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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!


235 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!


    • keith

      Actually, the chair rail height is not what is proportionate to the height of the walls – at least not if it is supposed to be functional chair rail.

      The reasoning for the varying heights throughout the years, is the height of people, and subsequently the height of the chairs as well.
      Another difference, is over the years – there has been a disconnect between kitchen chairs and dining room chairs.
      (Dining room chairs are always taller)

      So while it may look good to make the chair rail a little higher or lower to split the height of the wall – in order for it to be functional, the back of the chair should come in contact with the chair rail board itself, and not hit the wainscoting or the plaster/sheetrock.

      • Brent Hull

        Hi Keith,

        Thanks for your comment, the point of this article was not to discuss the “function” of the chair rail but rather to help craftsmen see that there is an historical design aesthetic that superseded chairs and kitchens and scraping sheetrock.

        Realize that the industrialization of America happens in the 19th century. This means the mass production of chairs doesn’t take place until after the civil war. Chairs before this time and especially in the 18th century were expensive and rare. My point is that the height of the chair rail was established for design reasons and not for functional reasons.

        Further, the term “chair rail” is a recent term and was never used in pre-industrial design books. Instead it was the wainscot cap, the surbase, or dado.

        I hope this helps. Thanks again for your comments.



  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!

    • 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.

  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

    • Brent Hull

      Thanks Andrew,

      learn as much as you can about the classical architecture, it will make you a better craftsman.

  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!

  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.

    • 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

  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.

    • 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.

      • 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(, 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.

      • Rita

        The problem with Brent’s theory is that 10′ would have been considered a ridiculously low ceiling height in any room in Europe where classical proportions were the measure of success. In 18th Century American architecture, 10′ was normal, except in the South, where much higher ceilings prevailed in grand houses.

  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.

    • 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.

  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!

  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”.

    • 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…

  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.

    • 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.

      • 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.

        • 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

          • 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.


          • 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?

    • 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.


  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?

  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.

  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] wainscot.jpg[/img

    • 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.

  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?

    • 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.

  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.

    • 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.

  17. jed dixon

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

  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.

    • 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.

  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.

    • 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.

  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?

    • 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.


  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

  22. Jan Toraason

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

    • 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.


      • 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.


  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.

    • Gary Katz

      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.

    • 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

      • 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!

  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.


  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!

  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.

    • Brent Hull

      If you have 8-9ft ceilings go 28-30″ If you have 10-12′ ceilings go 30-32″.

      Good luck.


      • Ed

        That is the answer to the question we one time chair rail installers needed

      • 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?

        • 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,


  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.

    • 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.


  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?

    • 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.


  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

    • 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.

  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.

  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.

    • 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.

  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?

    • 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.


  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?

    • 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.


  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.)

  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.



    • 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.


      • 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.

      • Leslie

        Still feels too high. But maybe it’s the base, the base is way too short. Needs to be twice as high and beefier. I like the no crown look, but not with these colors.

  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!

    • 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.

  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?

    • 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.


  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.

    • Brent Hull

      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.


  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

    • 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,


  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 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,

  41. Michael

    Installing chair rail in my baby boys nursery this weekend. This was very helpful. Thank you

  42. 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,

    • 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.



  43. 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?

    • 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.

  44. 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.

      • John Richardson

        I realize I am a bit late to the dance, but like a few others I am glad I found you before I started my latest project. A few years ago, about 10 of us built a two story, 3 bedroom 2 1/2 bath house – soup to nuts. The only thing I stayed away from was plumbing and electric, with good reason!

        I learned very much, but evidently not as much as I thought. I am getting ready to do a chair rail in a one story 1600 sq ft condo. It is a relatively open plan. Other than bedrooms, bathrooms and the kitchen, I am planning to install the chair rail everywhere else including the main hall ( its 6 feet wide).

        I have 9 foot ceilings and after reading your article I think I will install the rail at about 30 inches. My whole reason for this project is to make my condo stand out from others (that have the same exact floor plan) in the event I need to sell.

        I have installed crown, chair, base board and quarter rounds before but I think I just eyeballed it when it came time to deciding the height if the chair rail. It seemed to work as my now ex-wife was very pleasantly surprised.

        Is it reasonable to install it throughout as I am planning? Also would it look foolish to do returns (90 degree), as I come to each door frame and window? The window sills are too low to install the rail at that level.

