Wainscoting 101

Wainscoting (pronounced “waynes coating”) is a decorative wall trim on the lower portion of an interior wall. Capped with a chair rail on top and a baseboard on the bottom. Between is usually a combination of decorative boards or paneling and moldings. Although wainscoting has been used in homes for centuries, the reasons for using it have changed dramatically.

shadow box wainscot

Wainscot Through the Centuries

Today, it’s used to add depth, dimension and character to a room. It’s also a convenient way to protect walls from scuffs! Milled plywood, plastic and MDF (medium-density fiberboard) are common materials in modern design. However, traditionally, wainscoting required heavier materials like solid oak. That’s because it’s original use in 13th-century was purely functional – to keep cold and dampness out of homes. Heavy woods like oak repel moisture rather than absorbing it, which made it perfect for insulation.

While the purpose and materials might have changed through the centuries, there are some primary styles that we think have stood the test of time.

Three Main Styles

Wainscoting comes in a variety of panel options and patterns, so it makes it easy to find a style that fits your decor. The three main styles of wainscoting are beadboard, shadow boxes, and flat or raised panel.


Beadboard is basically planks that locks together in a tongue and groove fitting and have a “bead” in between the panels. It comes in a variety of materials and has many decorative uses. It tends to give a rustic or chic look and can usually be found in country- and beach-style homes.

diagram of beadboard wainscot

This is a relatively inexpensive option for wainscoting, and can sometimes be a DIY project. However, room choice and plank width is key here. Typically, beadboard looks best in close-quarter spaces like bathrooms, entries, or utility rooms.

Shadow Boxes

Shadow boxes start with a solid base and have pieces of trim framed on top. The base is usually either the wall itself or solid wood. You’ll likely see this in antique mission-style homes.

diagram of traditional wainscoting

Shadow boxes are slightly more expensive because of the installation process, which requires that the individual trim pieces fit together uniformly. While this style can turn ordinary into extraordinary, it’s important to use deliberately. Shadow box wainscoting typically looks best in hallways, living rooms, and offices.

side angle view of shadow box wainscoting

Check out our project Classic Neat Remodel that features shadow box wainscoting.

Flat or Raised Panel

These are the two most traditional styles of wainscoting. However, it’s also where people can be the most creative. Flat panel wainscot is characterized by panels set behind stiles and rails. Raised panel wainscot is characterized by panels set in front of stiles or rails. You’ll commonly see this in Colonial style homes.

diagram of raised panel wainscot

These styles usually require the most effort (and sometimes, the most money). Why? Because they are typically custom woodworking projects that require a lot of material. It’s all carefully measured, designed and handcrafted – just for you. Believe it or not, one wall can contain over 100 pieces of individual trim pieces. But the end result is well worth it, and often works best in kitchens, offices, and dining rooms.

natural wainscoting in office

Check out our project Walnut Bathroom that features unique flat panel wainscoting.

So, now you hopefully know a bit more about wainscoting. Do you recognize any of these styles or have any of them in your home? Let us know below!

If you’re ready for a change but don’t know where to start, we can help! Drop us a line here.

Check out the articles below to read more on styles, designs and more: