What Is Wainscoting?

What Is Wainscoting?

Interior Design
By Dikran Seferian October 25, 2021

When you first come across the word wainscoting, you might think it’s some kind of an Olympic sport. However, you may be surprised to learn that it actually has to do with wall paneling — probably not something you can commonly compete in. Before going ahead with the definition, you may wonder how the word is actually pronounced. Some might say wains coating, others might say wains cotting. Although the former is generally more common, both pronunciations are more or less acceptable.

What Is Wainscoting?

Now that we’ve established that you can’t win a gold medal in wainscoting — at least not in the Olympics — we can get more acquainted with the term. Wainscoting is essentially a dual-purpose system of molding and wood paneling. It is a feature that doubles as both a decorative and a functional item. Wainscoting was originally a wooden panel that extended from floor to ceiling, mainly used by the Dutch in the 14th century as an insulating layer against cold, damp walls. However, the wainscot panels that we are familiar with today originated in the 18th century and only cover the lower half of the walls. Over the years, wainscot panels evolved from a feature mainly designed for function to one that acts as an aesthetic element — without losing its original purpose.

In the 1700s, the half-length wooden panels mainly served as a guard against occasional scuffs and damages to the wall. To this day, wainscoting still serves that purpose while offering aesthetic value. Nowadays, you may choose it as a traditional design feature that introduces a sense of texture to your living space.

Getting Acquainted With the Not-So-Lost Art of Wainscoting

Getting Acquainted With the Not-So-Lost Art of Wainscoting

Where to Apply Wainscot Panels

Since wainscoting has shifted to a rather decorative feature, you can use it just about anywhere you deem fit. To make use of its protective function as well, places you can apply wainscot paneling include, but are not limited to: 

Hallways and Stairways

You could use wainscot paneling on the walls of these narrow passageways where scuffing is very likely. Moreover, the elegant moldings can make the whole area appear all the fancier.


Walls in entryways are mostly prone to smudges left by dirty coats, umbrellas, and anything you’d be carrying as you head in through the door. You could have wainscot panels installed in this area to take the hits.

Dining Rooms and Kitchens

Besides spicing up the space, wainscoting in dining rooms can have a wide rail to serve as a shelf for displaying special pieces of china. A more common purpose in this scenario would serve as a wall guard from chairs being pulled back. As for the kitchen, wainscot panels will protect the walls from splatter caused by dropping food on the floor — wainscoting materials are easier to clean than plain walls.

Dining and Living Rooms Are Prime Spots for Wainscoting

Dining and Living Rooms Are Prime Spots for Wainscoting

Kids’ Rooms and Family Rooms

Wainscot paneling in a family room would mainly serve the purpose of introducing a cozy mood. The same purpose is aimed for kids’ rooms but with the addition of serving as a blank canvas; we all know how kids love to doodle on the walls, so why not be prepared for it? Although that’s not the intended purpose of wainscoting, you’ll find it more convenient to clean.


While it is more common for bathrooms to have ceramic tiles instead, you can’t go wrong with moisture-resistant wainscoting. I have a cheaper — and warmer — alternative.

Materials Used for wainscoting

Wainscoting materials essentially tend to be stain-resistant and easy to maintain. Traditionally, the go-to option was oakwood. Modern variations, however, can very well adapt to the aesthetic and technical demands of different rooms in your house.

Wainscoting Materials Are Usually Stain-Resistant

Wainscoting Materials Are Usually Stain-Resistant

Solid Wood

As the original choice of material for wainscot paneling, solid wood requires special care when being installed. It’s also the priciest of all wainscoting materials. Be that as it may, solid wood wainscoting provides a classy and elegant look that adds richness to any room.


One of the most budget-friendly options for wall paneling is plywood. Not only is it inexpensive, but plywood paneling is also a piece of cake to install. Wainscots of this type, however, tend to look somewhat flat against the wall.

Medium-Density Fiberboard

Often abbreviated as MDF, medium-density fiberboard feels like wood but doesn’t hold some of its drawbacks. For instance, you’ll find that it’s relatively easier to install than the solid wood variety. Untreated MDF, however, is prone to water damage. Nevertheless, you can treat it with a moisture-resistant coating. Specially treated MDF can be a great option for bathroom wainscoting.