        Again also, I have a relatively standard 1″ by 3″ chair rail. Should I put a wider piece under it? It seems as though it may be a bit small compared to the crown moldings and door frames.

        I am excited about this project, but I want to get it right. I had no idea that I could end up doing more harm that good if my choices in height were just wrong. Any advice you can give me will be greatly appreciated! Thank you Brent. I will be spending a lot more time on your articles from now on!

        Take care,


  45. 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?

    • 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.



      • 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″.

        • Laila

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

        • 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.


  46. 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?



    • 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.


  47. 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!

  48. 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,


  49. 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?


    • 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,


  50. 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?

  51. 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,


    • Joe

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

  52. 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.


    • 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.



  53. 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

    • 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,


  54. 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,

    • 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,


  55. 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?

    • Ben Davis


      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.

  56. 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!


    • Brent

      I’m sorry but it is a little difficult to imagine. Your welcome to send me pics to my email directly.

      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.


  57. 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!


    • 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.



  58. 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!

    • 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.


    • Beth

      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,

  59. Jillian


    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.

    • Gary Katz

      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:
      Gary Katz

    • 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.


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

  60. Ed

    Great site…

    We are updating an old Detroit style Bungalow… There is a small 10’x11′ area which was once a small enclosed dining room (home now has an open floor plan area has 8′ ceilings) I would like to add chair molding to this area to provide some visual interest-as there is no real focal point for this small area.

    The dining area has two windows, each window has a typical trim around window, and a marble window sill. The top of sill is 28″ from floor. There is a piece of standard molding under the sill. Can you suggest, explain or provide a picture on how chair molding should be tied into or meet @ the window sill if at the same height?



    • Brent Hull

      Hi Ed,

      Sounds like a perfect condition. If your room has 8′ ceilings a low window stool at 28″ is a nice height proportionally. I would match the profile of the cap of the window stool, in wood and continue it around the room.

      If you want to send me a picture to my email. I’ll do a quick sketch.

      Good luck.


  61. Jim

    I enjoyed the article and was reminded of another book, The Old Way of Seeing by Jonathan Hale. While not specific to moulding, it discusses the mishmash style and how to get back to a sense of proportion and what just looks and feels right. I need to revisit it.

    In reading through the ensuing comments, I did not see a discussion of these topics: (1) tying the chair rail to the existing design elements of the raised panel height of doors/ side light panels and (2) the sash height of low double hung windows.

    Builder’s grade 4 or 6 panel doors typically have the middle rail centered at 36″ for a 6’8″ door. The door knob is centered on the middle rail. I think this is what has driven the 36″ height for the chair rail in the modern mishmash style.

    As for my windows, they are 6 over 4 lite with a sill height of 9″ and the sash meeting height of 39″. My first thought was to run the chair rail at the sash meeting height to tie the lines but it is clearly too high for a 10′ ceiling. The windows are opposite the entry way and the focal point of the room. I will add that the Palladian windows are cased in sheetrock and that issue may get addressed as well.

    I am planning on laying out some painter’s tape to better visualize the lines and how they do or do not play together. It will be interesting to see if I come up with a solution that is visually pleasing.

    In the meantime, keep up the good work and thanks again for the article.

    • Brent Hull

      Hi Jim,

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, Jonathon Hale’s book is great. It was the first book I read, 10+ years ago, that gave me insight into how design and proportion worked in the classical/historic sense.

      To your specific questions. The challenge in newer homes is that many of these rules of proportion are not followed by builder or manufacturer and thus you have doors have you have described and the challenge in unifying your space.

      There are 2 goals when adding moldings to your home: First, moldings should establish proper proportion into your room. Second, moldings should unify a room and a home by tying various parts of the room/house together to make it appear as a unified design.

      It sounds like with your house you are going to have to make compromises. I find with a strong chair rail or wainscot wrapping a room, this dominant horizontal line establishes proportion AND unifies the space. When this height, either by chair rail or full wainscot is carried through out a floor, it unifies the home. It may not line up with door rails or window rails but that is ok. I think it is ALWAYS better when they do, but often with new homes it is hard.

      I applaud your efforts. I suspect you will have to strike a balance and go with it.

