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Wainscot is paneling that has been installed on the lower part of an interior wall. Traditionally, wainscoting panels were made of wood, especially oak. Today, other materials are also popular.
Wainscoting panels became very popular in the early Renaissance period, when they were used to add warmth to cold stone walls and to protect the room from damp rising from the building's foundation. Sometimes the panels were as tall as eight or nine feet (2.5 to 2.7 m). Most panels were made of heavy wood; in England, quartersawn oak was especially popular. In France during the 17th and 18th centuries, the panels were often carved and painted or gilded. Some had paintings set into them. These decorated panels were called boiserie.
Today, wainscoting panels are usually about three feet (.9 m) high, the height of a chair rail. They are often installed in high-traffic areas to protect the walls and provide a surface that is easy to clean. Solid wood is still a popular material for wainscot, but other materials are often used. Hardwood veneer, molded plastic, and pressed board panels imitate the appearance of wood, while tile, wallpaper, or cloth panels are used for a decorative effect. False wainscot can be created by simply painting the lower section of the wall in a darker color and dividing the lower and upper sections with attached molding.
Traditional wainscot panels were built individually by hand, and were the work of master carpenters. Each section included a baseboard, a wide base rail, vertical stiles, flat panels edged with panel molding, a wide top rail, and a wainscot cap or chair rail. The designs could be simple or ornate. Today, pre-constructed wainscoting panels are available and can be installed by most do-it-yourselfers.
There are three basic styles of wainscoting panels: raised panels, recessed panels, and beadboard. Raised panels were first seen in 17th century England. Each individual panel is set so that it projects outward from the stiles and rails. The panel molding gives a beveled effect. This is a formal style. It is frequently used in Colonial, Queen Anne, and Georgian style homes.
Recessed panels are sometimes called flat panels, and appeared in America in the 19th century. In this style, the panels are set behind the styles and rails, and the edges of the panels are not beveled. It was widely used in Craftsman houses of the early 20th century, as well as in Mission and Shaker styles. This is a relatively informal style.
Beadboard wainscoting panels began to appear in the Victorian period, and was typically used in cottages and other informal settings. It is often used today to in Victorian, cottage, or folk design. This is still the most informal wainscoting panel style.
@Melonlity -- There is no disputing the decorative element of wainscoting panels, but they do still offer protection. That is why a lot of them are topped with chair rails. In a dining room or some place where chairs could touch walls easily, the panel and chair rail will offer great protection to the wall.
In fact, they can do their jobs too well. I've seen more than one fabric recliner ruined from running into a chair rail too often.
By the way, wood is preferred but there are some other, great materials out there that you should explore if you want a unique look.
Wainscoting panels are still popular in homes, but I am not sure if they are regarded as anything protective these days. They are mostly decorative and can give a nice break between the upper and lower portions of a wall.
And, yes, the best ones are still made of wood. With a little care, those wood ones will outlive you and everyone else in your home.
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