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Remodeling 101: A Quick Guide to Chair Rails, Picture Rails, and Wainscoting

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Remodeling 101: A Quick Guide to Chair Rails, Picture Rails, and Wainscoting

November 2, 2021

Lately we’ve been doing a deep dive into the wonderful world of moldings. Who knew how much there is to know about trim—and how useful it can be, from concealing slightly uneven flooring to hiding the outlets? In today’s installment we’re tackling chair rails, picture rails, and wainscoting. Here’s what you need to know, with help from architect James Dixon, a member of the Remodelista Architect & Designer Directory.

What are chair rails?

a chair rail (with beadboard wainscoting) is painted a dark green in maste 17
Above: A chair rail (with beadboard wainscoting) is painted a dark green in Master Mix: A Shoppable Apartment in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Today’s chair rails are purely decorative, but that’s not how they started out. “In the old days, people used to push their furniture up against the walls, and the chair rail kept the tops of the chairs from digging up the plaster,” Dixon says. These days, chair rails are still being installed in new houses as a way to establish the proportions of a room by creating a separate zone.

Where should a chair rail be positioned on a wall?

“The chair rail was originally placed at around a third the height of the wall, which put it at the height of your average chair back,” says Dixon. Now it depends more on the height of the room. “If the ceiling is really high, instead of using the one-third rule you might want to move the chair rail down a bit so it won’t look odd.”

chair rails in moss green at a copenhagen hotel; see behind the curtain: a form 18
Above: Chair rails in moss green at a Copenhagen hotel; see Behind the Curtain: A Former Ballet Dancer’s Romantic Hotel in Copenhagen.

What color should a chair rail be?

“Some people paint the chair rail and the wall below it one color, and then treat the wall above in a different color,” says Dixon. “A chair rail can also be stained a dark color rather than painted; you see that a lot in Arts & Crafts–style houses.”

But what Dixon prefers is to paint everything from floor to ceiling the same color. “Then the chair rail just creates a subtle line, giving you some shadows around the space.”

What about the material and design for chair rails?

Chair rail molding is typically made of wood, but it can be a composite material. “There’s endless variety out there, and your choice depends on the style of your room,” says Dixon.

As for the design, Dixon feels that all the trim in a room should be part of the same family, with similar detail and proportions. Chair rail does tend to be simpler than other moldings, though you can get fancy carved shapes. And it’s usually fairly flat—“You don’t want it to project too far out from the wall, or people will bump up against it.”

What is wainscoting?

cream colored wainscoting at urban sanctuary: the margot house in barcelon 19
Above: Cream-colored wainscoting at Urban Sanctuary: The Margot House in Barcelona.

Sometimes more molding is installed below a chair rail to create a wainscot (also called wainscoting), or at least the illusion of one. While a traditional wainscot is made of framed wooden panels, molding can re-create the look without the panels themselves. The molding will add character to the room and help protect the walls from scuffs and dents.

What are picture rails?

a great example of   rails put to modern use in sarah&#8\2\17;s california  20
Above: A great example of picture rails put to modern use in Sarah’s California rental. “Molding is a great way for renters to display art and to hang bags and clothes without having to hammer nails into a wall,” she writes. “I used S hooks and a brass ring hung from rope for suspending a white-painted canvas bag where I store off-season scarves.” Read more in Sarah’s Refined Rental in St. Helena, CA.

Like chair rails, these were once installed for functional purposes. “There was a time when people were constantly changing the pictures on their walls,” says Dixon. “Instead of pounding in a nail to hang great-grandmother’s portrait, you could hang it on a wire or cord attached to the picture rail, and swap it out later without leaving any holes in the plaster.” Picture rails are still seen, but less often than before. They may not be used for hanging pictures; they’re more to delineate a space.

Where do you install a picture rail?

Typically, about nine inches below the ceiling. If you are using it to hang pictures, it should be high enough that you can adjust the height of the pictures. And if you have a fancy cornice, you want it low enough that you don’t damage the cornice.

rails used to hold shelving; photograph from instant storage: hanging shel 21
Above: Picture rails used to hold shelving; photograph from Instant Storage: Hanging Shelves Made in San Francisco.

What color should a picture rail be?

It depends on the style of the room and the decorative elements. A wooden picture rail can be stained, and, as with chair rails, “some people paint the walls up to and including the picture rail one color, and make everything above that a different color,” says Dixon. “I find that makes the ceiling look lower. I prefer to take the same wall color all the way up the wall to the cornice.”

What are plate rails?

a chair rail with a plate rail installed along the top, for displaying art. see 22
Above: A chair rail with a plate rail installed along the top, for displaying art. See Chez Marie Sixtine: The Chicest New Guest Pad in Paris.

Plate rails for displaying ceramics and such are another way to use molding on a wall. They might be installed lower than a picture rail to show off your belongings to better advantage. A ridge on the outside of the rail keeps pieces safely in place.

Where can I find more information about moldings?

Dixon refers you to what he calls the “bible,” C. Howard Walker’s Theory of Mouldings. Though it was first published in 1926, it’s surprisingly still in print.

He also suggests checking out the catalog of Dykes Lumber Co., founded in Manhattan in 1909. “The Dykes catalog has every kind of molding in every category,” he says. “It’s a great resource for people in the industry who live and breathe this subject.”

Plus, see our other posts on the subject:

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Frequently asked questions

What is a chair rail?

A chair rail is a horizontal molding installed on walls, typically at a height of 30 to 36 inches from the floor. Its purpose is to protect the walls from chair backs and other furniture, preventing damage and creating a visual division between the lower and upper portions of the wall.

What is a picture rail?

A picture rail is a horizontal molding installed near the ceiling, typically around 12 to 18 inches below it. It is designed to hold hooks or wires from which artwork, mirrors, or other decorative items can be hung. Picture rails eliminate the need to put nails or hooks directly into the wall, allowing for flexible and easily adjustable displays.

What is wainscoting?

Wainscoting refers to decorative paneling or molding installed on the lower portion of a wall, typically extending up to chair rail height. It adds architectural interest and can serve as a protective element for the lower portion of the wall, especially in high-traffic areas. Wainscoting can be made of various materials, including wood, MDF, or even wallpaper.

What are the benefits of chair rail, picture rail, and wainscoting?

These architectural elements offer several benefits. Chair rail provides protection against furniture damage, adds visual interest, and can help define the proportions of a room. Picture rail allows for easy hanging and rearranging of artwork without damaging the walls. Wainscoting enhances the overall aesthetics of a space, adds texture, and can provide additional wall protection.

Can these moldings be used together?

Yes, chair rail, picture rail, and wainscoting can be used together to create a layered and visually appealing look. For example, wainscoting can be installed below the chair rail, and the picture rail can be placed at a higher level to accommodate artwork. Combining these elements can add depth and character to a room.

Do chair rail, picture rail, and wainscoting have to be the same color as the walls?

The color choice for these moldings depends on the desired aesthetic and design goals. They can be painted the same color as the walls for a seamless and subtle look, or a contrasting color can be chosen to make them stand out as decorative accents. The color choice should complement the overall style and color scheme of the room.

Can these moldings be installed in any room?

Chair rail, picture rail, and wainscoting can be installed in various rooms, including dining rooms, living rooms, bedrooms, and even hallways. They are particularly popular in traditional and classic interior styles, but they can be adapted to suit different design aesthetics.

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