      Good luck,


  62. Ana

    So glad I stumbled onto your article. I am putting in chair railing and picture frame moulding in my dining room, foyer and hall way. I am keeping the chair railing at your suggested height (28-30) even though my carpenter and interior designer is pushing for 36-40. I stood my ground and am keeping it at your recommended height. I am also keeping the picture frame moulding boxes the same distance top, bottom, and sides ( 3 inches below chair railing, 3 inches apart from the next box and 3 inches above baseboard). Doing this gives me different sized boxes on each of my walls (no two walls in my dining room are the same length). Not sure if there is a rule to box sizes being the same size or if it is just the spacing between the boxes that need to be consistent. And how do you work around existing electrical outlets (I do not want them relocated-I have plaster walls and do not want the mess or cost)?

    Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thanks–


    • Brent Hull

      Hi Ana,

      Thanks for sticking to your guns, you’ll be glad you did. As for the panels under the chair rail, I usually fall back on some old design rules that stress balance and harmony.
      1. try to have an odd number of panels, 3, 5 or 7. it provides natural balance.
      2. The centered panel can be bigger than the outside 2 or 4. It centers the composition.

      Thus if you hold onto those, it should answer your question. All panels do NOT need to be the same size. Also, approach each wall as a separate composition. Especially if the room is not square.

      Good luck.


  63. John Richardson

    I posted this earlier today but posted it as a reply to another readers comment. I am afraid that it might not be seen there so I a re-posting it down here!

    I realize I am a bit late to the dance, but like a few others I am glad I found you before I started my latest project. A few years ago, about 10 of us built a two story, 3 bedroom 2 1/2 bath house – soup to nuts. The only thing I stayed away from was plumbing and electric, with good reason!

    I learned very much, but evidently not as much as I thought. I am getting ready to do a chair rail in a one story 1600 sq ft condo. It is a relatively open plan. Other than bedrooms, bathrooms and the kitchen, I am planning to install the chair rail everywhere else including the main hall ( its 6 feet wide).

    I have 9 foot ceilings and after reading your article I think I will install the rail at about 30 inches. My whole reason for this project is to make my condo stand out from others (that have the same exact floor plan) in the event I need to sell.

    I have installed crown, chair, base board and quarter rounds before but I think I just eyeballed it when it came time to deciding the height if the chair rail. It seemed to work as my now ex-wife was very pleasantly surprised.

    Is it reasonable to install it throughout as I am planning? Also would it look foolish to do returns (90 degree), as I come to each door frame and window? The window sills are too low to install the rail at that level.

    Again also, I have a relatively standard 1″ by 3″ chair rail. Should I put a wider piece under it? It seems as though it may be a bit small compared to the crown moldings and door frames.

    I am excited about this project, but I want to get it right. I had no idea that I could end up doing more harm that good if my choices in height were just wrong. Any advice you can give me will be greatly appreciated! Thank you Brent. I will be spending a lot more time on your articles from now on!

    Take care,


  64. Brent Hull

    Hi JR, you’re a quick study. Yes, to your answers above. I think 30″ is a good height. Somewhere between 28-32″ works most often. Yes, returning them at 90degrees to the wall is correct. Do not return them at slant or at a 45 degree angle, UGLY.

    The size of the chair rail needs to be proportionate to the rest of the moldings in your house. 1″ seems too small, I wouldn’t go much bigger than 3″, a 4″ chair rail is REALLY Big.

    Good luck and thanks for the note.


  65. Lisa

    Hi Brent,
    I have to disagree with you on “…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…”
    I want my chair rail to be an easily replaceable piece of moulding that stops the back of our chairs from scuffing up our walls. You know.. their intended purpose?! Starting a chair rail low defeats the purpose, or at least my purpose. We ask our contractor about putting a chair rail into our dining room and the first thing he did was place one of the chairs against the wall and measure.
    An esthetically pleasing feature that isn’t functional is a waste, especially for the time, and expense.
    Just saying..

    • Brent Hull

      Hi Lisa,

      Thanks for your comment. I’ve got 2 problems with your comment so we probably need to agree to disagree.

      My first issue is that I don’t like function driving form. There are design and aesthetic problems when we let engineers design things purely based on function. Any study of design, be it cars, computers or buildings will show the form and function must work in harmony. Just because your contractor measured your chairs doesn’t mean he is right. In fact, it only highlights how pervasive the problem is.

