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How To Install Wainscoting Panels Over Drywall On A Budget

Looking for a budget-friendly accent wall idea? Learn how to install wainscoting panels over drywall with this step-by-step tutorial!

Thank you to DAP for sponsoring this guide on how to install wainscoting! All opinions are entirely my own. This post also contains affiliate links, but nothing that I wouldn’t recommend wholeheartedly. Read my full disclosure here.

We’re doing a big renovation on one of the bathrooms in our house and a part of the renovation plan is adding wainscoting panels to the bottom part of the walls. Check out the full bathroom mood board and plan here!

We found these super budget-friendly panels at The Home Depot, $16 each, that are a great solution for installing wainscoting over drywall on a budget!

In this tutorial, we are going to give you step-by-step instructions on how to install the wainscoting panels over drywall in a bathroom. Let’s jump in!

Before pictures

Bathroom wall before with toilet removed and half the sink removed.

Here’s the rough start to the bathroom renovation. We gave this small bathroom a super budget-friendly makeover a couple of years ago for less than $250. But it was time to do a full renovation to fix some fundamental things in the bathroom – like damaged subflooring from a leak years ago and a cracked vanity sink, among other things.

In this “before” photo, you can see that the renovation is already underway here with the toilet removed and the sink top off.

After this picture and before we started on the wainscoting, we also removed the bathtub, floor, and drywall to get the room down to the studs. We’ve added a new bathtub and refreshed the flooring with new tile and added tile in the shower.

We also ended up replacing the drywall throughout because it was pretty damaged and had years of layered drywall mud and paint. Sometimes it is just better to start nice and fresh.

Let’s jump right into this step-by-step tutorial on how to install wainscoting panels over drywall!

Supplies needed for installing wainscoting panels over drywall:

Wainscoting panels on the shelf at the home improvement store.

Step 1: Make a plan and purchase materials

The wainscoting panels we used are made from medium density fibers (also known as MDF), which is a man-made recycled wood fiber material – which makes them eco-friendly. Score!

Because they are made from MDF, they are dense, flat, stiff, and have no knots. They are great for paneling that will be painted.

The panels are 4 feet wide, which was perfect in our small bathroom because we only need to use less than one on each wall, so we didn’t need to worry about the seams between the panels.

To make a plan for your wainscoting accent walls, start by measuring your entire wall to see how many wall panels you’ll need. Plan it out so that the seams or joints between the panels are spaced evenly.

If you need to plan out multiple panels, I find that it is easiest to grab some graph paper so you can draw the whole wall out to scale.

Cut wainscoting panel sitting against the bathroom wall to be installed.

Step 2: Let wainscoting panels acclimate in space

If you didn’t know, wood expands and contracts with changes in humidity and temperature. because of this, there are some extra precaution steps that you need to take.

Before you being installing the wainscoting panels on your walls, it is best to let the panels acclimate in the room for at least 48 to 72 hours.

Also, keep in mind that the humidity level in your room will impact the panel’s expansion and contraction. The humidity level in your space is ideal for the panel at between 30% and 50%.

If possible, lean each panel separately against the walls to allow for airflow to move between the panels while they acclimate.

Cutting wainscoting panel using a table saw.

Step 3: Cut wainscoting panels to size

Check back to your plan to figure out where you need to cut the panels down to size for your wall if needed.

To cut the wainscoting panels, you can either use a table saw or a circular saw with a rip fence (or even with a guide scrap piece of wood clamped to the panel to keep your saw straight, check out this faux shipwall wall tutorial to see how to use scrap wood and a circular saw to rip wood).

If you need to cut holes for any outlets or light switches in the wainscoting panel, you can use a hole saw for a circular hole and a multi-tool for square and rectangular cuts.

Step 4: Attach wainscoting panels to the wall

If the baseboards are not currently attached to the wall, start by attaching the baseboards to the wall first. It is best to install the wainscoting panels on top of the baseboards.

Before securing the wainscoting panels to the drywall, dry-fit them to make sure everything fits properly. It is much easier to fit things now (or run to the store to get another panel), rather than stop right when you’re in the middle of the project!

