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The Perfect Height for Wainscoting?

JLC magazine recently asked me to answer a reader’s question: What’s the right height for chair rail and wainscoting? Of course, everyone always wants the short answer, so here it is: Somewhere between 26 in. to 32 in. off the floor.

Now here’s the same answer I wrote in JLC, and I’ll bet you’ll regret asking this question!

The height of wainscoting and chair rail depends on many things: the style of the home, the size of the room, the height of the ceiling…and your personal opinion on beauty. Because, you see, there are rules—rules and rules and rules. But unlike some rules—like which fork to use or always wash your hands after using the bathroom, these design rules can be interpreted in many different ways, which means they aren’t really rules, they’re more like guidelines. I have to admit my understanding of these rules would be extremely limited if it weren’t for the help of Todd Murdock, who not only understands all the math and proportional ratios, but he can draw in SketchUp, too. And he knows which fork to use.

Like all the moldings we install in our homes, their origins can normally be traced back to the classical orders. Wainscoting (also called dado wall paneling) is meant to replicate the pedestal on a classical column—also called a dado. And chair rail represents the molding that caps the top of the pedestal. Some people think that, since it’s called ‘chair rail’, the height should match the height of a chair back, but nothing could be further from the truth, because, like I said, there are rules!

All of the moldings we install inside and outside homes originate from the classical orders; but equally important, so do the lines—the elevation lines for each decorative detail on a home. (Note: Click any image to enlarge)

These ‘rules’ have been interpreted in many different ways, but the result is still pretty close, and most often MUCH lower than the back of a chair! Why? Well, that’s the long story. First we have to take a quick look at the classical orders, you know, the Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite. But let’s be quick about it.

The Tuscan order is the ‘strongest’ or stoutest of the orders, and the simplest or least adorned, yet every major architectural author advocates their own rules of proportion and design for this and each of the other five classical orders.

Some authors stipulate that the pedestal or dado should be one-fifth the height of the order (or room), while others dictate a different proportional rule, with some saying one-third the height of the column. I believe the truth is closer to what William Chambers said: “With regard to the proportion which their height ought to bear to that of the columns they are to support, it is by no means fixed, the ancients, and moderns too, having in their works varied greatly in this respect, and adapted their proportions to the occasion, or to the respective purposes for which the pedestals were intended” (A Treatise on the Decorative Part of Civil Architecture, [1791] Dover: 2003, Pg. 75).

In other words, or rather in our words, that means your wainscoting should terminate at a height suitable for your room. But what does that mean? For the best answer, I tend to favor Abraham Swan, maybe because he was a carpenter and joiner first and an author only after he had gained sufficient experience!

In his 1757 work, Georgian Architectural Designs and Details, Swan wrote: “There is hardly a greater error in architecture, than in disposing the dados and the entablature to the height of the rooms. When the entablature is too large, and the dado too high, the room appears lower than it really is, whereas a light entablature, and the dado of a moderate size, gives height to the upper panel.”

But the truly wonderful thing about the pragmatic Mr. Swan is his recognition that dado height also determines the height of window sills—or vice versa! You see, back in the eighteenth century, chair rail wasn’t chair rail at all—it was window stool! Now THIS is where rules are important. Georgian homes were classically inspired; they attempted to follow rules of classical design, without interrupting the lines or divisions of the classical orders. Which is why windowsills or stools were placed at the height of the dado, leaving one continuous line of molding defining the top of the pedestal and the bottom of the window.

In most colonial homes, including neo-classical designs from the Georgian and Federal periods, the wainscot cap and windowsills shared the same profile and height, creating one continuous line at pedestal height around an entire floor, fulfilling the rules of the classical orders—each of which is composed of three distinct elements: column, entablature, and pedestal. In this example, from the Gardner-Pingree home in Salem, MA (1804, designs by Samuel McIntire), the matching front and rear parlors share the same stool and wainscot cap, as well as mirrored mantelpieces!

