Subscribe to RSS Feed
Subscribe to TIC

The Misused & Confused Chair Rail

How high should we install chair rail? Ask most carpenters and they’ll either say 36 in., 32 in. or they’ll measure the back of a chair and tell you to lay it out so the chair won’t scar the wall. Well, I’m sorry to say, that unless your ceilings are 16-ft. tall, 36 in. is way too high for the chair rail; and letting the back of the chair set the chair rail height is like letting the size of a rug decide the size of a room. In most cases, it just doesn’t work!

Chairs and chair rail may sound like they have a lot in common, but the relationship is limited to their approximate heights. Chair rail is the most misused and abused molding in new houses today. But it is also the easiest molding to install correctly, and one that can do the most to make a house feel like a home.

Yeah but…

(Note: Click any image to enlarge. Hit the "back" button on your browser to return to article.)

What? You want to argue the point? You still think chair rail should always sit at 36 in. from the floor? Sorry, there is no standard height dimension. In fact, historically chair rail started out very low.

Even in colonial rooms with 10-ft. ceilings, I’ve seen chair rail set at 30 in. from the floor. There are some 18th-century pattern books that show the chair rail at 24 in. off the floor. In fact, in rooms with 9-ft. to 10-ft. ceilings, this height is actually most appropriate for chair rail, and best falls within the rules of classical architecture (see photo, right). Over the past 60 years we have forgotten a lot about those classical rules, and we’ve forgotten how chair rail functions in a room.

A matter of scale…

Let’s back up a bit. Chair rail is a molding, right? The purpose of molding is to establish proper scale and proportion in a room. And because of its close proximity to us (chair rail is often the nearest horizontal molding we see) chair rail can do more to make a room feel right than either the baseboard or the crown. But get the chair rail wrong, and the room feels wrong—I can guarantee it.

Here’s where proper proportion comes into play. All of the classic architectural orders—the Tuscan, the Doric, the Ionic, the Corinthian, and the Composite—have strict rules of proportion. These rules of proportion were specified back in the first century BCE by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, a Roman architect and engineer. Vitruvius used “modules” to ensure proper proportion.

He started with the spacing of the columns on a Greek temple, using that distance as a “module.” According to his instructions for achieving symmetry, harmony, and proportion, the base of a Doric column should be two modules and the height should be fourteen modules. That boils down to a proportional relationship of 1:7 — a column that is seven times as tall as it is wide. Put simply, if the base of the column is 10 in. wide, it should be about 70 in. tall. Of course, not all columns follow that same proportional rule.

How does all that relate to chair rail?

Ironically, the rules of classical architecture are really based on human scale, on the male body, and I’m the perfect classical specimen: My foot measures 11-in. long and I am 77-in. tall; a 1:7 ratio. Wow! (I pity you poor short carpenters with big feet!!!).

The moldings in a room are supposed to relate to our bodies, too. That is why you can walk into an old building and it just “feels” right. The reason it feels right is because it is symmetrical and harmonious to our own size. (See Fig. 1, below) We innately relate to and enjoy a space we fit into and fit well with.

Dig a little deeper and we find proportional rules for every architectural detail. Despite its name, chair rail actually corresponds to the molding at the top of a column’s pedestal.

Fig. 1

According to Abraham Swan, the Doric order didn’t even have a base because Vitruvius said: “This order is like a strong and robust man, such as Hercules, who was never represented but with his feet bare.”

Yet many later architects have included pedestals. For instance, when using a pedestal, Asher Benjamin divides the entire height of the Doric order into 80 parts. The diameter of the column equals six parts. According to Benjamin, the pedestal should be “two diameters and thirty minutes high.”

What’s all this mean to a carpenter?

Here’s how I look at it: Take a room with a 10-ft. ceiling, which is 120 in. Divide 120 in. by 80 parts. Each part would equal 1 1/2 in. Therefore, the column should be 9 in. to 10 in. in diameter (six parts). Multiply the column width by 2 1/2 to determine the height of the pedestal: 22 1/2 in. tall. Benjamin also suggests that the pedestal should be 15 parts high. Either way, the result is the same. Obviously, unless chairs were much shorter back then, the height of a chair has nothing to do with the height of the chair rail!

Wait a minute! Don’t leave the room yet! I’m not finished. We’re just getting started. Now we need to find out the exact size of each molding, from the plinth or baseboard, to the chair rail. Benjamin doesn’t provide that detail, but William Pain does in his 1778 book, The Practical House Carpenter.

Until the 1920s and 1930s, pattern books, like Pain’s, were used by carpenters and architects to duplicate classical details—and that means all molding profiles and proportions. But pattern books seemed to go by the wayside as minimalism and modern styles reduced the importance of moldings, and finally production trumped design. It’s no wonder that we so often hear from carpenters with questions about molding profiles, placement, and proportion. None of us were trained on the use of pattern books. And very few of the architects we work with are familiar with them. But that doesn’t mean we all can’t learn.

According to Pain, for a Doric pedestal, we start by dividing the height of the column into thirteen equal parts, where one part equals the diameter of the column. The height of the pedestal is set at 2 diameters and forty minutes, or 2.66 parts. For a room with a 10 foot ceiling, one part would equal 9 1/4 in. Forty minutes would equal about 6 3/16 in. That puts the pedestal about 24 11/16 in. from the floor. Let’s make it simple and add 1/16 in. Trust me. No one will notice.

Going back to William Pain’s book, we next divide the diameter of the column into 12 parts (9 1/4 in. ÷ 12 = 3/4 in.)

Pain then instructs us to divide one of those parts into 5—so 3/4 in. ÷ 5 = 1/8 in. (Well, not exactly, but it’s close enough for our purposes. Besides, that gives us a nice easy number to work with!)

Now let’s look at the three moldings that make up a traditional chair rail, and the sizes that Pain recommends for each one.

The cavetto, or cove molding, at the bottom should be 4 parts, which makes it 1/2 in., plus another 1/8 in. for the fillet above. The ovolo, or supporting molding, in the middle (sometimes this is an egg-and-dart profile, or a dentil molding), should be 6 parts, making it 3/4 in.; the corona at the top should be a bit more than 6 parts (I can’t read that number!), so let’s make it 7/8 in. (what the heck). There’s a fillet above the corona, and I can’t read that number either, but hey, it looks like 3/8 in. to me. Add all those crazy numbers together and we’ve got a chair rail that’s 2 5/8 in. No big surprise there, huh?

Too low is better than too high

The classical rules of architecture are the key to the proper size and placement of moldings in a room. Benjamin uses a slightly different set of proportional rules than Pain. But the overall effect remains the same. In the classically proportioned room, not only do we relate to the space, but the parts and pieces also “speak to” and relate to one another, from the crown to the base to the casing to the chair rail—and ultimately to us. Especially if weren’t not short with big feet.

When it comes to chair rail, I always advise customers to err on the side of too low rather than too high. Installing the chair rail or wainscot too high (see photo, right) diminishes the size of a room, making it feel uncomfortably squat and stuffed, kind of how you feel after eating Thanksgiving dinner.

Height isn’t the only problem we encounter when we install chair rail. Probably the biggest problem isn’t where to start it, but how to stop it—how to terminate, or resolve, the chair rail into casing, stairs, and other moldings. Here are some simple rules:

Never back-cut the chair rail at door or window casings.
Always butt cut the rail. If you’re running a build-up of stool and apron, notch the stool over the back of the casing, then butt cut or self return the stool; resolve the apron into casing.
Installing a backband is sometimes the best solution for terminating deep chair rail profiles.
Always install skirt boards on steps, even if there’s only one riser, otherwise, running the chair rail down the elevation change looks stupid.
Never interrupt the casing with the chair rail or with wainscoting! The casing is supposed to resemble a classical column, and should run uninterrupted from the floor to the top of the doors.

If you’re in complete control of a job, try to install the windows so that the window sills are the same height as the chair rail. But if the window sills are 40 in. from the floor, forgetaboutit! Run the chair below, and remember: it’s better to err on the side of too low rather than too high!

