With all the pieces ready to go, start sanding. When you have all the pieces looking pretty, you have a decision to make. You can finish the panels now in your shop or finish them after they’re installed. If you’ll be painting the wall afterward and you don’t have carpeting or a wood floor down, finishing in place is a nice option. Otherwise I’d suggest finishing beforehand and avoid the mess.
Rag on an “English oak” gel stain to all the exposed surfaces. Then put a top finish of clear lacquer over all the surfaces to protect and gloss-up the panels. Both of these steps are easier when the panels can be laid flat to avoid runs. This is why I finished the panels before installing them.
A word of caution on finishing in place with finishes that combine stain and polyurethane. While this might seem the perfect project for that product, I don’t recommend it. My experience has been that the finish (like many other top coats) can sag on vertical surfaces. The pigment also sags, causing the color to “pool” on the lower edge of the panel.
Take it to the Wall
The next step is to get out the chop saw and head to your work site. If you’ve got an air-powered brad nailer, this is the chance to find out what a useful tool it is. If you don’t have one, this is a great chance to talk yourself into one.
Installation is fairly simple. Start by determining if the floor is level. If you have major lumps and won’t be putting a floor or carpeting against the base, you might need to scribe the bottom of the base moulding to fit the floor (or nail a strip of base shoe moulding to cover the gaps). But first, mark a level line 3-1/4″ up from the floor (preferably off the highest point in the floor). Locate the studs and mark their locations on the walls. Attach the base support board with the top edge flush to your 3-1/4″ line. Next, attach the 1/4″ hanging strips above and below the inset panels.
For the next step, take a few minutes to assemble the panel sections while everything is flat. Start by attaching most of the inset moulding strips to the front panel with a 23-gauge pinner. The moulding strip that covers the panel seam is the only one that can’t be attached prior to installation. Now fit the inset panels in place behind the moulding and nail through the moulding at an angle to attach the inset panels to the assembly. You’re now ready to attach the panels to the wall. With the panels in place, attach the missing fourth inset moulding to the mated panels.
The last steps are attaching the base moulding, cap and cove moulding to the panels, and your wainscotting is installed. One trick of finish carpenters is worth passing on here. It’s the scarf joint. More likely than not you will need to use more than one length of either base or cap moulding on a particular wall. Rather than cutting a 90-degree butt joint at the juncture, cut a 45-degree angle on each end of the pieces. This way, shrinkage or movement will show a much less visible gap. PW
David Thiel is a Senior Editor for Popular Woodworking.