumb before you glue and nail it. You may have to plane a bit from the top or bottom of the groove side to fit a board against out-of-plumb door or window trim. Apply glue to the back of each piece of wood, then drive nails into the drywall hold the boards firmly until the glue dries. If you run across a board that's bowed or crooked, save it for a spot where there's a stud mark so you can bend it straight and nail it to solid wood. In this situation, or at corners or other tight spots, it's OK to nail through the face of the board. Fill the nail holes with matching putty after the first coat of finish. Don't worry if the tops of the boards don't line up perfectly; you'll cover them later with the cap and shelf. Add new pieces of wainscot by pushing the grooved edge onto the tongue of piece already applied.

5. Notch around any electrical outlets. Notch the boards to fit around electrical boxes. Don't forget to make a small notch for the outlet screws—it's hard to do after the paneling is in place. The electrical code requires that electrical boxes be flush with wood paneling. You could move the boxes out, but this would be a big job. Instead, buy box extensions, available at hardware stores and home centers, and install them before you reinstall the switches and receptacles.
6. Space boards for an even corner fit. Measure from the corner to the edge of the board, excluding the tongue, to determine the width of the last board. Measure every 12 inches along the corner and mark these dimensions on the final board. Connect the marks to create a cutting line.
7. Install your wainscot chair rail. The Wainscot chair rail is applied by nailing on 16” centers. Nail into studs whenever possible for strength.

 8. Prime and paint. Remember to tape off your lines!

Got a great DIY idea you'd like to share? E-mail us at

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.