      My second problem has to do with your comment about the true, “intended purpose” of the chair rail. Historically, when this molding was created and invented they did not have chairs in rooms like we do today. They did not invent the chair rail to protect the walls, because they didn’t have dining rooms with tables and chairs. The historic name for this molding is a dado. The historic placement of this dates to the Greek and Roman period when the classical rules of building were established. Chairs were expensive and only the wealthy had them. I suspect the term chair rail, though I have not done the research to prove it, came about in the Victorian period. That is when many of the classical terms for moldings stopped being used. The architraves came to be called casings and the dado became the chair rail.

      Hope that helps.


  66. Robert

    I suppose that all of this debate depends on whether a designer …

    i) Beauty and Style. Mainly wants to use wainscotting to provide a classic look with proportionate style

    … or …

    ii) Protection and Functionality. Mainly wants to use the wainscotting to protect walls from clumsy guests.

    Either objective is perfectly fine. The seond has been well established and we all know average chair heights. That particular discussion should take a few seconds.

    However, this discussion regarding the most beautiful height for wainscotting, and the reasons why, is fascinating!

    • Robert

      One other point.

      If it is neccessary to have wainscotting higher than chairs to protect the wall, then shouldn’t windows also be higher than chairs? *

      * I’m being sarcastic, of course.

      I remember watching a documentary about the Lincoln room in the White House. It was turned in to a copy room. Beautiful cherry wall paneling was covered with white drywall. A skylight was covered and filled with concrete. Flourescent lamps were hung from the ceiling. All of these changes were done for functionality. Thankfully, the functionality was finally all torn out, and the beautiful original artistic elements of the Lincoln room were restored.

  67. Vela

    Hi Brent,
    I’ve searched around for information about proper chair rail height. And I have to tell you that you have put together the most complete and authoritative information available, down to the classical origins. LOL! I loved it.

    Ok, so now I know where to place my chair rail.
    But now I need to learn about the panels/shadow boxes that I’ll place in the space below the chair rail.

    Can you point me to info that address this issue with such insight as you address the chair rail height placement?
    Information that addresses size of shadowbox, spacing between each other, spacing from bottom of chair rail above, and from top of baseboard below.

    Again, thank you much for putting this article together.

    P.S. Attached image image is just an example of what I wish to achieve.

  68. Brent Hull

    Hi Vela,

    Thanks for the comments, I’m glad you liked the article. The panels in the wainscot are typically driven as much by style and historic tradition as by the classical rules. There is no set rule that I have seen, because there can be so much variation, please enjoy “Brent’s rules” which as far as I’m concerned are the only right answer. :)

    1. Wainscot cap should be 2-3″ tall.
    2. Stile and rail of frame should be no bigger than 3″ wide
    3. Base should be no taller than 4″
    4. Panels should be raised only if you want a thicker heavier feel.
    5. Panels should be laid out in patterns of odd numbers.

    Hope that helps.

    Good luck.


  69. Sarah

    Hi Brent,

    In a roughly 800 square foot restaurant, I’ve got 10’4″ ceilings and a takeout/coffee counter at typical 36″ height. I’m proposing to the client that we do a chair rail and simple mouldings on the side walls, one of which butts into the counter. I feel like 36″ looks proportional to the space and was happy doing it in the last project I designed that was very similar, but at that project, we had an interesting time terminating the chair rail at the counter of the same height in a way that looked good. I think we managed in the end, but I want to avoid the same conflict happening here. I can’t seem to find any images online that show wainscoting lower than counter height. Would you go lower and butt the chair rail into the front of the bar somewhere under its 1.5″ thick counter surface? Or eschew classical proportions and go higher, terminating the counter surface into the side wall a few inches lower than the chair rail? (I think this would look better and more intentional.)

    Many thanks!

    • Brent Hull

      Hi, sorry for the slow reply. It depends on the space and how contemporary or rustic it is. I would lower the chair rail to roughly 30-32″ and then tie the chair rail to the countertop with a piece of trim or something else that joins them visibly.

      send pictures if you would like better advice.

      good luck.