Comments/Discussion

133 Responses to “The Misused & Confused Chair Rail”

  1. JM

    Thanks for the article. You guys over there put together the most amazing information. Really appreciate it, and keep up the good work!

    JM

    Reply
  2. Ryan Mulkeen

    Thanks Brent – This was certainly a hot topic at the Kuiken Brothers Product Expo. I just finished a conversation with a colleague on this topic moments ago and forwarded this link. The pictures really help to reiterate your points. Thanks for sharing – keep up the good work!
    Ryan

    Reply
    • Brent Hull

      Thanks Ryan, you guys are doing great things in NJ. For you guys who don’ know Ryan, get to know him, he really cares about what you guys are doing is part of the great team at Kuiken Brothers.

      Reply
  3. Andrew

    Great article, thanks. I really enjoyed the connection to classical architecture. I think a lot of us just know what ‘looks right’, without knowing specifically why.
    Thanks, Andrew

    Reply
  4. Ed Burt

    You did a nice job, especially to have included the historical background and the basis for proportional design. And the “do and don’t” pictures really drive the point home. Thank you!

    Reply
  5. Dixon Peer

    Interesting. There’s really no substitute for a “good eye” for proportion. With that, and years of experience, one can do a good job with trim. A lot of newer homes, while structurally very sound and better than years ago fall apart, figuratively, when it comes to “tasteful” trim work.

    Reply
    • Brent Hull

      Hi Dixon,
      I agreee, part of the problem is that we have forgotten how to build. This loss of builidng know-how shows itself in poor trimwork and design

      Reply
  6. mgfranz

    I have installed miles of chair rail and wainscoting over the past decade and have followed the rule of less is better, shorter instead of taller. The results have almost always been spectacular.

    However I should interject the fact that in the 1700-1800′s, chair rails were functional more than decorative, the rail was placed according to the height of the chairs in the room to prevent the chairs from rubbing up against the wall when placed out of the way. May times chairs were pushed to the outer most portion of a room to open the room for dances or other social events. The chair rail protected the walls from scuffs and scratches. This was predominant in the Shaker community where chairs were hung on the wall after a meal, the feet of the chairs would strike the walls at the same level that the protective chair rail was placed. It wasn’t till the early 20th century that the chair rail became purely decorative over function.

    Today when a client asks me to install a chair rail or wainscoting I always scope the room for it’s form and use before I even break out the samples, size is important, less is better. You want these details to enhance a room, not overpower it.

    Great information in the article! A fun read.

    Reply
    • Brent Hull

      Thanks for your comments but the truth is the chairrails and the wainscot cap historically was ALWAYS established based on classical proportions. I fear that you are assuming this fact base on something you’ve heard. If you read the pattern books from the 1700 and 1800 these authors are always concerned about proportions not the function.

      There was a master’s thesis i read once that tracked the heights of the wainscot cap/chair rails as recommended in pattern books from the 1700 through the 1800′s. The hieght of the chair rail rises from 22-24″ up to about 28″ as an ideal hieght. There is no mention of furniture in establishing these heights; instead the heights change because of newly discovered information regarding proportions from the classical traditions.

      Finally, the reaons the chair rail projects is because it is meant to look like a pedastal cap, not to protect the wall. The pattern books were very vivid in drawing out these details.

      Hope this helps, i’m intersted in your feedback.

      Reply
      • David Logsdon

        I would love to see a reference that actually refers to chair/dado rail historical proportions. The works you are refering to are very specifically related to columns in classical architecture. There was a obvious emphasis on form in those elements. Yet the chair rail was born from function rather than form. The hieght of the chair was dictated by comfort and in turn the hieght of the rail was dictated by the chair. No doubt the construction methods employed for the rail superficially resembled the dedign elements of the classical column, but this was an example of apply design elements to a functional element after the fact. Even The Victorian Society(www.victoriansociety.org.uk), an English not-for-profit dedicated to the preservation of victorian and edwardian homes, states that the chair/dado rail was to serve the function of protecting wall hangings from chairs. They have been archiving and collecting info on this style of architecture for more than fifty years.

        Reply
  7. Mike Pelletier

    I like The American Vignola by William Ware as a basic guide to classical proportion. Unfortunately, I think chair rails are often added, rather than a part of the original design. The result is that there are often odd conditions where they meet casings or terminate against other details in the house.

    Probably a good idea to consider chair rail early when developing the trim schedule.

    Reply
    • Brent Hull

      Good point. Planning ahead is a great idea, even doing some small mock ups at key areas will help. Normally, i’ll draw up full scale details of moldings we plan to do, so that base/casing/plinths and chairrails all “fit”. Its part of being a master craftsman.

      Reply
  8. Mike Kennedy

    Good article! All this proportion business was figured out thousands of years ago. It’s all written down. Why don’t more people (architects and builders) just open a book? Look at all the ugly McMansions being built. They are especially ugly when built next to an old colonial whose builders followed the “rules” of classical proportions. I’m ranting again…sorry
    good article though!
    Mike.

    Reply
  9. Jim Baldwin

    I agree that a chair rail molding looks better lower but applying classic architectural proportions to today’s residential construction is fraught with difficulties.

    Classic proportions have their origins in ancient monumental buildings. The Greeks and Romans built massive structures including temples and great government houses. These buildings were constructed according to the proportions of the exterior columns. In other words, the building were designed from the outside first.

    If we consider the chair rail to be part of a proper pedestal, then according to the classic proportions of an 8′ceiling it would only be about 18 inches!

    As a stair builder, I see the ideal height of the chair rail molding (or wainscot paneling to be the same height as the balustrade, especially as it ascends the stair wall. In colonial America, that was often about 30″ (even on the balcony). Today we’re looking at between 34″ and 42″.

    It’s hard to know what looks best when it’s often impossible to adhere to “proper proportions”.

    Reply
    • Brent Hull

      Thanks for your comments here are a few ideas for consideration.

      1st. I agree that applying classical proportions to today’s construction is challenging. However, I would argue that working through those challenges and solving that problem can really separate you from your competition. Our carpenter-forefathers understood these rules and applied them better than we do today. We need to learn from the past not ignore it.

      2nd. The classical rules were established with the Greeks and Romans but they were worked out for more modern buildings during the renaissance (17th/18th Centuries). It was at this time that the 5 orders were organized and the interiors of classical room were refined. I find that these classical rules are still applicable for today and have been worked out for modern interiors.

      3rd. It’s true the classical rules for an 8′ ceiling is funky. Though not quiet 18″, the 20″ – 24″ as prescribed by the classical proportions is still low. It should be remembered that most houses had at least 9′ cielings until the 1940′s. Interestingly the production building of the 1950′s is really when 8′ ceilings has any real precendent in residential construction. The lesson here is to use the rules as guidelines not as strict mathematical formulas to follow.

      4th. I would be careful letting the height of the handrail guide the height of the chair rail. The handrail has been mandated by code for safety. It has nothing to do with proportions. Historically the handrail on classical buildings is very low. We’ve worked on many courthouses from the late 1800′s and finding handrails that are 28-30″ tall is not uncommon.

      Finally, i think understanding the classical rules is vital to proper proportion. There are a lot of things (like modern codes) that get in the way of good scale, work to integrate proper proprotoins and your clients will thank you.

      My two cents…

      Reply
  10. Kimber

    Were the ancient Greeks and Romans considering chairs when they mapped out the proportions of their decorative detailing? The Shakers were a little more practical, simple and functional. These days we don’t have to be tied to the prescriptive approach of previous eras.
    Many times we install chair rail without wainscotting as a simple design element. Most people seem to like a height of 36″ when the ceiling is at 8′.
    Pretty close to the Golden Ratio(ancient Greek)- go figure.

    Reply
    • Brent Hull

      Good question, No- the ancient greeks were not considering chairs when they designed the chair rail. In fact, it wasn’t called the chair rail but the pedastal cap.

      Actually the goldern ratio is close a to 5:3 ratio not an 8:3 ratio. The chair rail at 36″ in an 8′ room nearly cuts the room in half.

      I’m usually installing the chair rail at between 26-28″ in an 8′ room. It depends on the crown and the size of the room. Also, as mentioned earlier and 8′ room is hard to proportion.

