Wainscoting Is One of the Easiest Room Details to Get Wrong

updated May 3, 2019
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(Image credit: Anik Polo)

Let’s talk about wainscoting. Wainscoting is one of our favorite ways to dress up a boring or unremarkable room, to give it an instant dose of old-world style. But it can also be an easy detail to get wrong. Specifically, a lot of people struggle with how far up the wall the wainscoting should be hung—an important detail that makes a huge difference in the look of the finished application. Here’s what you need to know.

Proportion is Key

The first thing you need to know is: There is no one height that wainscoting should be hung, because the appropriate height depends on the height of the room. It’s all about proportions.

(Image credit: Esteban Cortez)

When in Doubt, Use the Rule of Thirds

The second thing you need to know is: Stick to the rule of thirds. A good general rule for the height of a wainscot is that it be a third of the way up the wall. In a room that’s nine feet tall, for example, this would put the height of the wainscoting at three feet. Want to shake things up with a much taller wainscot? Try one that covers the bottom two-thirds of the wall.

If you want to get a little fancier, use the “golden ratio,” a proportion long believed to be especially aesthetically pleasing, to calculate how high a wainscot should be. There’s even a golden ratio calculator to make things easier for you. You’ll probably wind up pretty close to the rule of thirds, but at least you’ll be on the side of centuries of mathematicians, artists and architects who’ve also used this magic in their work.

(Image credit: Adrienne Breaux)

One More Consideration

Gary Katz, writing for This is Carpentry, points out that wainscoting is an element that derives from classical architecture. After delving a bit into the subject, he offers an answer to the question of how high a wainscot should be: whatever works best for the room.

This may seem frustratingly inexact, until he goes on to point out that, in many classically inspired homes, the height of the wainscot is the same as the height of the windowsills. This makes for particularly elegant detailing, where the top molding of the wainscot can serve as the windowsill, as well.

Of course, this isn’t always possible: Some rooms have windows with sills at different heights, or windows who sills are far too close to the floor. But it’s a good thing to keep in mind. Also consider that, if the height of the wainscot is too close to the height of the windowsill (either above or below), you may wind up with a very awkward-looking window treatment.

(Image credit: Esteban Cortez)

Try Before You Buy

Now that we’ve looked at all this (somewhat conflicting) advice, my best words of wisdom are: Mock it up. Using either tape, or paper, or both, make a line around your room where the wainscot will be. Do the proportions feel comfortable? Does the line intersect with any features in the room that will need to be considered? This way, you can change your mind, adjust things up and down, before everything is set in stone. Er, wood.