Close up of applying glue to the back of the MDF wainscoting panel.
Man holding wainscoting panel on his feet while sitting with glue applied all over the back of the panel.

Open the top of the DAP Dynagrip Construction Adhesive with a utility knife at a 45-degree angle and load it into your caulking gun. (If you need to see how to load a caulking gun, check out this tutorial).

Add the construction adhesive to the back of the panel liberally. Make sure that you get it close to the edge perimeter and spread it out in an S or V pattern with extra dots or lines in the empty spaces.

Pressing the wainscoting panel to the bathroom wall.

Bring the wainscoting panel up to the drywall and press it into place. Move your hands all over the panel pressing hard into place for about 2 minutes to make sure the construction adhesive grabs the panel all over.

Securing the wainscoting panel using a brad nailer and brad nails.

Next, grab your brad nailer and add some 1 1/4″ brad nails to secure. Be sure to get nails in each corner of the panel and a couple in the middle.

If you can line the nails up with the locations of studs in your wall, all the better. Learn how to find stud in your walls in this article.

Installing molding above wainscoting panel using a brad nailer and brad nails.

Step 5: Attach the trim piece to the top of the panel

We chose to trim off the top of the piece of wainscoting panel with this decorative piece of trim. There were a lot of options at the store, so you can some freedom to choose the one that best matches your style.

Attach the trim piece along the top of the panel with the brad nailer in the same manner.

Filling nail holes with DAP premium wood filler and a putty knife.

Step 6: Fill nail holes

Now it is time to clean things up before you move on to priming and painting. Using a flat putty knife, gently scrape some DAP Premium Wood Filler over to the top of the nail holes on the panel and the trim.

Use the putty knife to scrape off any excess wood filler.

Let dry before sanding smooth with a sanding block. DAP’s Premium Wood FIller that we were using takes about 2 hours to dry fully.

Apply DAP premium molding and trim sealant to the gap between the molding and the wainscoting panel.

Step 7: Caulk edges

While the wood filler is drying, you can caulk the edges as necessary around your wainscoting panels.

Prepare your DAP Alex Flex caulking by cutting the top at a 45-degree angle with a utility knife and loading it into your caulking gun.

You’ll want to caulk the gap between the panel and the baseboards or door trim, the top of the trim piece where it meets the wall and the bottom of the trim piece where it meets the wainscoting.

Note for installing wainscoting in bathrooms: If you are installing the wainscoting panels in a bathroom like we were, you want to use caulk for Kitchens & Bathrooms, like DAP’s Kwik Seal Ultra, on the edge of the paneling that touches the tile or shower in case it gets wet. Keep in mind that this caulking is NOT paintable, like Alex Flex, so you need to add it after you’re done painting.

Wainscoting panel installed on the wall next tot the bathtub.
Here’s what everything looks like once the wainscoting is installed, but not primed and painted yet.
Applying primer to wainscoting panel with a paint roller.

Step 8: Prime panels

The wainscoting panels come pre-primed, but we added another coat of moisture and mildew-resistant primer before painting. Learn more about why it is important to use primer in a bathroom in this article.

We added one coat of the primer with a 4″ paint roller and let it dry for at least 1 hour.

Pouring paint into a paint tray to paint wainscoting panel.

Step 9: Paint wainscoting panels

Last, but not least, you can finally paint your wainscoting panels! We use a high-quality paint line from Behr, Marquee, and it only required one coat.

Painting wainscoting panel with paint roller.

This light blue-green color (which is Behr’s In The Moment) is so dreamy, isn’t it? I love it. We’ve used it several times before in two different houses, like our front door, board and batten wall, and a hallway cabinet.

Applying DAP kitchen and bath sealer to edge between wainscoting and bathtub.

Step 10: Caulk edge that touches shower tile (as necessary)

As mentioned earlier, if you’re installing the wainscoting in a bathroom, like we were, you will need to use a Kitchen and Bath caulking, like DAP Kwik Seal Ultra, on the edge that butts up against the shower to protect from moisture.