      Reply
      • Nick Shaver

        To be fair, when relinquishing the chair rail dimensions to the Golden Ratio you wind up with around 37″ on an 8′ ceiling. The GR is approximately 1.618. If the entire wall height is 96″ (8′), 96″/1.618=59″, so the longer section would be 59″, shorter section 37″. The math is, what it is.

        Reply
        • Brent Hull

          Sorry for the confusion, actually the chair rail height has nothing to do with the Golden Ratio, in that the GR is not used to determine the pedastal height. Instead, it has to do with the classical order and the height of the cap of the pedastal. When i was speaking about the GR in my answer above i was referencing the classical proprotions in general. The 5 orders of architecture are well thought out, with each molding and the placement of each molding tied to mathimatical proportions. To place the chair rail at 36 is a mistake in a 8′ room. In fact, if you are going to only have one rule in molding placement, that should be it. Sorry to be strong on this one, but it is REALLY important for well scaled room. B

          Reply
          • Brent Hull

            Sorry, more confusion. The rule you should apply, is never place the chair rail at 36″ in an 8′ space. According to the classical proportions you woul need a room 12-15′ tall to make those proportions work.

            B

          • Karen

            This discussion is fascinating. I searched how to determine if chair rail was still in style. We installed ours 21 years ago in our bedroom with the obligatory wallpaper below. I know that now wainscoting or picture molding is popular. I’m trying to determine (while redecorating) whether or not to keep the railing we have or do away with it. We have a taupe paint above and just stripped the paper below. We’re currently left with white paint below and I’m considering painting a deeper tone of the taupe there. I understand what you are saying about the proportion of the height placement now. Our room presents a different issue…8′ ceiling on the sides, but it is true cathedral which I’m guessing without measuring that it goes up an additional 2 feet at its peak. We have an unusually high four-poster bed (mattress height also very high) in the room and therefore we possibly didn’t misplace the railing originally too badly. It is about the height of the top of my dresser and the mattress…also close to nightstand tops…Any lower and it may have made the bed look even higher. Since we are repainting the whole room anyway, would you recommend we keep the railing and if so, should we paint it a different color above and below? Also, while I would love special wood treatments below, that is too much work involving hubby. I could stencil a damask pattern or the like below…you can see I am slightly conflicted, but full of ideas. I’m a do it yourself-er, always have been and have a pretty good eye. But this is a budget job and I want to make a good decision that would appeal to a wide range of people, especially me! Thanks again for all of your information. You obviously know what you are talking about. I hope this is not a waste of your time, as it is also decorating advice.

  11. Rob Potter

    Thanks for putting this feature out again. I remember it from the 2nd issue of TIC and enjoyed rereading it.
    Brent, thanks for sharing your knowledge with us. I’d love to see you featured regularly by TIC. This is critical stuff for carpenters to know, even if circumstances today don’t always allow its application on every project. How about a feature on the correct proportion of a classical entablature?

    Reply
    • Brent Hull

      Hey Rob,

      Thanks, Gary and i have been talking about another article, I think your idea for the entablature is a good one. It drives so much hin the room.

      Thanks

      Reply
  12. Ray Menard

    A question: One of the “rules” you write is to not interrupt the casing with a chair rail etc., but then above you write the “rule” that allows the chair rail to notch over the casing. Is a notch considered slight enough that it does not constitute an interruption of the casing?

    Reply
  13. Brent Hull

    Sure, good question. Here’s the big picture. The door casing that wraps the door is a more important element than the chair rail. That is why it needs to run down to the floor uniterrupted.

    At the same time, the chair rail often projects (off the wall) farther than the back of the casing. A good/decent way of solving this “mismatch” is to terminate the wainscot cap unto the casing. This is a good way of cleanly solving the mismatched trim sizes, yet also does not interrupt the casing running down.

    Reply
  14. Jim Baldwin

    I think you’re right on with your specific reply to me.

    After a little research of my own however,I have come to the conclusion that wainscot paneling along with the chair rail molding definitely need to run parallel and level to the balustrade within a stair hall area, but should be lowered in other areas or wherever possible. In fact,the actual handrail profile is often employed as the chair rail molding itself.

    Specific staircase trim along with it’s interface with other architectural elements is perhaps another story…

    I couldn’t agree with you more about the need to “understand and integrate proper proportion”

    (I believe) this is a picture of a classic chair rail and wainscot paneling as part of a pedestal base and pilaster.

    [img]http://www.thisiscarpentry.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/classic wainscot.jpg[/img

    Reply
    • Brent Hull

      I agree completely that the wainscott in a stairhall should match the hand rail height, and also that the chairrail cap often mimics the handrail.

      On our jobs, because i think the proportions are so important, we fight to keep the handrail and thus chairrail as low as possible. Code in our area is 34″ off the front of the tread, and we don’t go higher than this. I know i have seen some handrails as high as 42″, in my experience this feels like a cage, not a handrail.

      If you read Marianne Cusatos book, “Get Your House Right” she recommends some smaller/raised hand rails that meet code and provide safety but are small and nearly invisible. Thus the main hand rail is set at a good (proportional) height, but then a thin bar is raised to meet code.

      we have also built up curbs so that the baluster doesn’t get to long and thin and we can maintain historic proportions. That may sound alike a lot of work but it is worth it.

      Reply
  15. JoshK

    Great article! I’ve seen applications where the proportions are reversed, i.e., the wainscotting and “chair rail” cover most (~2/3) of the wall. What are the proper proportions in this application or does this application defy the rules of classical architecture?

    Reply
    • Brent Hull

      Good question, There are a couple of possibilities.

      First, there is an english cottage tradition that works on a simple house. The english arts and crafts tradition is full of paneled walls and 3/4 paneled walls. In this case, they are not following classical rules but rather more of a simple house tradition that had wood paneled walls sometimes full hieght, sometimes 3/4 height.

      Second, it coud also be that the tall wainscot is actually following classical tradition and the height is proportional to the height of the column and not the pedastal cap. Thus, what is not shown on the wall is the entablature above the columne but the tall wainscott is actually mimicing the column and not the pedastal. In this case it does follow classical rules.

      Hope this helps.

      Reply
  16. jed dixon

    Gotta remember that not all traditional work is Classical (big C). Gothic proportions and detail were probably more influential in the 19th century. Gothic design often intentionally goes against classical. Classical buildings are proportional, rational, logical, and graceful and static. Gothic, buildings are magical, vertical, whimsical and full of motion and contrast. I use classical ideas more in my work, but I like to remember that the great classical monuments, like the Parthenon where designed by genius architects… and built by slaves; where the gothic cathedrals, from the medieval times, were both designed and built by craftsmen, who’s guilds had great power and influence in their societies.

    I’d guess that the real high wainscot, with caps that are more like plate-rail than chair-rail, are more from the Arts-and-Crafts style or some Victorian style that owes more to the dark ages to ancient Greece.

    Most important thing, is to try to understand where design ideas come from, before we use them, so we don’t use them ignorantly. The worst thing is to use the details as a kind of pretentious decoration while getting the proportions all wrong. One thing for sure, is that us carpenters have as good a chance or better-and as much responsibility- to get this right as the architects.

    Reply
    • Brent Hull

      Hey Jed,

      Great points. Your right on that there is a Gothic influence behind a tall wainscott. If you strip architecture down to its most basic elements you are left with Classical and Gothic. In fact, except for a brief (and recent) modern period, the Classic and Gothic traditionas have inspired all design.

      John Ruskin, was a huge Gothic fan. Ruskin inspired William Morris, who in turn inspired Gustav Stickley. Ruskin is where the English Arts and Crafts tradition begins and you can tie the high chair rail to him and the gothic stylings.

      Oh and thanks for the comments about the article.

      Good stuff Jed, thanks for pointing it out.

      Reply
  17. jed dixon

    Great article, by the way, Brent. And that’s from a short carpenter with big feet!

    Reply
  18. Lewis Taliaferro

    I really enjoyed this article, I love classic architecture. Being a custom builder and trim carpenter I get to design a lot of my work myself. After reading this I also ordered your book Traditional American Rooms. It’s great my clients appreciate it for the design idea’s. This chair rail article was great! keep it coming.