  70. Bill K.

    Absolutely fantastic and helpful article! The details of the history of dimensional reasoning in architectural finishing is fascinating.
    I really do appreciate ancient history, especially when it shows the brilliance of people that had NO technology to assist them!
    I do have to argue a point though. You are quite firm in stating what will look good or ridiculous. That is like saying blue is the only color to use for an entry way (or any other room for that matter). I made the “mistake” of installing a white chair rail in my Cape Cod style home’s dining room at 42″ (8′ ceiling) with a dark blue above and light blue below. This dimension came to be due to the absolutely ridiculous way it looked at 30″, 32″ and 36″. My thoughts were along the lines of what you stated about the rail being the most noticed /visible molding so why would you put it well below most people’s waist?! It also occurred to us that the added ten inches of dark paint would not look nearly as nice.
    Now as I have a much clearer understanding of the dimensional reasoning behind the 30 inch height I get why its done but still feel it looks excessively (excuse my language) stupid. one (in fifteen years) has ever commented on how odd our chair rail looks, and our family and friends are exactly the type to comment. Quite the opposite actually. We receive compliments on the way it divides the colors just right. It’s worth mentioning that the height incidentally has saved our walls countless times from our mission style chair backs (which were not in the picture when we did the room). If i did it all over i may drop it a few inches, but never to the “let’s show it off to the Lillipution neighbors” height of 28-30″.
    Just thought it worth writing because no matter how insanely intelligent the people are that came up with such dimensions and all the “experts” that agree with these so called facts. It all comes down to the eye of the beholder, doesn’t it? While the theoretical heights will definitely look more authentic, it all depends on the homeowners eye.
    Even now I can not see nor “feel” any problem with our dining rooms dimensions.
    My intent was not to be sarcastic or biting in my commentary. My appreciation for your knowledge and expertise is deep. I just wanted to throw my opinion out there. Thank you for the opportunity to do so.

    • Brent Hull

      Hi Bill,

      Thanks for the comments and feedback. I’m glad your dimensions have worked out for your dining room. I also appreciate your willingness to accept that there may be other alternatives. All the best,


  71. Grace Amidon

    My husband I just bought a brick house built in 1839. Needs a total gut job. Would wainscoting be appropriate ?Thanks and the room has 10′ ceiling. We are going to do it over but with modern amenities. Thanks very much. Grace

  72. Robert Wilkinson

    What an educational and enlightening article. Thank you! Things make so much more sense when you know the back story of how the practice was derived.

  73. Paul

    Great article, and you’ve touched on dealing with kitchen counter heights; but one more time. Open floor plan Kitchen connecting to living rooms family rooms hallways with bedrooms. Pushing the chair rail at the same height of the countertop at 36 on an eight foot wall in a chopped up kitchen seems to be the way to go but what about the connecting hallway living room and family room all with the same floor height. If I carry that 36 inch chair rail height I falling into the trap of making the other rooms or squat. If I was to put a two by four and wrap it at the normal breaks between hallway living room family room picture of look too pretentious for the overall design of the home which is modest. I think I’m stuck in that typical dilemma of half one dozen or the other.
    Any advice is greatly appreciated thank you

    • Brent Hull

      Hi Paul,
      Thanks for the feedback and question. It sounds like, based on your conditions, that trying to tie the countertop with a chair rail will lead to problems. Based on what I understand, I would not seek to tie them together. At the same time, I don’t think it means you can’t use a chair rail at the proper height. Having the counter and chair rails at different heights in the same room can still work. We have done it on a couple of occasions.

      Good luck,


  74. Danika

    Thank you so much for this information! We just bought our first house, and this proved so helpful for our bedroom redesign!

  75. Simon

    Can’t wait to install but we need some recommendations for chair rail height with vaulted ceilings please. Highest point is about 16ft.

  76. Brian

    You mentioned tying the window sill height in with your chair rail height. How would that work? Would you remove the window apron and run/butt the chair rail under the stool? I set all of my GR windows at ~22″ RO to meet the “24” above the floor code” would 22.5″ (bottom of stool) be too low for chair rail on an 8′ wall? 7.25″ baseboard.

    As a side: What do you think of the craftsman style wainscoting/chair rail installed 3/4 the way up the wall? I see this on almost every new house over $250K being built in my area.

    • Brent Hull


      Thanks for your comment and feedback. My answers are as follows:

      1. Window sills. Historically the window sill/apron was the same molding as the chair rail. The modern trends of the last 50 years have moved us away from these classical rules. Second, to make it work on a room with 8′ cielings you will need to change the scale of the moldings so they are not too large. The base will be 4″ or less and the chair rail will be around 3″ wide or smaller. Realize too that 8′ rooms are difficult and you may need to play with molding sizes and hieghts to pull it off in a pleasing way.

