Chair rail molding and wainscoting add visual interest to a room while fulfilling a practical purpose too – protecting the walls from rub marks and gouges caused by the backs of chairs. Won’t chairs mark the rails and wainscoting? Yes, but their material is generally harder than drywall, so more resistant to damage, and these materials are easily touched up or re-stained or painted.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WAINSCOT AND A CHAIR RAIL?
The terms wainscot and chair rail are sometimes used interchangeably. To be sure, wainscoting is a type of chair rail. However, for our purposes here, we are differentiating wainscoting as large panels vs a chair rail as a single or separate piece of molding with “bare” wall or another material beneath it.
WHAT IS CHAIR RAIL MOLDING?
Chair rail molding is a horizontal wooden molding attached to the wall at “chair height” that is decorative and also can protect your walls from chairs or other furniture.
Chair rail is often used in dining rooms, offices, dens, living rooms and kitchens. The average height of most chair backs is 30 inches high, and chair rail of various widths is typically installed with the top side 30 to 36 inches from the floor.
The room’s ceiling height might play a role in chair rail height and width. In short, the higher the ceiling, the further from the floor the chair rail should be. And to properly cover the wall space where chair backs would hit it, the chair rail must often be wider in rooms with 10-foot and higher ceilings.
The molding that is used for chair rail is generally 2 to 6 inches wide, and it is produced in many different styles.
WHAT IS WAINSCOT?
Wainscoting is a wooden paneling that is installed along the lower part of the interior walls. It is a way to give your rooms more depth and make them more aesthetically pleasing. Wainscoting is often used in formal rooms of the home, such as grand entryways, dining rooms and living rooms where guests are entertained.
There are many different styles or types of wainscoting, such as flat panel, overlay panel, board and batten, and beadboard. The average height of wainscoting off the floor is between 30 and 54 inches high, but there is a current trend of wainscoting extending higher with hooks for entryways and back hall areas.
There are many different types of wainscoting available. Below are the most common types of wainscoting, starting with the most basic and affordable, you can put on your interior walls:
- Board and batten
- Flat panel
- Raised panel
Installing chair rail is a relatively easy task that can be done by a handy DIYer in a weekend. There are minimal tools and materials needed for the installation process. Basically, all you need to do is the following to properly install chair rail in your home:
- Measure ⅓ of the way up the wall, which is usually between 30 and 36 inches, and use a chalk line with a level to ensure that the line is level on the wall. Before installing the chair rail, does the line look at the proper height for your ceiling? If not, now is the time to lower or raise it.
Tip: A 6-foot level – or as long a level as you can get your hands on – will produce the most level line. If you have access to a laser level, that’s even more precise.
- Cut the molding of your choice to the proper length of the wall.
Tip: If the wall is longer than your longest piece of molding, use a miter saw to cut multiple pieces and create a joint.
- Locate studs in the wall with a stud finder – and mark them. Attach the molding to the studs by using a nail gun with trim nails or brads or by hand using trim/finish nails.
Tip: Glue is sometimes recommended/used with the nails for a more secure fit. But if glue will bond to the drywall and pull off the drywall paper when removed. Avoid glue – nails in studs should be sufficient.
- Use wood putty to fill the nail holes, and then stain the wood or prime and paint it.
Tip: Some decorators prefer to stain or paint the chair rail or wainscoting prior to installation to eliminate the possibility of getting stain or paint on the wall.
Wainscoting is more difficult to install and will take much more time, when compared to a chair rail. It will take about 15 hours for an experienced contractor to put wainscoting on a 12 by 12 room. Due to the complexity of this task, many recommend that wainscoting be installed by a licensed carpenter.
Chair rail molding is much more affordable to purchase and install compared to wainscoting, since it only consists of a single section of molding attached to the wall between 30 and 36 inches above the floor.
You can expect to pay between $3 and $6 per linear foot for the materials and labor. This price can go up, though, if you choose a higher grade or more expensive species of wood such as walnut or an exotic wood and/or a fancier molding style.
This price includes the material and the installation costs. You can save $1.25 to $2.00 per foot by DIY.
Wainscoting is more expensive to purchase and install because there is much more material and the installation takes longer.
The average price is between $15 and $25 per square foot for the materials and labor. Flat panel wainscoting runs between $7 and $10 per square foot and beadboard costs $7 to $20 per square foot.
The average cost for the labor from a licensed contractor is $90 per hour, so the larger the room, the more expensive labor costs will be.
Since chair rails and wainscoting are both usually made out of wood, they need to be properly maintained to prolong the lifespan of each. This maintenance consists of painting, sealing, or staining the molding or panels and also keeping the wood free from water or moisture. If the chair rail or wainscoting is made from PVC, then the lifespan increases, as does the durability. PVC can crack, though, which will lead to replacing the panels or a length of molding.
Wood is one of the most sustainable building materials, especially when the wood is sourced from properly managed forests. As a result, wood chair rail and wainscoting have little negative impact on the environment. PVC, however, is not environmentally friendly. Even though PVC is extremely durable, it releases toxic chemicals into the air during the production process and the disposal process. And there is much more energy used in its manufacturing.
Chair rail and wainscoting can be used in all types of climates throughout the United States without any negative issues – with precautions. Since both types of wall coverings are generally constructed out of wood, they can be susceptible to:
- Moisture and water, which can lead to warping or rotting. If you live in the southeast US, you likely have central air conditioning to remove humidity. If not, in time you might find that wood rail or wainscoting that isn’t properly sealed is warping, showing water staining or becoming discolored.
- Drying out and cracking, which can occur in homes where winters are extremely cold and the home isn’t well sealed. In these homes, warm, moist air can escape only to be replaced by cold, drier air (cold air holds less moisture). The result is a very dry home, and dry wood chair rail and wainscoting can crack in such conditions. The use of a humidifier with the aim of a relative humidity of 35% to 45% is ideal for wood.
A chair rail, which is more affordable because it requires less material and labor, is an understated addition to the room. It is functional in nature with a nice aesthetic bonus.
Wainscoting covers much more wall, and so it can become a focal point of the room. The larger panels in many styles offer more opportunities for creativity and customization of the room to your preferred design.