    Reply
    • Brent Hull

      Thanks for the comment. Working on another article. Let me know what you think of the Trad. Am. Rooms book. I think you’ll find the rooms of Winterthur inspiring. I know I did.

      Reply
  19. Ed

    Perhaps there are times to follow need rather than proportion? For example, we have a modest kitchen, about 10′x13′, in a 1901 house. The traffic pattern comes from every which way, yet it was convenient to push a drop leaf table against one wall. It just fits. From there, one has a view into the back yard through. It is one of the must used places in the house, perhaps because of the “sit in a small space and look into a big one” effect. In any case, because of the small size, the walls are beaten to pieces by the chairs which are often scuffed along the wall when pushed under the table. The drop leaf table fairly well fills the wall space. There is no sight line from any place that would allow one to see a properly sized and properly placed chair rail. It would be covered by the table. So, in this case, it seems need trumps proportion and I simply must place the rail relative to the chair height.

    But, maybe you win out in the end. I’m going to think of this as the table defining the pedestal in the 9 1/2 foot room and try to think of the “chair rail” as a detail on that pedestal, trying to see the rail in proportion to the table that is placed right next to it while still covering the need of protecting from the chairs. I don’t know what else to do, but would happy for ideas of how to approach this. But, I must address the “need” of stopping the demolition of the wall by the chairs.

    Reply
    • Brent Hull

      Ed, A very practical and real dilemma. In truth the one room that is the hardest to adopt these classical rules is in the kitchen. Because counters are at 36″ and cover most walls to introduce a chair rail at 30″ is often impractical and clumsy.

      The other reality is that kitchens are often work/living spaces and historically (early 1900′s) wainscot heights were at 4′ and taller in order to catch the mess created in kitchens. Because your space is so small, and typical for a house of that period, i don’t see how you can introduce the classical proportions to that space.

      Thanks for trying, but that is a tough one.

      Reply
  20. Ed

    By the way, thank you for your article. It helped me understand the trim in our house. After reading it, I measured sill heights and so forth, and they are right where you describe, about 25″. Did you describe the height of a picture rail? Now I’m curious if that comes out too. Our place is trimmed so that the sills are at 25″. Below the sill is frame and panel down to the floor. The window extends upwards to meet the picture rail which also defines all the door heights. The bottom of the picture rail is at 91″ and is 2.5″ wide/tall. Ceiling is at 9′ 6″.

    Out of curiosity, what determined the room height?

    Reply
    • Brent Hull

      Hi Ed, I’m not suprised your house’s trim is laid out to classical proportions. Thanks for confirming. Also, thanks for the segue to the next article. I’m working on the article that will help explain the picture rail, as well as crown, casing, etc.

      As for room height. That is another article. Historically a regions temprature often determined room sizes. In the North (a cold region) ceilings were often lower to keep heat down low, in the south cielings were high to keep the heat high and away. A very simple answer to a very involved question.

      B

      Reply
  21. Adam

    man, i wish i was able to find this article last week, i just put arts and crafts wainscoting (attempting to add character throughout my standard builder spec 15 year old house)in my dining room and it ended up dwarfing it…now i know why

    you just earned yourself an avid follower

    Reply
  22. Jan Toraason

    Love the article. I’m not a carpenter or architect, just an interested home owner/reader. Nice work!

    Reply
    • Alex D

      Thanks for the great info! Will be using this as basis for my chair rail and wainscot install. As mentioned, there are practicality issues in applying the rules strictly for less than 10ft ceiling homes.

      My house has 8′ 3″ ceilings. In one of your replies, you said, “I’m usually installing the chair rail at between 26-28″ in an 8′ room.” Also, you said, “try to install the windows so that the window sills are the same height as the chair rail.”

      My window sill on one wall is at around 28″ from the floor. If I put the chair rail at the same height, do you recommend using the same chair rail cap as the window stool (I’m planning to use a 1 x 3 or 1 x 4 routered to a Roman Ogee profile as chair rail cap), so I have one continuous cap along the wall? In that case, do you still keep the window apron?

      If not, how would you terminate the chair rail cap at the point where it meets the window stool (most of my stools have bullnose edge)? I think I want my window stool to be wider/deeper than the chair rail cap so it juts out farther into the room.

      Thanks!

      Reply
      • Brent Hull

        Hi, thanks for reading the article, i’m glad you liked it. The window stool/apron can either be the same as the chair rail (the same molding) or you can have no stool and the chair rail runs around at the height of the apron/stool. The key detail is getting the height correct (which it sounds like you are doing) the shape has flexibility.
        Good luck.

        Brent

        Reply
  23. Chris

    I am a curious homeowner and until I read this article was unaware of such a scientific/standardized approach to wainscoting, chair-rail, etc. I am a fan of the Victorian and Arts and Crafts period and like various design elements from each period, I often struggle with proper spacing and which ideas can be used with each other (if at all). I want both design aspects in my house but my house is not of a specific period or of a certain style, its just a house that was built in 2006 by some random builder. So when I read information regarding certain universal standards, how does one know which principals to apply to modern day construction? Have you considered writing an article for the novice homeowner or novice trim carpenter on integrating trim work with modern day construction? Specifically, can Victorian trim or Arts and Craft trim be used where the external house does not reflect this type of style? Can you mix different design components with each period and it still be tasteful? Or even better, write it from the perspective of “if”, when using paneling in one room, don’t use bead board in another. Discussing dimensions and proper spacing for wainscoting, crown and chair-rail would also be fabulous. I know much of everything regarding this subject is personal preference and taste but for guys like me, I am searching for principles or guidelines for using trim-work from a bygone era with a new modern era.

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Chris,
      Sounds like a great book idea! But definitely not a single article. For the time being, you’ll have to dig for details through an assortment of books and internet sites; and like the rest of us, you’ll probably have to make a few mistakes to learn what works and what doesn’t.
      Gary

      Reply
    • Brent Hull

      Thanks for the questions and comments, good stuff. You are asking a lot of good questions, but let me just remind you that the purpose of moldings is to introduce proper scale and proportion in a room. When properly executed, you should be able to walk into a room and feel good there. You will feel right in that space because the proportions are based on a human scale that we naturally relate to. This “feeling” can happen on any age of house and any style of house.
      Just because you have a new builder house, doesn’t mean proper moldings won’t work there; they will. In fact, in some ways good moldings in your room will do more than anything else.

      As for mixing styles, that is where you need to be careful. A proper blend of appropriate moldings can work but if you mix and match too much you may confuse your visitors. Where am I? Wha’ts going on?

      Instead, work on crafting a story for your home. This story is ideally consistent from the outside to the inside. I realize this is hard on new homes, however the story of the home, and a well-told story adds value and charm. Mixing periods like Arts and Crafts and Victorian can work but it takes a lot of expierence and skill to pull it off.

      I would love to write the book you mention but i think you and i would be the only ones that would read it.

      Thanks, Brent

      Reply
      • Steven Masters

        Brent, I think you are wrong on the note that only you and Chris would read that book. I certainly would read it also. I refer to your comment: “This story is ideally consistent from the outside to the inside. I realize this is hard on new homes, however the story of the home, and a well-told story adds value and charm. Mixing periods like Arts and Crafts and Victorian can work but it takes a lot of experience and skill to pull it off.”

        Keep the great articles coming Brent and Gary!

        Reply
  24. carolyn

    Thank you so much for this clarity. Too bad I didnt read it soon for some completed projects. Live and learn.

    Here goes:
    I wanted to break up a sizable foyer with chair rail…it is a 2 story open area with a set of 3 over 3 large picture windows facing front.

    A) what is your height recommendation? The first floor has 11 foot ceilings (other than the 2 story floyer).

    B) Do I remove the lower window sills and aprons? The sill is @ 18 inches off the floor.

    Note that:
    C) The adjacent diningroom has very tall panels (probably too tall but too late to change). Does it matter if the “rails” are at diiferent heights?

    If you need more clarity, please ask.

    Many thanks in advance for your thoughts and recommendations.