Plastic wainscot is often made of PVC, which makes it both lightweight and immune to rot. Due to its water-friendly qualities, this material can also be used in bathrooms as an alternative to treated MDF. You can also apply plastic wainscoting in kitchens and basements.


Vinyl paneling is one of the most preferred options for wainscot material. Not only is it easy to clean, but vinyl is also resistant to harmful elements like mold and mildew. This makes it an ideal choice for rooms with high humidity. Moreover, vinyl wainscoting is available in a variety of finishes, colors, and styles.

Ensure You’re Aware of the Pros and Cons of the Wainscoting Material You Choose

Ensure You’re Aware of the Pros and Cons of the Wainscoting Material You Choose

Average wainscoting Prices

There are three main factors that determine the cost of wainscoting: materials used, surface area, and installation fees. A secondary factor would involve going for custom designs. For solid wood paneling, expect to pay anywhere from $17 per square foot for red oak to over $25 per square foot for walnut or maple wood. Plywood and MDF are much lighter on the wallet, starting at only a couple of dollars per square foot. As for plastic and vinyl wainscoting, the average cost per square foot ranges from $4 to $7 dollars.

Wainscot Panelling Installation

Installation depends on the time and skill required by the type of your wainscoting design (or its level of complexity). Solid wood paneling, for instance, is somewhat trickier to install than its plywood counterpart; you’ll even find out that installation prices vary according to your choice of material. If you have the time and energy to spare, you can cut costs by taking on the project yourself. However, if you don’t mind the additional cost of labor, consider hiring a wainscoting contractor to get the job done faster.

Wainscoting Ideas

Beadboard Wainscoting

One popular form of wainscoting is beadboard paneling. This design involves tongue and groove panels interlocked side by side. Many areas around the house can welcome a beadboard pattern. For instance, you can bathe in style in an elegantly wainscoted beadboard bathroom.

Beadboard Wainscoting Is Among the Most Popular Forms

Beadboard Wainscoting Is Among the Most Popular Forms

Ceiling-High Wainscoting

Although it’s more common for modern wainscoting to only cover the lower part of the wall, you can stray away from the norm by extending it up to the ceiling. Vertical panels along the upper section of the wall tend to create a sense of height in a room.

Reaching for the Ceiling with Wainscoting

Reaching for the Ceiling with Wainscoting

Flat-Panel Wainscoting

If you are looking for a minimalist paneling style that also offers a touch of warmth, you can’t go wrong with a flat-panel design. The subtle moldings in this style exude calmness throughout the house. A slightly more detailed version is the raised-panel wainscot.

Flat-Panel Wainscoting Is Common and Widespread

Flat-Panel Wainscoting Is Common and Widespread

Wall-Panel Wainscoting

Wainscoting can’t get any simpler than this. As the name might suggest, the wall-panel style uses the existing wall as a panel with the frames of moldings applied directly onto it. Since it only involves the framework, this type of wainscoting may also be applied around windows.

Wall-Panel Wainscoting Is Simple Yet Fancy

Wall-Panel Wainscoting Is Simple Yet Fancy

Stone Veneer Wainscoting

Wainscot paneling doesn't always have to be for the interior. You can boost curb appeal by adorning your exterior walls with stone veneering, also known as faux stone siding. This adventurous style can allow you to step away from the standard wainscoting materials. As realistic as it may look, stone veneer is actually made of Portland cement mixed with pigments to achieve the texture of stone.

Take Wainscoting Outside With Stone Veneer

Take Wainscoting Outside With Stone Veneer

Wainscoting Alternatives

You can replicate a wainscoting design with similarly patterned wallpaper. Many 3D-rendered wallpapers can be more realistic than you'd expect; from a distance, you won't even tell that it's actually wallpaper. An even more wallet-friendly way to emulate a wainscot pattern is by creating the look with paint. If you’re proficient in fine arts, this can be a rather fun DIY project. Otherwise, you could hire a skilled professional.


Written by
Dikran Seferian

Written by Dikran Seferian