      2. I think the trend of tall wainscots is historically based and thus not a terrible things. It is inspired from the English Arts and Crafts era. Paneled walls, especially Tudor paneled walls were often tall. The trend is non-classical so it should be viewed as an alternative classical solution. I think it is a trend that will go the way of hand-scraped floors, it will have its brief life and then be gone. Of course, that is just my opinion.

      Hope that helps.


      • Brian

        Thanks for the reply.

        I’m not bashing the current wainscot trend, I’m just not sure I like it personally. You gave me the answer I was looking for though in calling it a trend. I like to avoid trends if possible. Trends in clothes, food, music are ok because they wear out, are cheap and you throw them away. Trends in architecture, not so much.

        Thanks again.

      • Brian

        Just for kicks, Here’s a picture of that room/wall. The rest of the room is cathedral but the 8′ wall is the issue. I’ll probably just leave it alone and call it good. If I really feel the need to do something, I could always add a 3pc. crown. I just ordered GYHR so I’ll page through that before I do anything.

        • Brent Hull

          Thanks for sharing. I think this room could benefit from a chair rail. I would probably shoot for 28-32″ and then maybe panel out or paint the wainscot for a solid effect. The room needs grounding. Even though you have an 8′ plate, your room doesn’t read as 8′ tall. You can get away with a 28-32″ total height. I think it would help.

          Good luck.


  77. Ryan

    Brent, thank you. I’m glad I read this before I insisted on doing trim too high in our dining room. When I read you talking about the chair rail, this is just the top of the wainscot, right? Our ceiling is 10ft. with a 6 inch tray dropping down. 1/3rd would be 40in. So would a wainscoting at 40in still be too high? Drop down to 36”?

    • Brent Hull


      Thanks for the question. Yes, the top of the chair rail is the same thing as the wainscot. Yes 40″ is WAY too high. For a 10′ ceiling I like to go around 30″- 32″. 36″ is also too high. I think you need at least a 12′ ceiling to have 36″ wainscot. Also, FYI, the quick math is 20-25% of the ceiling height. Thus 1/4 or 1/5th of the room height, not 1/3rd.

      Good luck.


      • Rita

        When chair rails were first applied, fashionable Chippendale chair backs tended to stand at about 40″ in height, which in your formula is a pretty suitable height for a 12′-6″ ceiling, which was also popular at the time. I think that ratio was most likely a lucky coincidence which worked in terms of classical proportions at the time, but was driven by a need to protect the walls from chair backs that were customarily lined up against them until the room was in use, and then replaced along the walls when the room was not in use. In other words, the household staff put them back. So I’m not convinced that the correct pedestal height for an exterior column is the sensible source for determining the proper wainscot or chair rail height for an interior.

  78. kms

    I really appreciate all the information in this article; it’s really so helpful. We have a turn of the century Victorian with 10′ ceilings. At some point, additional trim was added to the dining room, including a chair rail. For some reason, that chair rail always bothered me–I felt like I SHOULD like it because it was “pretty” and a “nice feature”, but instead, it just seemed like a random white stripe along the wall that seemed off. I just couldn’t figure out why it bothered me, but now I know: it’s installed at 40″ high. Time to start saving up to have it lowered.

  79. GH

    Brent, I have always wondered why all the examples of chair rail (wainscot, entablature’s, included) are always painted vs. stained? Was any type of stain or other finish ever used on these details? Thanks in advance.

    • Brent Hull

      Thanks for the question. I assuming you mean in an historical sense and in historic (pre 1850) buildings and homes. Also when you talk about paint vs stain you are really contrasting hardwoods vs. softwoods. If so, I think there are a couple of reasons.

      The first reason is that it was very difficult. Making a crown molding in 1820 required a great deal of work. Moving a 3″ shaped medal plane across wood sometimes required 2 people. This process is hard enough in a softwood, to say nothing of making room of a 4 step crown from a hardwood. Any hardwood like oak or walnut (for example) are too hard and brittle to be made into common moldings. Soft woods like pine were much easier and thus moldings were almost always painted. It is not until the steam powered mill came along that hardwoods could be run into moldings. This is the reason why the Victorian period has such an explosion of hardwoods that fill the home. Because the could.

      The second reason is that to capture the classical look means that they were attempting to mimic the look of stone. They were attempting to copy the ancient stone structures and thus a light colored paint was more appropriate than stained wood.