    Carolyn

    Reply
  25. lavrans

    I think that another important point is that the Classical orders aren’t the only aesthetically pleasing orders. The Japanes, Chinese and Indian’s all come to mind as having similarly proportional and aesthetically pleasing building traditions that wouldn’t fit within the Classical. When you look to Greene & Greene, and even Wright, you will find that there is some or a lot of Japanese influence or interest. Really, quite a bit of the good architecture of the 1880s through the 1940s was less a creation of European or American architects than it was the introduction of Asian design and aesthetics.

    That all comes important when deciding whether you’re going to install chair rail as an aesthetic or a utilitarian detail. Most 36″ chair rail isn’t useful for all chairs, or even most chairs. It may just be too tall, even from a utilitarian perspective. Then there is the question about the rest of the trim in the house and the type of house it is. Often enough in todays houses it just isn’t worth trying to inject anything Classical because it will just make the rest of the proportions look bad, and it might be a better plan to use a completely different type of trim design/detail. Another part of that point is that a closet or foyer will not necessarily have the right proportions for any of these issues; It’s not just the height of the ceiling, but how much wall and floor you have, too.

    I still think “Chair Rail” needs a different name. It is a good name when used for the right size room where it’s protecting or complimenting the chairs (where, I think, the mis-naming comes from, unless it’s the “chair” the column is sitting on, which would be a pedestal, but…), but that’s really from a latter era when regular people had chairs, not stools. 18″ is actually the perfect height to protect a wall from a stool, but too low for a chair with a back. 20″-28″ is great to protect a wall from a chair-back. But it’s really just a bad name for a detail if it isn’t used to relate to chairs.

    As has been pointed out, words are important. Perhaps it’s time to re-name the “Chair rail” to a more appropriate name, or have it used as a utilitarian detail rather than an aesthetic one. Hah!

    Reply
  26. Joe Homeowner

    Wow! I never considered ancient architecture when I googled how high to put my chair rail molding. A very interesting read though. I do have to say if I was a little confused before I am über confused now! And my OCD is kicking in and I’m afraid I’ll be stuck with chair rail that is not mathematically correct.

    Reply
      • Bill Baker

        First thanks for the informative article, I really enjoyed it. I grew up in a house built in 1915 and I remember it being between 25″ and 30″ from the floor; the ceilings being at least 11 if not 12′ high, all too well as still have the scar on my noggin’ from when running down the hallway and sliding in my socks causing head meet the chair rail at a corner. I’ve been struggling with the height of the chair rail should be in my current home we are in the process of remodeling because when you enter the house in to the grand room the ceiling starts a 8′ foot and rises at about a 32 deg to about 18 feet (to the peak of the roof.) once you leave the grand room the rest of the house id 8′ from floor to ceiling.

        Using admittedly the un-scientific method of temporally mounting a 16′ length of chair rail to the long wall it just chair rail just “feels” right at 32″ but my wife argues at 34″ I fear without fact to back me up the decision will default to “the wife is always right even when she’s wrong theory” HA! What are your thoughts?

        Reply
        • Brent

          Hi Bill,

          When there is a wiggle room and no seemingly “right answer” i would look beyond the math and let the chair rail work to unify other architectural elements of the room or the house.

          Moldings should provide and give the room order and a sense of purpose. Using the chair rail to unify the room and or house is the next consideration. We have used a chair rail to tie together different rooms together, it is a great unifying tool.

          So you see, I have carefully avoided your wife’s wrath, if you want to post a picture i’m happy to give you my opinion based on pic.

          Good luck,

          B

          Reply
  27. Valerie

    I feel Ed’s OCD pain. This is my first ever attempt to remodel and paint. I am remodeling my grandmorher’s 1968 1100 sq ft brick home. It has 7 1/2 foot ceilings and 36″ chair rail. It makes the rooms ( kitchen, hallway, living room) feel fat and disproportioned. I have been going “crazy” trying to figure out what to do with the chair rail height. Thank you for the specific advice in your reply to Ed. It as helped me tremdously to know that my gut feeling was correct about the placement of the chair rail.

    However, I have a fear based on the fact that the kitchen and living room blend together on an empty, panelled wall and is interrupted by an entry door. I have read that the height of chair rail in the kitchen should match the countertop height. (by the way I read the reply above above about the function of kitchens in the past ). I do not want the chair rail at 36 inch in these rooms. I want it lower. How should I handle this dilemma? (I will be painting the walls)

    Should I move all the chair rail down in height?

    Should I leave the chair rail in the kitchen at its current height and pick it up in the living room and hallway at a lower height?

    Should I remove it from the kitchen and leave it down and place it at a lower height in the living room and hallway?

    Should I remove the chair rail and not replace it at all in any room?

    Do have another suggestion?

    Thank you in advance for your time and reply.

    Reply
    • Brent Hull

      Thanks for your questions and comments. Here are my answers, but they are based on broad assumptions as i have not seen your spaces. HOwever because of the size and ceiling heights I would do the following:

      Take it out in the kitchen. I don’t think a chair rail is going to help establish proportions in this space where cabinets dominate.

      YEs move all the chair rail down. You could get away wiht 24-26″ with such low ceilings.

      HOpe this helps.

      Good luck.

      B

      Reply
  28. Bebe Coyle

    Please tell me this: In using chair railing in a room, does it have to go on all four walls? In two bedrooms, I can use chair railing on three walls, but the fourth wall has beautiful gothic arched windows, and I feel chair railing in-between the windows diminishes their striking beauty. Whatcha think?

    Reply
    • Brent Hull

      Hi and thanks for the question. Remember that the reason for moldings and the chair rail in particular is to introduce scale and proportion into a room. That is their chief function. The only reason i would add a chair rail in a room is because it would help establish the proper scale. If you can accomplish the sense of scale in your rooom by only placing it on 2 walls (which stikes me as difficult) than ok.

      As far as not wanting to diminish the effect of your gothic window, really, if the moldings are done correctly, they should highlight and accentuate the window not diminish from it. Historically moldings were used to puncutate openings. there was a proportion for door and window casings that properly highlighed them. If your chair rail is diminishing your gothic window, then you aren’t tieing the moldings together properly.

      Hope that helps.

      B

      Reply
  29. Joel S

    Great article. Luckily I found it while trying to determine the correct height of a chair rail and wainscoting for a staircase in a large entryway. The contractor suggests the height of the chairrail as 40″.The entryway has about a 25 foot ceiling and the starway goes to the second floor. The height of the handrail is 34″. From what I gather from your article I think you would still keep the height of the chairrail the same as the handrail despite the height of the entrance way. Please correct me if I am wrong. Thanks again for a great article.

    Joel S

    Reply
    • Brent Hull

      Yes, that is correct. 40″ is way to high and I always go to the lowest allowable by code. Historically handrails were much lower. I was in Philadelphia Hall and the stair case is in a grand hall with tall cielings. The stair rail and corresponding chair raill are around 28″. good luck.

      Reply
  30. Scott Campbell

    This article on chair rails is revealing, thought-provoking, and very enlightening. I am a DIY homeowner who is in the process of trimming my new home. After reading your article I don’t know how to address my chair rail problem. I have a staircase with walls on both sides which is 48″ wide with railings scheduled for each side. We have selected two paint colors which will meet approximately at the railing heights and wanted to install a chair rail at those points. After reading this article I’m in a quandry. If I carry the top color down to approximately 24″ above the skirt board and install the chair rail where the colors meet it would be approximately 10 inches below the railings. Wouldn’t that look peculiar? Any ideas? Thank you.

    Reply
  31. Scott Campbell

    Can you tell I read the article and not ALL the responses??!! On review I noticed the comment by Joel S came close to answering my question! Although there is one difference. I am not installing wainscoting below the handrail. The ceiling height at the bottom step is 17′ ascending to an 8′ ceiling on second level.

    Reply
    • Brent Hull

      This is tricky and if i understand your situation correctly here’s what i would do. I would define the chair rail height according the classical orders and most likely ignore the 17′ vs 8′ discrepancy on the 1st to 2nd floor. Instead i would treat the stairs as it’s own area asit sounds like it is inclosed between 2 walls anyway. I would probably only have on hand rail to meet code, or i would diminish the size of the hand rail so it is not a prominent element. THen i would have the colors meet at the proper height.

