What is Wainscoting or Wainscot Paneling?

What exactly is Wainscoting?

Wainscoting or Wainscot Paneling is a form of decorative wall paneling that became popular in the 18th century. Typically installed as oak panels from the baseboard to around chair-height, this classical wall trim was originally used to provide room insulation, damage protection, and disguise rising damp from moisture in the floor. In its most modern form, wainscoting is a decorative wall feature that adds style, character, and value to your home.

There are a variety of applications, materials, and styles for modern-day wainscoting, providing sophistication, charm, and elegance to contemporary households. Whether you’re searching for that perfect art décor addition, a feature for your colonial-style home, or an interior statement to enhance your neoclassical design, wainscoting provides both a practical and tasteful way to add flair and architectural interest to your home.

An example of wainscot paneling or wainscoting

What is Wainscoting Used For?

Wainscoting lends itself to various applications within the home. When it was first introduced, before the introduction of modern-day insulation, wainscoting kept a room warmer by providing a thicker surface area for cold air to travel through.

Wainscoting was also sought after to provide protection to the lower half of walls in high traffic areas like entrances, stairwells, and hallways, guarding the wall’s vulnerable surface against bumps, scuffs and abrasions, and protecting wallpaper and paint from children with dirty hands or crayons. In kitchens or dining areas, wainscoting was typically installed around chair-height to prevent dents from sliding chairs and the movement of lounge furniture damaging walls.

Though these advantages are still true for its modern-day application, wainscoting is more commonly sought after for its decorative appeal. Contemporary styles lend themselves to atmospheric enhancement, providing rooms with a new dimension, and creating a sophisticated expression within the home. Wainscoting can also provide a surface to hold picture frames and mount other keepsakes and is a cost-effective method to hide dented plasterboard, water damage, or cracked plaster.

What is Wainscoting Made Of?

Traditionally, wainscoting was exclusively crafted from solid oak wood panels. Due to availability, spruce and pine also became popular choices. But today, depending on your desired finish, colour, and budget, almost any wood can be used for wainscoting. Wood provides the versatility and ability to be stained, painted and cut to suit your desired style, keeping in mind climate and treatments of wood to avoid warping or rotting.

In its more contemporary form, wainscoting or ‘faux-wainscoting’ for the purists, can be built from more flexible and durable materials than wood.

Vinyl may be used as an alternative to traditional wood because of its durability, water resistance, and ease of cleaning. Vinyl will not discolour and is often selected in households with younger children.

Plastic wainscoting is harder and less flexible than vinyl but provides the same durability and water resistance. Plastic wainscoting can also be made to look like wood and can be confidently installed in bathrooms, kitchens, and other moisture dense rooms such as laundries without the risk of warping, rotting or harbouring mould or mildew growth.

Medium-density fibreboard (MDF) can be used in either panel or beadboard wainscoting designs. MDF is commonly used in living and family rooms, hallways and stairwells, and is best suited to spaces with minimal moisture to avoid expansion and contraction.

Other more recent state-of-the-art materials include embossed metal, often seen in kitchens or on ceilings, ceramic tile, commonly used in bathrooms for its water resistance, or even gypsum board to cut down on the cost of wood.

The materials you choose will be dependant on the existing components in your household, the purpose of its application, your room of choice, and your budget.

Wainscoting Styles

Although there are many applications and variations of wainscoting, there are five main styles on the market.

Raised Panel:

Raised panel is the most traditional style of wainscoting dating back to colonial days as a means of insulation. Bevelled edges on the panels create the ornamental raise and provide a certain timelessness to a room. Raised panel is typically installed in dining and living rooms to a height of around 70-140 CM from the ground, but can be adapted to a higher wall by creating a centre rail and adding a second row of panels, allowing versatility within your unique living space. The rail at the bottom can also be overlaid with additional moulding to create a baseboard.

Flat Panel:

Flat panel wainscoting is installed behind the rails and styles and can be used for a more casual, simple, clean line look. Flat panel is more cost-effective than raised panel because the boards are flat (without the bevelled edges or moulding), allowing them to be more easily installed on your wall to cover existing blemishes, dents, or cracks in plaster.

Overlay Panel:

Overlay is a combination of flat and raised panel wainscoting. Overlaid panels are associated with neoclassical design, and allow for a more elaborate style than raised panel because they are deeper and more detailed than a traditional milled raised panel. This option of wainscoting is closer to the true solid-wood raised panel style but can be installed much faster and with greater ease, because, like flat panel, it can be applied directly to the wall beneath a chair rail or above an existing baseboard.


Beadboard originated in Victorian and cottage-style homes, and is a traditional architectural feature that comprises of subtle, vertical grooves or ‘beads’ milled into the wood. Beadboard is available in multiple styles and widths, but is traditionally made of thinner, individual boards positioned parallel to one another and connected using a tongue-and-groove system. Beadboard can be used to create a rustic-style look, but can also be cut and finished to appear elegant and sleek. Shorter installations of beadboard lend themselves better to closely spaced boards, while taller installations often use a wider bead spacing.

Board and Batten:

A staple of Arts and Crafts architecture, the Board and Batten style, or Craftsman style, has flat panels and a vertical strip of moulding placed across the joint between boards called the ‘batten’. Battens, also known as fixing points, were traditionally used to hide the seams between each board. Today, these accents to the trim create separation between each panel and its own unique look. The board and batten style most commonly appears in hallways, bedrooms, dining areas and mudrooms.

Modern Wainscoting Applications

In its modern application, wainscoting is prominent around kitchen islands, protecting from the bumps of bar stools or the scuffing of swinging feet.

Wainscot paneling on a kitchen island

In bathrooms, wainscoting is used to unifying the bathroom’s décor while protecting walls from water damage, especially in rooms with freestanding tubs.

Wainscot paneling in a bathroom

Full wall wainscoting can be used as a feature in lounge rooms, libraries, or foyers to create a striking dimensional finish and add attractive geometry to a room.

Wainscot paneling in a lounge room

Coloured wainscoting can alter the expression of a room and create an understated ambience. Stained wainscoting looks best on walls with a cream-white finish or a full wall wainscoting instalment.