Dressed up chair rail mimics look of wainscot

DEAR GAIL: We have a very long staircase that you see right as you enter the house. I’ve hung artwork up the stairs but really feel that the area needs more since it is the first thing that you see. I would love to wainscot the wall with paneling, but that is just not in our budget. Is there anything else that we could do to dress it up? — Theresa C.

DEAR THERESA: I love a real wood wainscot but it does get pricey.

My first idea, and probably the least expensive, would be to run a chair rail up the wall and paint an accent color below the rail. Purchase a nice large profile to give the rail more substance. Instead of wood molding, you can use medium density fiber or plastic molding and paint it. This will be a whole lot less expensive than a real wood chair rail and when you paint it, you can’t tell the difference.

Besides painting below your chair rail, you can use wallpaper. I would suggest something that was more subtle than a very large or busy print. There are faux finish and stripe wallpapers that would look great.

If you like the idea of stripes, you also could paint your own by alternating stripes of flat and gloss paint. It is a great effect if wallpaper is not your preference. It’s a very inexpensive project and a bit time consuming, but worth it in the end.

First, paint the area with the flat paint. Then, go back and tape off your stripes and paint that area with either the same color paint in a gloss finish, a gloss glaze or another color. The key with painting the stripes is to take your time measuring and painting them so that the paint doesn’t bleed under the tape. Manufacturers are always coming out with new products to help with this problem so make sure to ask about them when you are in the paint department.

Another way to get the effect of a painted wainscot is to purchase paintable wallpaper that has a raised-panel texture. You can find these in all kinds of patterns, thicknesses and levels of durability. Some are as hard as plastic, although they come with a bigger price tag. They install just like wallpaper and then you paint them.

If you want the look to be a bit more like the real thing, you can use molding to create doorlike faux raised panels. Run the chair rail above and then a thicker baseboard up the stairs. Next, select another molding to use to outline the shape of the door; you’ll have four pieces that form a square or rectangle depending upon the look that you want.

To make it look like full wainscot, paint all the molding and the wall the same color in a high-gloss finish. I did this in a client’s home and was amazed at how good it turned out. There was something about the high-gloss finish that made it look like the real thing. Plus, the molding will be more durable as people go up and down the stairs. If you want more color, paint the inside of the panels a contrasting color.

It’s the details in our homes that make them unique. So, dress up those stairs and send me a picture when your project is done.

Gail Mayhugh, owner of GMJ Interiors, is a professional interior designer and author of a book on the subject. Questions may be sent by e-mail to: Or, mail to: 7380 S. Eastern Ave., No. 124-272, Las Vegas, NV 89123. Her Web address is:


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