      This decision is all driven by the principle that architecture and form should NOT follow function. Code has messed up design in many cases. If aesthetics is important to you than let the design come first.

      Reply
  32. Stanley Colt

    I want to install chair rail (WM-300 – 1-1/16″ x 3″) with a backer (WM956WW 7/16″ x 4-1/4″) in a 13.5 x 15.2 room with 9ft ceiling.
    Should I install chair rail at 36 and let the backer stay an inch higher or install the backer at 36?
    Thanks

    Reply
    • Brent Hull

      Not sure what you mean by a backer. However the chair rail should never be at 36″ in a 9′ room. I would be shooting for something in the 28-32″ range in height.

      Good luck.

      B

      Reply
  33. Ann Lohmeier

    OK – quick question, I did not see this addressed anywhere, although I confess I didn’t read word-for-word.

    I want to put a chair rail in my office. I live in the SW USA and my home does not have wood trim around the windows or entryway to the room (not a door, just an opening). Rather, it is just a bullnose corner in the drywall. So what is the best look to “end” the chair rail when I get to the window or to the door/opening? 90-degree or 45-degree? Or something else?

    Reply
    • Brent Hull

      You definitely want to return at 90-degrees. NEVER at 45. You will have much crisper details and you will be defining the profiles of the moldings more vividly.

      Thanks and good luck.

      B

      Reply
  34. Ann Lohmeier

    Everything I had been reading said to put the chair rail between 28″ and 41″, or to divide the height of the ceiling (9′) by 3 and put the chair rail there (36″). Thank goodness I found this website – just finished installing the chair rail at 30″ (as recommended above in this thread) and it looks sophisticated and elegant. BTW: At the new height, I was able to run it under the window which looks infinitely better than running it “into” the window. Thanks all for info!

    (Photos attached: before/after, decorating is still a work in progress. Colors in photos are a little off.)


    Reply
  35. Carlos

    Hi Brent,

    Question. We are installing chair rail in a dining room that is also open to the living room. We want to terminate the rail on the wall that runs into the living room. The dining room floor is a step up from the living room. The current plan was to have the rail make a 90 turn to meet the baseboard and put a block (rosette) where the rail and baseboard meet. As as shown in the photo. I would appreciate your recommendation.



    Reply
    • Brent Hull

      Hi Carlos,

      Thanks for the question. Here’s what i would do. First remember that the purpose of the molding is to establish scale and proprotion into a room. You are trying to overcome a poor intersection betweeen rooms with a ‘tricked out” molding detail. I would rather see both moldings (base and chair rail) turn 90 degrees into the wall serving as a molding definition point or termination.

      Secondly, i would put a 2×4 or something bigger on the wall and wrap it in wood or drywall to let it serve as a post or as a visible termination between rooms. The design challenge is not the moldings but the room layout. I fear that dropping the chair rail down onto a custom plinth is going to emphasize your creativity instead of emphasizing the proper scale and proportion in the room.

      Good luck.

      Brent

      Reply
      • Carlos

        Hi Brent,
        Thanks for sharing.
        Seems like the second option would be the appropriate solution given that the bottom and top of chair rail are different colors in the dinning room only. Therefore running the molding into the wall would leave the bottom area without being properly terminated. By putting a terminating post between the rooms as you suggested would the allow the moldings to terminate on the post. Thanks.

        Reply
  36. Heidi Tackett

    Thanks so much for this article. I was just about ready to have my chair railing installed at the tops of the back of my chairs (40 inches). I usually opt for practical, but also don’t want it to look strange.

    I’m also doing my bonus room, but since it is a huge room and the walls are 16 foot, I was thinking about putting large chair railing about 1/3 down the wall (from the top) and then painting a darker color below. I have seen it in pictures, but I have no eye for how things will look before I do them. Please tell me if this will be okay. Thanks so much!

    Reply
    • Brent Hull

      Hi, with 16 foot cielings, the chair rail should be about 3ft off the floor. Remember the goal is to introduce a human scale to your room. The human scale is something you will innately appreciate and enjoy. Typically the chair rail is 1/5th of the height of a room, not 1/3rd.

      Good luck.

      Reply
  37. ken

    This is great information! I am trying to translate the plate into modern english so I can better follow it. What is the conversion in measurement for a minute? I would like to figure out the height of a picture rail. Also, I’m assuming the same rules are used for exterior porch and rail height and the window sill should rest right above the chair rail – right?

    Reply
    • Tim Nowaczyk

      The diameter measurement is divided into 60 “minutes”. If my reading is correct, the top of the picture rail is at 11/13 * the height of the room.

      Tim

      Reply
  38. sue

    i have a low chair rail in my dining room which is right off the foyer. there is no wainscoting in the dining room, just a rail. i am planning to put wainscoting in the foyer. the dining room entrance is right off the foyer , so you see the chair railing in the dining room. my question is … do i put the wainscoting at the same height as the chair rail in the dining room? the ceiling in the foyer is a two story ceiling . the stair case is open and there is a huge chandelier which is beautiful. i like the look of a taller wainscoting in a foyer but would this be wrong? thank you so much for your reply.

    Reply
    • Brent Hull

      Sue,
      You have some flexibility. I don’t know the height of your rail in the dining room. It should be 28-32″ in height. Because your foyer has the tall ceiling you have flexibility. If it were my house I would have keep the chair rail heights close (within an inch) despite the change in cieling height. The chair rail as it moves from room to room has the ability to tie the rooms together. It is a unifying molding even with changing cieling heights, it seems to ground them to the same plan. That what I would do. You can change the heights to correspond to the cielling hieghts but i suspect it will look goofy. Good luck.

      B

      Reply
  39. Chris J

    This was a really interesting article and, as some have commented already, very useful practically if you have the proportions fit for exercising this approach. If only I had.
    However, according to my architect mother-in-law, now almost 90 years old, a properly designed side chair of the Chippendale era, for instance would not come near to the wall owing to the back leg design that would meet the wall at the floor’s corner first, leaving the chair’s top rail no nearer than a few inches.
    The point of the “dado rail” was to protect expensive wall coverings from damage by chairs.
    “Chair rail?” Never heard it called that before. Always “dado rail” to my knowledge – here in the Home of Chippendale. And prevention is better than cure so the chair leg design is the key.
    Perhaps more later. Regards, Chris J

    Reply
    • Brent Hull

      Thanks Chris,

      I think you are really onto something. I’ll check out my old Chippendale furniture plates.

      As for height and rules, i usually start with 28-32″ chair rail and the height is variable to that it can be used to tie together different elements and details in a room.

      Good luck,

      B

      Reply
  40. Tim Nowaczyk

    Hey Brent,

    Thanks for pointing me to that amazing book by William Pain. I am diving into it full speed ahead. One thing that I think is incorrect above is that the height of the room should be divided by 11 to get the diameter, since two of the thirteen parts you use are for the entablature, which is above the ceiling. If I am getting what you’re saying, the bottom of the base of the pillar is your base molding, the top of the base is your chair rail (2.67 diameters), the top of the pillar is your crown molding, and the astragal is the picure molding (pillar is 8.33 diameters). Is that right?

    Thanks for filling my head with questions :)

    Tim

    Reply
    • Tim Nowaczyk

      I think I figured it out. The cornice of the entablature is the crown molding, and the top of the pillar is the picture rail. So height/13 for pillar diameter is still correct.

      Sorry for the confusion,
      Tim

      Reply
  41. Natalie

    Mr. Hull,
    Can these proportions apply to Batten paneling height? Perhaps the proportions would be flipped relative to the height of a chair rail (e.g. perhaps 30″ from the ceiling, rather than 30″ from the floor)?
    Thank you,
    Natalie

    Reply
    • Brent Hull

      Good question. The classical rules for chair rails do not apply on your home. The Arts and Crafts and English traditions follow a more functional rule for wall paneling. Certainly in the English tradition the wall panel was truly a way of covering the wall and keeping out the cold. As a functional solution the classical proportioning system was not considered.

