DIY Wainscoting Tutorial

As much as we all love and admire older homes that are full of character, intricate woodwork, and lots of architectural details…most of us don’t live in homes like that.  Instead, we occupy homes that were slapped together sometime in the last 40 years by builders that were looking to make a quick buck, not go down in history for their carpentry skills.  Most of us have to add architectural interest to our builder basic homes while we’re living in them, on a tight budget.  Today’s guest blogger is offering us a tutorial on DIY wainscoting.  Here’s a look at the before and after:

Wainscoting collage

Looks amazing, right?  Adding molding and wainscoting, beefing up baseboards, or inserting other trims into your spaces is a great way to customize the look of your rooms and add lots of visual interest.  Doing so takes some planning and careful measuring, but it’s one of the easier and less expensive big-impact changes you can make within your home.  Here are some examples from around the web:

The Nester board batten

Board & Batten at Nesting Place

House of Smiths beadboard ceiling

Beaded Board Ceiling at The House of Smiths

Decor Chick panelled wall

Panelled Bedroom Wall at Decor Chick

Tatertots & Jello horizontal planks

Horizontal Plank Paneling at Tatertots & Jello

Tidbits from the Tremaynes door frames

Trim-ified Door frames at Tidbits from the Tremaynes

One of our readers, John, was kind enough to prepare a detailed tutorial for us on  how he added wainscoting to the walls of his dining room.  It’s full of excellent tips for making the finished product look professional.

Submitted by: Our Home from Scratch

How to Add Raised Panel Wainscoting to your Home

by John of Our Home from Scratch

After moving into our new construction home two years ago, my wife, Lisa, and I have been gradually adding character through DIY projects to give our home a more custom look. Our favorite project to date is the raised panel wainscoting we built from scratch and installed in our dining room. While I wouldn’t consider it a beginner-level project, it can be completed with a modest amount of carpentry skills and a few weekends of free time.

1 raised panel wainscoting remodelaholic

Tools you’ll need: Miter Saw, Table Saw, Pocket Screw Jig, Finish Nailer, Brad nailer, level, router table, raised panel router bit, window sill router bit

Material Required: 1″x4″, 1″x6″ and 1″x10″ poplar boards, MDF, bolection molding

Time Required: Plan on a couple hours worth of planning and a few weekends worth of work.

I first learned how to apply this treatment after reading an article by Gary Striegler in Fine Woodworking some years ago. For our home, we modified the process he described and the overall look to achieve something more tailored to our home and our taste. If you are able, you may also vary this process to get your own custom look.

Part I: Plan Layout

The hardest part of this job isn’t the woodworking it’s planning the layout. The goal of this step is to determine the dimensions of all the wood you’re going to be installing. If done properly, you’ll know exactly how big each panel section should be and how much material you’ll need to buy. You should aim to keep each panel section the same size on one wall, but not all the panels in the room need to be the exact same size. Do try to keep them all within an inch or two though. In other words, don’t have one wall with four or five differently sized panels, if you pick 25″ in width for example, they should all be 25″ in width on that wall. For the other walls in the room, try to keep the panels within an inch or two of 25″. Exceptions to this rule are for short wall sections where only one panel will fit or under windows.

To make this step easier, you can also use a spreadsheet program like MS Excel to keep track of your measurements and if you decide to make changes say to the number of panels, it can update the rest of your math automatically.

2 rails and stiles remodelaholic

Panel Height

First, start with the longest wall in the room. Pick the height that you would like the top of the wainscoting to be. We chose 36″ for ours, but you are free to pick whatever works for you. For our dining room, we used a 1″x10″ board as the base of the wainscoting and used a 4″ wide board to sit on top of the panels. So, now you have your bottom and top boards. Add those two width values and then subtract it from 36″ and you’ll have your panel heights. In our dining room, it was 9.25″ + 4″ = 13.25″. Subtracting 13.25″ from 36″ leaves 22.75″ for the panels.

Panel Width

Each panel has a stile board on either side of it. Choose what stile width you’d like. We used 3.5″ for ours since that’s a regular 1″x4″ board from any home improvement store. Then measure the length of the longest wall. Ideally, the walls should have an odd number of panels, but it’s not necessary. How many panels would you like on that long wall? Say for example you chose four panels and your wall is 100″ long. You’ll need five stiles (# of panels +1), so every panel has a board to its left and right. Multiply five by your stile width (3.5″) then subtract that from 100″. The remainder is the space left over for the panels, in this example it’s 82.5″. Divide 82.5″ by the number of panels (4) and you get your panel widths, which in this example is 20.7.”

Your panel heights are going to be the same everywhere in the room. Your widths may change subtly from wall to wall as previously mentioned. Now you can take those dimensions and figure out how much wood to purchase. We used poplar boards for our application since it’s relatively inexpensive and a great hardwood. It’s not a good species for staining, but it’s perfect for paint, which is our finish choice here. The actual panels are cut from MDF (medium density fiberboard). It’s perfect for painting and can be bought in large 4’x8′ sheets from home improvement stores.

