What are Chair Rails?

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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 13 September 2019
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There are some decorative details in modern homes which originally served a non-decorative purpose, such as the horizontal strips of molding known as chair rails. It runs along the interior walls of many rooms, especially dining rooms, kitchens and other areas where chairs are commonly placed. The original purpose of this type of molding was to prevent the backs of standard chair from damaging plaster walls.

Chair rails are often used in conjunction with another once functional but now largely decorative detail known as wainscoting. Wainscoting features large panels installed over the lower section of a wall, with the molding positioned between 24 and 48 inches above the ground for additional protection and visual interest. Some homeowners now install chair rails by themselves without the wainscoting, then either leave the wall a single color or paint the lower section a darker color to simulate wainscoting.

Installing chair rails is not the most difficult do-it-yourself for homeowners, but it does require some familiarity with basic woodworking tools and an understanding of the angled cuts and splices associated with molding installation. They often consist of several different types of molding combined to create a decorative railing. Because some walls can be very long and straight, it may be necessary to splice several pieces of molding together to cover the entire length.


There are instructional materials and videos which can guide a homeowner through the process of installing chair rails. The first step generally involves measuring the entire linear length of the walls which will receive the molding. Experts suggest purchasing at least 10% more material than required in order to account for mistakes and waste. The molding can either be miter cut to join together in corners, or corner blocks can be installed to allow for straight butt joints.

Some homeowners may also want to install chair rails when using wallpaper and wainscoting together. The rails can help to form a transition from wood or plaster to wallpaper. Wallpaper can be easily damaged by dining room chairs, so they can also serve a utilitarian purpose.


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