      As for height on paneled wall like yours, there are a number of historic precedents but no mathematical formulas that i know of.

      Thanks,

      Brent

      Reply
  42. Kathryn

    Thanks for the article! I just have two questions.

    1) I live in Arizona and here the contractors are fond of texturing the walls. I’m assuming they do it to help hide any imperfections in the drywall and patching. I hate it, but it’s what I have to work with. I’d like to install a wainscoting and a chair rail, but I’m not sure that it will look okay with the textured wall. What would you do?

    2) My living room shares a wall with my hallway. Should I just wrap the chair rail around the corner and continue it into the hall? Or stop it at the end of the wall?

    Reply
    • Brent Hull

      1. all walls are textured to some degree, some more than others. The texture of the walls should not affect your decision regarding moldings. WHen done properly, the focus will change from the texture of your walls to the moldings.

      2. It is more traditional to use wood to make a cased opening. Many builders have found that it is cheaper to wrap an opening with drywall instead of wood. You can wrap the chair rail but it is a more contemporary application. I would encourage you to case each opening and NOT to wrap.

      Good luck.

      Reply
  43. Deanna

    Thank you so much for all this information. My walls are 12 ft and I had planned the chair rail for 40 inches off the floor. I am dropping it to 32 now. Great information and posting all the replys really added to the information. Also love the photos.

    Reply
  44. Christina

    Thanks for this great information. Has definitely made me rethink my upcoming remodel. What are your tips for a small half bath with pedestal sink? I always see the railing extended past the height of the sink or vanity. But based on this info, I’m afraid it might make my already small space look even more short and squat. What’s your recommendation?

    Reply
    • Brent Hull

      Hi, thanks for the feedback. The quick answer is that bathrooms and kitchens are considered functional or work spaces and don’t follow the same rules for height of chair rail. This is true historically as well as practically.

      I would work to use the height of the chair rail to tie in other details or to serve a functional purpose like back splash for the pedastal sink.

      Thanks,

      B

      Reply
      • Laila

        Thanks for the article. I’ve been reading through the comments looking for the exact same issue. We have a 5′ x 5′ powder room that we’d like to tile partway up. The sink will come to 32 5/8″. Should we err to the sink height? or go up and include a backsplash? Faucet goes up another 9″.

        Reply
        • Laila

          Height of the bathroom starts at 8′ on one side and goes to 7′ 4″ on the sink wall.

          Reply
        • Brent Hull

          I would use the sink height as your as the height for the chair rail. It is more dominate and unifying than the backsplash. especially with such relatively low ceilings.

          Good luck, thanks for the questions.

          B

          Reply
  45. Mark

    We have a dining room with 8′ ceilings and wainscoting (bead board) installed up to 40 inches thanks to my mother’s desire to “protect the walls”. Now we are putting chair rail into the nearby living room, also 8′ ceilings. I want to put it at a proper height like you suggest though I’m willing to go to 32″ so it’s not so radically different. My wife insists we have to use the same ridiculous height and propagate the previous mistakes throughout the living room. I say to heck with the dining room! What should we do?

    Thanks!

    Mark

    Reply
    • Brent Hull

      Although this question has all kinds of issues with your Mom and your wife, and though I hesitate to get answer, in the name of beauty i persevere and encourage you to lower the height of the wainscot. A 40″ wainscot height has almost cut the room in half. I gotta think it gives the room a funky feel. I mean art hung on the wall must be up really high… I don’t get it. I would argue you could probably lower it to 28″ if you want. Good luck, it will be worth the fight.

      B

      Reply
  46. Trevor

    This is a ton of great information! I’ve got 12ft ceilings, so I’ll be placing my chair rail at 32″. Two questions though:

    1) On one wall there is a staircase with a landing at 48″. Should the chair rail run below the landing (parallel to it) until it eventually hits the riser as the steps come down from the landing? Or should the chair rail terminate at the point equal to where the landing starts (so the two are never on top of each other)

    I’ve included a photo with the bottom of the painters tape being at 32″. I’ll be using a 6″ baseboard too.

    2) your article mentions chair rail being 2 5/8″ tall, which is a very common height. However, I have seen people with chair railing as tall as 5-6″. With 12ft ceilings, are there proportion rules on how tall your chair rail should be?

    Thanks in advance!

    Reply
  47. Brent Hull

    Hi Trevor,
    Great questions.
    First, I would run the chair rail all the way until it hits the skirt. I think it would be odd to stop it.
    Second, 2-3″ is best. I’ve never seen a chair rail as wide as 5″. That seems monstrous.

    Good luck,

    B

    Reply
  48. Catherine Sage

    Hi Trevor,

    First, thank you for this article. I am having chair rail installed in my 10 foot ceiling dining room in a new construction home. The exterior is considered “Mediterranean farmhouse”. I’m not sure what I ended up creating with my choices thus far in the interior ;)

    My issue is that my dining room table is a counter height table with associated chairs. So my table is 36 inches off the ground. If I understood the rules correctly, with my 10 foot ceilings I should have the chair rail installed at 32.5 inches. However, if I do that it’s going to look very short compared to my table (naturally the counterpoint of that room). What do you suggest?

    Thanks
    Catherine

    Reply
    • Brent

      Hmmm, good question. I suggest 32.5″ because architecture is architecture and furniture is furniture. In a perfect world, the room, because of its architecture and moldings, should not be overwhelmed by a table, even if it is a large table. Either, your room works or it doesn’t. Do not cater to the whims of furniture. Furniture is like fashion. It comes and goes. Architecture is permanent thus i recommend going with the proper proportion on the chair rail.

      Ideally if you have laid out your moldings correctly through out the house, the moldings in the dining room will tie together with other moldings in the house and your whole house will make architectural-sense.

      Good luck,

      B

      Reply
  49. Joe

    Great article! I am prepping to redo my home office, which is roughly a 10×10 room with an 8′ ceiling. I had been advised to place the chair rail at 36″, but I won’t be doing that now! I do have a question. I have a large window seat (5-6′ wide) in the room that is at 23″; should I place the chair rail at the 23″ or should I place it at the 26″to 28″ range, and have the window seat look like “a cut out” in the wall?

    Reply
  50. Brent

    Hi Joe,
    Thanks for the comment. Though 23″ is a good height according to the math, i generally find it is too low especially in a small room like yours. The difference in your condition is that you have a window seat that you can tie into the chair rail. When there are architectural elements like this that can be unified with a chair rail, it can still work. Without seeing how the chair rail is built it is a little tough to say, but if you can cheat up a little and still tie it in visually than that may be the best compromise.

    Good luck,

    B

    Reply
    • Joe

      Thanks, Brent. It may be a while before I finalize it, but I will post a photo once I do.

      Reply
  51. Beverly

    Hi Brent,

    I love your book, Traditional American Rooms, and appreciate this informative article on chair rails. The entry hall of my new house will be about 10′ tall. A beam marks a break in the ceiling beyond which the ceiling drops to 9′. I plan to keep the chair rails at a consistent height throughout. What do you consider a good compromise? 29″? 30″?

    I wonder if you teach a class or workshops? I have a new house being built and I want to design the interior moldings correctly. I have everything to integrate and consider. I want to proceed carefully.

    Thanks

    Reply
    • Brent

      Hi Beverly,
      Thanks for the note. Yes, i usually consider 28-32 a good starting point. So yes 29-30 is great.

      I do speak and talk, but not sure what 2014 holds. I have a new book coming out in March, “Building a Timeless House in an Instant Age.” I suspect I’ll be going around talking to promote the book and the ideas.

      The interior moldings should correspond to the style of your house. I’m happy to offer some advice if you want to write me through my website.

      Thanks,

      B

      Reply
  52. Chris

    Hi there – currently renovating a property and we are having a dado rail from the main entrance all the way up the stairs to the top. It’s nicely finished into each architrave it meets and it matches the height of the original (oak) handrail which dates from 1820-1850.

    The builders and architect want the dado to disappear as white. I am accustomed to having the dado match the floor or the bannister in this situation (stairway as opposed to room).

    The key contention is whether to have the dado white, or a colour contrast to match floor (oiled cherry).