Part II: Installation

With our layout done and the material purchased, it’s time to get started. I think it’s easier to do the installation in stages: Build and install the frames, cut and mount the MDF panels, trim and paint.

3 pocket screw joint remodelaholic 4 poplar frame remodelaholic 5 poplar frame 2nd wall remodelaholic

The frames consist of the top board, the stiles and the bottom baseboard. They are all assembled together using a Kreg Jig, pocket screws and wood glue. Just use the dimensions of the stiles and the panel widths you calculated to locate where each stile gets placed. Ideally, you should be able to build each frame section as one whole unit, but longer walls may require you to break them up into smaller, more easily managed sections. The completed frames can be glued and nailed onto the wall with a finish nailer after you’ve leveled them. Install the frame sections for every wall before you move onto the MDF panels.

6 mdf panel installation remodelaholic 7 wide shot wainscoting remodelaholic 8 mdf panels installed remodelaholic

The MDF panels can be cut out of the large sheets using a table saw or circular saw. Be sure to use a respirator and to cut outdoors as MDF contains harmful inhalable particles. Even though we measured the panel sizes earlier, they actually need to be about an 1″ or so smaller than their respective frame openings to allow for the bolection molding. Once they are all cut out, the edges need to be shaped with a raised panel router bit. If you don’t have one, you may be able to find a local shop that could do that for you. The panels can then be centered, glued and nailed into place. Treat the fuzzy MDF edges with a glue and water mixture then a wood filler and water mixture to make it smooth and paintable.

9 bolection molding remodelaholic 10 trim installed remodelaholic

The bolection molding we used is from White River Moldings and is part number PM505. It can be ordered through online vendors or local millwork companies and it is available in poplar. The molding simply wraps around the opening of the panel like a picture frame. It connects the MDF panel to the poplar frame. You need to cut the molding with a miter saw and shim it up to make sure the corners meet properly. The shim needs to be as thick as the distance between the MDF panel and the poplar frame. The entire wainscoting can be capped with either a stock piece of trim from a local home improvement store or you can whip one up yourself. We used a window sill router bit to make ours. Keep it simple.

11 wainscoting dining room remodelaholic

After lightly sanding all the poplar, we primed our wainscoting with a sprayable primer and then followed with two coats of regular semi-gloss latex trim paint. We wanted the paint to match our existing trim color.

12 dining room before wainscoting remodelaholic 13 raised panel wainscoting after remodelaholic

Custom Raised Panel Wainscoting may be a challenge for your average DIYer, but if you can pull it off, it’s worth the effort.

John and Lisa blog about their home improvement projects at Our Home from Scratch. More than “Before and After”, they have an emphasis on sharing the process from start to finish, while sharing lessons learned along the way.

Thanks for sharing this tutorial with us, John!  I love the way your dining room turned out.  I’m sure it will inspire other Remodelaholics to pull out their measuring tapes and get to work!

Looking for more inspiration?  Here are some past posts from Remodelaholic you may enjoy:

Remodelaholic Collage

1. Powder Room Transformed with Molding  | 2. Fake Fireplace  | 3. Addig Built-Ins to a Bathroom


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  1. Love this tutorial. One day when we move to a house with a closed in exclusive dining room I’ll be using this tutorial! 🙂

  2. GORGEOUS! I love this look so much! I really want to buy an ugly old farmhouse and refinish it with touches such as these!

  3. This is really great. I had a question for you. I saw that you built the frames before putting them on the wall. Could you frame directly on the wall, i.e., put the baseboard on the wall, then the stiles, then the top rail? Or would that not work as well for some reason? Thanks!

  4. How large is your room and how much did this project end up costing you? We’re really thinking about doing something like this and want to see if we can afford to do it this way.

    1. Hi Marlena! This tutorial is from a guest, so if you’ll click the link to his blog (toward the top of the post) then you can ask there. Thanks!

  5. Lovely…I have a but. Lovely BUT please get taller, fuller drapes. I always marvel that most store bought drapes are only 84″ long and that most people only buy one set regardless of window width. If these panels were doubled up and the rod height moved up (to between the crown and top of window frame) it would be a visual game changer even bigger than the new panel mould. IMHO. I know, no one likes a know it all but it’s so true. Down with 84″ panels!

  6. How did you get the MDF panels raised? Did you cut this yourself? Or did your order these? If you cut yourself, how you’d you do it?


  7. I have a 13″ Jet molder/planer. I am trying to cut MDF for some casing and crown. I can’t get it to cut without being a bit fuzzy. I have new blades, and my speed is 10 fpm. I’m cutting it out of 3/4″ material. I’ve tried taking a small final pass hoping that would help clean it up. Any help would appreciated.

  8. Great Blog. It is our first time here and you can bet we will be back. Good, thorough and perfectly easy to understand.
    Thank you so much.