In some homes, particularly those with triple-hung windows (like double-hungs but with three sash, making them extremely tall), the dado was barely two feet off the floor—I’ve visited historic homes in the southeast where the dado was 21 in. from the floor (yes, I had to measure it!). And I’ve worked in one colonial home in, of all places, Los Angeles, where the wainscoting was 23 in. above the floor.

Once again, Abraham Swan approached the problem with a resolution befitting a carpenter: he explained that if the wainscoting is too high, it spoils the view—visitors must stand right next to a window in order to see the ground outside the building. Swan’s fix should be etched in stone, for it solves one part of the problem:

If the room be 10 feet high, I should think about 2 feet 5 inches would be a moderate height for the dado; and for every foot that the room is higher than ten, let 3/4 in. or 7/8 in. at most, be added to the dado. This method has had a good effect, and has been much approved by some skillful judges and persons of good taste (pg. 8, Georgian Architectural Designs and Details: The Classic 1757 Stylebook , (1757) Dover: 2005).

Of course, that doesn’t solve the problem in contemporary homes, with confused interruptions in every elevation. My goodness, how many homes have I visited where the tops of doors and windows aren’t level and in one straight line! Sometimes there’s an inch or more between the interior and exterior door heights! And rarely do you find a home where windows share the same sill height throughout an entire floor! For cryin’ out loud, in most homes these days, wainscoting is almost always higher than the window sills, which presents a variety of design and molding installation complications for finish carpenters, like resolving the chair rail directly into the casing! Listen to me whine!

Oh, but wait, maybe I misunderstood your question! Yes, I’m just another typical author listening mostly to my own words. Maybe you’re asking about all that wainscot paneling that is four, five, even six feet from the floor? And what about the ‘chair rail’ that terminates that dado? Well, that’s not a dado at all—it’s wall paneling often capped by a plate rail, sometimes, in Arts-and-Crafts homes, supported by corbels or modillion blocks. But Swan’s rules still apply: run that wainscot paneling too high and the ceiling will seem low, and the room small. But at least you can put the window sills wherever you want!

Comments/Discussion

5 Responses to “The Perfect Height for Wainscoting?”

  1. Sean G

    Gary,
    Great article. I’ve been studying classical architecture for about ten years now, and it all your fault! So, thank you. When trying to explain the “chair rail” height theory to my fellow carpenters, I alway ask a question. When was the last time you ate a meal so good you stood up and kicked you chair back in celebration and it damaged the wall? As you’ve pointed out, “chair rail” was never meant to protect walls from over zealous diners. It’s more like an engaged pedestal. Thanks!

    Reply
  2. Ed

    Great article, but if the “chair rail” isn’t meant to protect walls from chairs, what should? Most waiting rooms I’ve seen have wall damage from chair backs. If not a chair rail, what is the best way to prevent this type of damage?

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Ed,
      Clearly, chair rail should protect those walls or some other application–but I’d resist installing it higher than 34″ off the floor! As Todd and I discovered while researching both recent articles on classical proportions, so many of these ‘rules’ have been and continue to be interpreted, particularly to meet contemporary needs or standards. Chair rail–both the name of it and the elevation off the floor, is one of those ‘somewhat’ fluid details. Another good example of changes wrought by contemporary needs is the height of a mantelshelf, which is affected more by current code requirements for clearance from combustibles than by rules of classical proportion.
      Gary

      Reply
  3. Rich Thomas

    Great article Gary.
    Much like Sean, I’ve been a student of proportions and details for quite some time now. Your books, DVD’s and seminars have only fueled my interest. The one thing I didn’t appreciate before I started this pursuit of understanding is how much it has helped my business. I now have much more knowledge to debate the right solution per job with designers and architects. It adds creditability to our “craft” and why good quality work is worth paying for.
    Rich

    Reply
  4. David Sharp Tuttle

    Another great article, to remind us proportions. I think the one thing I took from the wainscoting video marathon is the leaving the one run short. I’ve been using that trick in other applications.

    The whole issue with wainscoting, as you mentioned in the article is in ’70’s/80’s houses around here (Southern Ontario), not only do the doors and window line up, but the windows are different sill heights.

    Reply

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