    The floor (redder) does not match the bannister (yellower).

    What do you suggest?
    a) everything white. (skirting, dado, architraves, woodwork)
    b) woodwork, skirting dado in cream, walls and ceiling in white;
    c) woodwork, skirting walls and ceiling white. Dado in oiled cherry (floor is cherry).
    d) woodwork, skirting, walls and ceiling white. Dado matched to bannister (yellower).

    Many thanks, Chris

    Reply
    • Brent Hull

      Hi Chris,

      Thanks for the post. There are more variables that lead to a proper answer. I would look strongly at historic precedent in the region. Sometimes it is style specific. If this is a Greek Revival house than more white is better. All that being said, if I understand correctly, my answer is to paint it all white except the handrail on the stairs.

      Let me know if you have any questions. Sending me pictures may help me if my answer doesn’t ring true.

      Good luck,

      Brent

      Reply
  53. Laura

    Hi Brent,

    What do you think about the 1/3 rule? I have a project with 12′ ceilings and your theory would put the chair at 27″. If I understand your equation that is…..

    Thank you,
    Laura

    Reply
    • Brent

      Well, by the 1/3rd rule your chair rail would end up at 4′ which is WAY too high. I would go no higher the 3′. 32″ would be a nice compromise. The other thing I would do is find other details to tie the chair rail to…window sills, cabinets, etc. Let the millwork unify and tie the space together.

      Good luck,

      B

      Reply
  54. Brad g

    I was thinking of putting high panels in my dining room with 8′ ceilings. I layed out for a low chair rail and it just didn’t work with the house or the room.
    I was thinking of just a basic 1X stile and rail, with a plate cap and small crown at top and a basic 2 piece base with shoe at the bottom.
    There will be a basic coffered ceiling with 1X6 verticals and 1X4 on the flat with a crown inside the coffers and there will be 2/3 width coffer beams(is that the right term). Around the perimeter of the room.
    So the question is what height should the higher panelling be on the wall?

    Reply
    • Ben Davis

      Brad,

      I’ve seen this done in at least two homes (coffered ceilings and wainscoting) with 8′ ceilings. Bottom line is that it’s going to look too heavy. Your wainscoting is an interpretation of a column’s pedestal. Following the above outlined rules, you’re looking at a panel height (i.e. to the top of the chair rail) of about 20″.

      Draw it all out on Sketchup and then add some of the stock furniture available through the online sketchup library to see how it looks to your eye.

      Hope this helps.

      Reply
  55. Lisa V.

    Hi, we have a chair rail dilemma. We are installing a chair rail and wainscoting in a foyer and up the stairs. The foyer is partly 2 stories and then transitions to standard 8′ ceilings. There is a hand rail along the stairs that cannot be moved so the chair railing is planned for 21″. We have this ‘triangle’ area along the stairs that is causing us to want to put the remaining chair rail in the foyer at 40′ (so there would be no chair rail in this triangle). There is a large doorway at the bottom of the stairs so the two chair rails will not meet. Do you think this is the right plan? I was trying to upload a picture but having difficulty so hopefully you can picture this without it… thanks!

    Lisa

    Reply
    • Brent

      Hi,
      I’m sorry but it is a little difficult to imagine. Your welcome to send me pics to my email directly. Brent@brenthull.com

      The quick answer is that the chair needs to unify the space. I would NOT have the chair rails at different heights. Instead I would search for a compromise.

      Feel free to send pics, I’m happy to help.

      B

      Reply
  56. Jennifer

    Hi Bent,

    What an awesome article! And thank you for being so thorough in all your answers, it’s clear you have a ton of passion and knowledge to share and you’ve really got me thinking about details that never occurred to me before. Fascinating stuff!

    Quick question about bathrooms. We are installing a marble chair rail in a shower that will be in a bathroom with no chair rail in the rest if it. The shower is enclosed – so almost like a separate room (but with a glass door). The ceilings are 7.5″ high and I was thinking about a marble chair rail 30″ high. The only issue it that there is a vanity in the bathroom that is 35″ high and adjacent to the shower ‘room’. I know in a regular room it would be fine to have a piece of furniture like a chest that is higher than the chair rail but I’m not sure if this applies for bathrooms or vanities.

    Would love your thoughts on this.

    Thanks for all the good work you do educating and inspiring us!

    Jen

    Reply
    • Brent

      Hi Jen,

      Thanks for your note. Bathrooms and kitchens as functional spaces tend to have higher wainscots because the wainscot serves primarily a functional purpose (protecting the walls) as opposed to serving as a proportional line.

      I would encourage you to use your wainscot as a unifying line. I think it is more important that it unifies the space rather than seeking to look for proportions with such a short ceiling.

      Look at the room and see if there are any other horizontal lines to tie together. If the sink at 35 is most prominent that is the line I would use to tie things together.

      Good luck. Your also welcome to send pictures to my work email if you have other questions.

      Thanks,

      B

      Reply
  57. Beth N

    Hi Brent,
    Fantastic article. Only point of clarification for me, a DIYer, is for an 8ft room, should , where should the top of the chair rail be vs a window sill. The top of my window sill is at 30 in. So, if I have a 3in rail (narrowest I coukd find inlocal lumber store) should the top of the chair run right under the sill / “join “the casing under the sill? So top of chair rail is somewhere between 29-30in? Or, is this still too high? Window casing is 2.5 colonial.
    Many thanks!
    Beth

    Reply
    • Brent

      Hi Beth,

      Thanks for the feedback. Yes, I would run the chair rail either even with, or right under the window sill. Because your window sill is already at 30″ it is probably best to let this establish your chair rail height as it will help to unify the room. When moldings bridge architectural elements together, it helps the space appear more planned and thought through.

      Good luck.

      B

      Reply
    • Beth

      Brent,
      I just installed the chair rail at the height you suggested and it looks and FEELS just right, especially unifying it with the sill. You were so right – 36 in for an 8ft ceiling would have been too high. I’m so glad I found your article in time. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
      Best regards,
      Beth

      Reply
  58. Jillian

    Brent,

    Great article! I am working on adding moldings for a French look in my dining room. I am so glad that I came across your article. My decorator and contractor have been telling me to put the chair rail at 36 inches! The room is 8’9″ tall. I am planning on adding chair rail and molding boxes above and below the chair rail. The baseboard is 7 1/4 inches tall. So then chair rail should be between 28 and 32 inches. Will the room look okay whether it is 28 or 32 inches? Is the 28 to 32 inches the bottom top or center of the chair rail? Would it look okay if we had the bottom of the chair rail start at 30 inches? Will that leave enough room below the chair rail for proportional molding boxes? The molding is 1 3/4 inch wide. Also would you recommend adding molding boxes above and below the window and above the door? Finally, how many inches off the chair rail would you attach the molding boxes? Thank you so much! It is very difficult to find someone so knowledgeable on the subject.

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Jillian,
      I’m sorry but all the questions you’ve asked of Brent are beyond the scope of ‘free advice’. I’m sure he’d be interested in consulting with you. You can find his contact information on his website at: http://brenthullcompanies.com/
      Gary Katz

      Reply
    • Brent Hull

      Hi Jillian,
      Thanks for the questions. For the plan of your room, my first effort would be to tie in the chair rail with the window sill. Moldings should help unify the space and this is a great way to do it. By the way, your right, 36″ is too high.

      The top of the chair rail should be no more than 32″ in your space, however your base is already too tall. For the design concept you are looking for, the base should be about 4″ tall and the chair rail at 32″ This leaves room for the panel mold boxes.

      As for the windows and doors, I would either put a decorative header over these elements to lift up the opening or the panels as you are planning.

      Good luck.

      B

      If you need to talk please feel free to contact me through the web address Gary mentioned below.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Attn: New spam-protection!
Slide the tool icon, below, to the right (select and drag, with your mouse) in order to "unlock" the Submit Comment button.

Please note: Your first comment will be held for moderation/review by our staff before it appears. After you have one comment approved, all of your subsequent comments will appear immediately. Read our comment policy for more information.

Heads up! You are attempting to upload an invalid image. If saved, this image will not display with your comment.