Raised panel wainscot
We take good measurements, assemble the entire wall section in the shop and finish before installation if need be. It is very important to finish the back. We like to keep our panel sizes below 20".
You can make all of this onsite with the right router bits (rail, stile and raised panel cutters) and a proper router table and fence setup. Depending on how much material you plan to be working with, the bits and table setups are worth the money, not much more than a decent contractor saw, which you'll need anyway. The only thing you won't be able to do without heavy machinery is solid wood panels. If it's going to be paint grade, I would use MDF raised panels - then you would be safe up to 24". Back yourself up by sealing the pieces before assembly to prevent excessive movement.
I have done quite a bit of onsite wainscot. You don't mention if it is to be stained or painted. Most onsite paneling is done using a panel mould to secure the panels whether they are raised or flat. These mouldings can be either inset or rabbeted to sit over the stiles and rails. My method was to start at the doorways and trim them out the extra thickness to compensate for the paneling. I then would take all my bottom and top rail, whether plywood, solid or MDF and spline the entire lengths with a 1/4" spline cutter in the router. Using a water level I set all the bottom rail around the entire room. Now all intermediate rails are cut to exact length and then splined on the ends. This allows you to start in the corners and scribe the 90's and then evenly divide the balance right on the wall. After all intermediates are set, drop on the top rail and you are ready to panel.
The spline joint is very accurate and strong and will keep alignment even with plywood to minimize sanding. The benefit of this method is the ability to maintain even spacing in width and height so all mouldings can be cut using stop blocks fairly quickly. I personally would stay away from cope and stick with routers for onsite work because it is too slow and I don't feel you can achieve the depth and detail you can using mitered panel moulding. We have raised panels on site and also outsourced them to a cabinet shop, just depending on timeframe and type of material.
You could lay out the room and figure out the panel sizes and order the panels from a company such as Conestoga or Meridian. This is very cost effective - they come in perfect and free you up to work on something else.
In today's build cheaper and faster mindset, I think an elegant, well-done, built-in-place wainscot (along with stairs) is one of the last few forms of creative expression and talent that a good finish carpenter has. Please don't take that away by suggesting he mail order it!
I think a finish carpenter can perform his tasks of coping large crowns perfectly, casing doors and windows to perfection and install railings and balusters while he waits for the raised panels to come in from a company that specializes in raised paneling. Then he can trim out that paneling to perfection. He expresses himself and makes money at it.
We have run MDF sheets on our CNC router for this very purpose. The results were outstanding. We produced large sheets of raised panel wainscoting - 10 foot lengths. This saved the installers a great deal of time as all that was required was attaching the sheets to the wall and where necessary, utilizing biscuits to join edges of the sheets together, and filling the joints with a quality filler. Manufacturing costs are low, and turn-around time is fast for projects of this nature.
If a qualified carpenter can make money installing doors, crown, stairs, etc., why not install wainscot? I feel that wainscot or paneling should be an extension of the carpentry, not the cabinets, and you just don't seem to get that look or feel from a shop-produced product. I also question whether it's really that much more cost-effective (cheaper) to mail order it.
At the cost of ply material versus edged glued panels, glued panels make a much stronger and longer lasting wall! We just re-did a courthouse that had a pipe break and caused massive delamination to the new panels that were replaced in the eighties, but the original ones stood up just fine. If you don't have the machinery to do edged glued panels, you can buy them any size or shape you want and then mill them with a router or shaper table onsite.
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