Wainscoting with Shelf

Adding wainscoting to a room can do a lot to dress it up, making the home look richer. Wealthy people have used it for years to make their homes stand out. Others don’t bother to, because of the expected high cost of the wainscoting. But if you do the wainscoting yourself, you can install it for as little as about a dollar per square foot.

Of course, a lot will depend on the materials you choose to use and the style you want to end up with. Solid hardwood wainscot is going to be expensive, no matter what you do. But painted wainscot can be made of lower cost materials, like MDF, saving a lot of money.

Originally, wainscoting served two purposes, to provide more insulation, by making a wall thicker (even though it isn’t good insulation) and to protect the wall from damage. But modern homes don’t need the wainscot for either of these purposes, even a chair rail is not considered necessary to protect the walls. Nevertheless, adding wainscot is still worth doing, giving you a way of making boring drywall walls look much more appealing.

Wainscot almost always incorporates a chair rail at the top edge. This also had a purpose, protecting the wall from damage caused by people pushing their chairs back into it. That sort of damage can still happen today, with drywall walls. While drywall is easier to repair than plaster is, it is hard to hide the damage and can be even harder to match the paint.

If you’re going to go through the trouble of installing wainscoting, then adding a shelf at the top isn’t much additional work. In fact, with some of the chair rail moldings currently available, it’s just a matter of trimming out the top of the wainscot with one molding, rather than another.

Adding a shelf at the top of the wainscot provides a space to set pictures or small collectibles. Families who have a lot of either may want to install wainscoting with a shelf, just to gain the extra display space. In a game room, it provides someplace to set a drink or snack. But if a home has small children, that shelf will need to be out of their reach, keeping little hands away from things which are easily broken.

Wainscoting Design

Typically, wainscoting is installed to go about 1/3 of the way up the wall, so 30” to 32” in a home with 8’ ceilings. An alternate design is to install wainscoting 2/3 of the way up the wall, so that a high shelf can be made. This puts the shelf at 5’ to 6’ off the floor, a nice height for displaying items, but not enough height for putting pictures, so it’s important to think through what will be displayed on the shelf, before building the wainscot.

There are five basic styles of wainscoting that can be installed in a home, with one variation that can be added to any of them:

  • Wall paneled – Rails and stiles are mounted on the wall, with the drywall itself being used as the center panel. The drywall can either be painted to match the color used on the rails and stiles or left painted the color of the upper part of the wall. 
  • Flat Paneled – Similar to Wall Paneled, this method adds a smooth board, something like thin ¼” thick hardwood plywood to fill the panel area. Flat paneled wainscot is popular when the wainscot is made of hardwood, but a simple style is desired. 
  • Raised Panels – Taking their name and their style from raised panel doors, these use a panel which is shaped along the edges, so that the center part can be raised. Usually it is at the same level as the rails and stiles, although some people prefer it higher. 
  • Overlay Panel – This is a combination of flat panel and raised panel wainscoting. A flat panel wainscot is installed, and then raised panels are attached, centered on the flat panels, with enough space all around to distinguish between the overlay and the flat panel. 
  • Beaded Panel – Like Flat Paneled wainscoting, this uses a flat board to fill the panel area. The difference is that the flat board used is tongue-in-groove beaded paneling strips. This gives an older, “country” sort of feel to the room. 
  • Board and Batten – Any of the above can be modified to include a board and batten element. This consists of usually narrow vertical boards, which are installed to cover the seams between boards. Double styles might be installed to allow the opportunity to add these battens overlaying the seams. 

Wainscoting can be either painted or stained and varnished. Wood, especially dark wood, will tend to make the room appear to be smaller. Lighter colored woods, like oak, don’t do this as badly. But painting the wainscot will lighten the room, helping it to look larger. White painted wainscot, with a colored drywall wall above it, is attractive.

Installing a Wainscot

Installing wainscot is very easy. It’s best if you do so, before installing the baseboard. However, if you have thin wainscot, it’s possible to get away with putting it in, above the existing baseboard.

The rails and stiles for wainscot can either be made of solid hardwood boards or cut from strips of hardwood plywood. A lot depends on the specific look desired. If no molding is going to be used to cap off the cut edge of the rails and stiles, then it’s good to use solid boards or something that doesn’t have a lot of visible grain texture on the edge, like MDF.

In any case where a panel is used (flat panel, raised panel or beaded panel) the boards used for the rails and stiles need to be rabbet cut, providing a relief channel for the panel to sit in. However, if trim will be used around the edges of the panel, this isn’t necessary.

The first piece to be installed is always the bottom rail. It should be glued, as well as finish nailed at each stud. Once that is in place, snap a line for the bottom of the top rail. This will be necessary, to ensure that the stiles are the right length as they are installed.

With the bottom rail in place, the stiles can be installed, checking each one to make sure it comes even with the snapped line. No gaps or high points should be allowed. Don’t start working from the corner, as corners might not be vertical or straight. Rather work into the corner, so that all the stiles end up vertical. In any situation where a panel is used, panels should be installed with the stiles, alternating between the panels and the stiles to ensure spacing.

In addition to cutting flat panels or using board and beading, both milled and molded panels can be purchased for the panel portion of the wainscot. Some synthetic materials look quite authentic, once painted.

Once all the stiles and panels are in, the top rail can be installed, making sure it fits snug on top of the stiles, without any gaps. This rail is then topped with some sort of chair rail or trim. Trim might also be applied around the inside of the panels, covering end grain and providing a more visually interesting frame for the panel. Install the baseboard over the bottom rail.

wainscoting with shelf, wainscoting design
Wainscoting with shelf, The Finishing Company

Adding the Shelf

All it takes to add a shelf to the wainscot, is to purchase a chair rail molding with a built-in shelf. The shelf portion of this trim will usually be 2” to 3”, which isn’t very big. But this problem can easily be solved by adding a piece of dimensional lumber, either a 1”x 4” or a 1”x 6” flush above the chair rail molding, providing a wider shelf.

When installing this additional piece of dimensional lumber, wood glue, as well as finish nails should be used. nail alone may not provide the necessary strength, especially if people lean against the shelf. Nails alone could pull out, but nails with glue will make for a strong shelf.

Keep in mind that adding this shelf will take space from the room. Furniture won’t be able to sit snug up against the wall, unless it is shorter than the wainscot. That’s the tradeoff to get the shelf space.

Chair Rail with Shelf

A shelf can be added just as easily to a chair rail, rather than wainscot. All that’s required is the same chair rail molding that would be used with the wainscot, installing it solo. It might also still be necessary to add the extra piece of dimensional lumber on top, in order to end up with a shelf which is wide enough for the purpose.

This can work very nicely with built-in bookcases or cabinets, allowing the chair rail shelf to but up side of the shelf, making the whole look as if it belongs together and was planned that way. But it doesn’t look good if the shelf sticks out farther than the built-in. Such cases should be avoided. If they can’t be, angle cut the end of the shelf, so that there isn’t a sharp corner left for people to run into.

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