Before and After: A Designer Gives His Boring White Walls the Hip, Cozy Cabin Treatment on the Cheap

updated May 24, 2021
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Designer Max Humphrey's living room before
Credit: Courtesy of Max Humphrey

Sometimes the best flip to buy is one that hasn’t been fully realized, particularly if you’re an interior designer looking to put your own stamp on a home. For designer Max Humphrey, a house of this sort eluded him until 2016, when he finally found the perfect property: a ’70s ranch style home that was move-in ready without being full of all new everything. “The house was fine but very vanilla and had boring fixtures and finishes, no personality, and an awkward floor plan,” says Humphrey, who just released his first book, “Modern Americana,” a field guide for crafting rustic yet urban, old meets new interiors.

Little by little — to stretch his budget and to complete construction while still living in his home — he set his sights on turning his suburban slice of Portland into a Americana-inspired cabin, a decorating endeavor anchored by the wooden panelings he DIYed in almost every room of his home. “The goal was to eliminate any trace of drywall and fully clad my house in knotty pine and cedar,” he says.

Credit: Dibble Photo

To that end, Humphrey kicked things off with a trip to The Home Depot, where he landed on an off-the-shelf knotty pine that came in packs of planks. “I wanted a material I could install directly onto the drywall, and the stuff I found is super thin, which means I didn’t have to remove door and window casings,” he says. “They’re tongue-and-groove, so you attach one to the wall to start and then keep going on down the wall.” For installation, he used a combination of Liquid nails and a cordless nail gun to mount each piece to the wall, working sometimes just a few feet of board at a time.

Not one to forget the fifth wall, Humphrey also ordered cedar tongue-and-groove planks in longer lengths (12 feet) for the ceiling and installed them the same way. “It was a bit of a learning curve at first, since I had to buy specific tools to finish the job (the aforementioned nail gun) and figure out trickier spots like corners and cutting around lights and outlets,” he says. “The panels I installed on the first part of the house are definitely a little more off-kilter than areas done later after I hit my groove.”

Credit: Courtesy of Max Humphrey

Calculating how many materials you’ll need and ordering everything ahead of time might seem necessary. But Humphrey did his shopping piecemeal IRL, sans any grand calculations, for a couple of reasons. First, working at a rate of a few boxes of planks at a time meant less material on hand taking up space in his home. More importantly, personally picking out your materials makes quality control a lot easier. “I actually preferred this since it was inexpensive wood, and because of that, a lot of the boards were bent or banged up,” Humphrey says. “If I had them delivered, I would have to go deal with swapping them out anyway.”   

Humphrey estimates spending about $4,000 on materials for his wall and ceiling coverings total, and that figure represents roughly his whole 1,000-square-foot house save two small guest bedrooms. He even used pine on the walls in his bathroom and kitchen, so moisture shouldn’t deter you from trying this idea in those kinds of spaces either.

Credit: Dibble Photo

Just imagine how much bang you’d get for your buck if you installed paneling like this in only one or two rooms — or on a feature wall in a bedroom or living area? It’s an inexpensive, easy way to add tons of warmth and rustic charm to builder basic walls and ceilings. You can also play with proportions, too, as Humphrey did in the bathroom, using wood as a wall treatment in combination with a subway tile wainscoting that’s laid in horizontal rows using a vertical, stack bond configuration. The result is a graphic and modern bath that still retains some softness, thanks to the tile colorway and stain selections.

Now Humphrey’s rooms have gone from boring white boxes to visually interesting spaces, thanks at least in part to the architectural interest the wood paneling adds. “I like how the cedar ceiling smells and how all my art and vintage junk looks up against the pine walls,” says the designer. “I also love that I managed to DIY it because that gives me so much more satisfaction than hiring someone, even if the end result is a little wonky.”