Because this type of caulking is not paintable, you’ll need to do it after the painting is finished and dried.

After pictures: wainscoting panels

Finished view of wainscoting panel installed and painted.

Didn’t the wainscoting walls turn out great in here? I absolutely love them AND the colors that we went with. I think they fit in perfectly with our whole house color scheme.

Closeup view of painted wainscoting panel next to the bathtub.

I can’t wait to get the rest of the bathroom wrapped up. We still need to grout the shower tile, add a tiled backsplash behind the vanity sink, and then install the final things like vanity bathroom lights, mirrors, and hardware.

I’m also thinking about building a DIY towel shelf to go above the toilet.

And then my favorite part – decorating!

Overhead view of painted wainscoting panel in the bathroom next to the bathtub.

Wainscoting FAQs

If you’re here learning more about how to install wainscoting panels, you probably are looking for more general information about wainscoting, right? Here are some frequently asked questions.

What is wainscoting?

Wainscoting is a type of wood paneling that covers the lower portion of the walls. Wainscoting is traditional in nature but can look modern when combined with other modern elements in your home.

It was originally created to help protect the bottom part of the walls from dings and scratches and also provide some additional insulation. Nowadays, it is used more to add visual interest to a room as an accent wall or on all 4 walls, just like shiplap paneling is used.

Do you glue or nail wainscoting?

We recommend adding both construction adhesive and nails to the wainscoting panels. You should also try to align your nails to the studs in your wall so they have something to grab onto behind the drywall.

Can you install wainscoting without removing baseboards?

Yes, you can install wainscoting above your baseboards.

What is the proper height for wainscoting?

Wainscoting is usually installed on the lower 1/3rd of the walls.

The panels we use were 32 inches tall and were placed on top of our baseboards (which are 3 1/2 inches tall). We also added a 1/2″ trim to the top of the panel, which means the wainscoting sits approximately 36″ high in our bathroom.

Should wainscoting be lighter or darker than the walls?

White is a very traditional color for wainscoting, with a darker color on the walls. However, we opted to go darker on the wainscoting than the walls in our bathroom and we love how it turned out.

What rooms should have wainscoting?

Typically you’ll see wainscoting in dining rooms, living rooms, and entryways. However, wainscoting can be installed in any room you want!

What’s the difference between wainscoting, beadboard, and board and batten?

Wainscoting is usually a combination of horizontal and vertical pieces of wood combined with additional decorative trim pieces. Sometimes the inside of the wainscoting boxes contains raised panels or textured paneling, like beadboard.

Adding wainscoting paneling in your bathroom isn’t as hard or expensive as you may think. By following along with our tutorial on how to install wainscoting panels, you’ll be good to go!

Where would you put wainscoting panels in your home?

Let us know in the comments below!

How To Install Wainscoting Panels Over Drywall On A Budget

How To Install Wainscoting Panels Over Drywall On A Budget

Looking for a budget-friendly accent wall idea? Learn how to install wainscoting panels over drywall with this step-by-step tutorial!

Materials

Instructions

  1. Make a plan and purchase products. To make a plan for your wainscoting accent walls, start by measuring your entire wall to see how many wall panels you'll need. Plan it out so that the seams or joints between the panels are spaced evenly.
  2. Before you begin installing the wainscoting panels on your walls, it is best to let the panels acclimate in the room for at least 48 to 72 hours.
  3. Cut wainscoting panels to size using a table saw or circular saw.
  4. Add adhesive to the back of your panel, then apply firmly to the wall. Be sure to press firmly all over to get a good bond. Then secure with brad nails.
  5. Attach the trim piece to the top of the panel.
  6. Fill nail holes with DAP premium wood filler.
  7. While the wood filler is drying, you can caulk the edges as necessary around your wainscoting panels.
  8. Prime panels by adding one coat of the primer with a 4" paint roller and letting it dry for at least 1 hour.
  9. Last, but not least, you can finally paint your wainscoting panels! We use a high-quality paint line from Behr, Marquee, and it only required one coat.

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