      Of course this is all my opinion. I hope that helps.



  80. Dave

    Brent, thank you for the wonderful article. I am so glad I read this before starting in on my basement pub project!

    So what would you recommend for a small room with a VERY low ceiling (as would commonly be found in a traditional English pub, which is what this will be)?

    The bottoms of the floor joists above my basement are only about 6’4″ (76″) from the basement floor. I am leaving the joists uncovered because they look great being very thick 60+ year old walnut. The “pub” I am building in the basement is going to be about 16’x11′.

    Do you think the chair rail that I am adding would look okay as low as ~20″ as math dictates? Or would 28″ work okay (which would allow me to cover the seams between the 4’x8′ wood paneling that I am placing horizontally as my walls?

    Or do you think with this style that foregoing chair rail altogether could make more sense, and choose something much higher and possibly functional? Thanks in advance.

    • Brent Hull


      Thanks for your email. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I think in your case I would let historic precedent drive the design. Since an English pub is not typically a classical space, and because you have such low ceilings, I would let the design of the paneling, the quality of the wood and feel of the space dictate the design. I would probably NOT introduce a chair rail unless it could be subtle and not forced.

      Good luck,


  81. Claudia Crews

    We are putting chair rail and floor molding in our bathroom, they will be the same. Our contractor put the chair rail up one way and then put the floor molding turned the other way up. So the larger flatter is on top on the chair rail but is down next to the floor . Is this reverse ok or should they be the same way at both levels?

    • Brent Hull

      Hmm, it is a little tough to imagine without pictures. However, if what I think I understand is true, that should be fine. Really shape is not as important as height. It sound like your contractor is using a door casing for a base and a chair rail. Your welcome to send pictures to confirm.


  82. sue

    I have a bungalow with ceilings that slope downward only on the external wall. wall height is 93 inches. i want to lose the curve by putting in a border (picture rail might be too heavy) with wallpaper below and painting the ceiling white or very light colour down to the border. 8.5 inches lines up with the window recess and still gives 7 inches clear above the top of the door. 8.5 inches is a bit more than 1/13 but does unify the window opening. Is there a ceiling height below which a picture rail or border is just wrong?

    • Brent Hull

      Its difficult to confirm without pictures but the quick answer is that I would most likely use a picture mold (good historic precedent) and coming down 8″ is fine. If you read my other article on this site about entablatures, you will see that the picture rail mimics the top of the architrave. Thus to come down that far is fine.

      Good luck,


  83. Graeme Cowan

    Brett, we love your show in Fort Worth, we live in Monticello. We have built a traditional brick home with 11′ ceilings. It is an open floor plan with +/-9″ crown molding and 5″ baseboard.

    We want to install chair railing to define and break up the wall height of the ceilings but also to protect from actual chairs.

    Simple is better in our minds and the interior actually has a bit of a contemporary feeling and look with the furnishings (midcentury modern).

    Without seeing this can you give me a suggestion on height of railing and width to use (thinking of a single piece MDF)?

    I am really at a loss on this topic. I can send a couple of pictures if it would help with a suggestion.

    • Brent Hull

      Hi Graeme,

      Thanks for the comments. I’m glad you like the show. It should be back on soon. Yes pictures would help most. If your home is as described, a simple chair rail makes sense. There are more contemporary shapes that could work as well. Send pics to



  84. Alastair Hewitt

    Hi Brett, Great article and site! It really made me rethink what I was doing. I have a very low ceiling (80″) in my basement and was planning to panel the walls and put in a bar. The window sill is at the same height as the bar, so I thought about putting it at 42″. I thought this might be a bad idea and this is how I found your site.

    I decided to go very classical and went with a Doric order including the full entablature. I was worried the chair rail would look completely wrong at 16″, but it works great. No one gets it though… They just think it’s a very high base moulding!

    • Brent Hull

      Congrats on your bravery. That is a very challenging space, you have a lot of competing elements between the bar height, window sill etc. Your work makes the most sense on the left side of the wall.

      I hope you enjoy the space. Looks like a great spot to hang out.


    • Alastair Hewitt

      Here’s a picture of the finished bar. I followed the same proportions used on the wall, but got a bit more elaborate with some appliqués. I still have some booth seating to put in on the other side of the room.

    • Alastair Hewitt

      Close up of the bar with the 16″ dado

      • Alastair Hewitt

        Close up of the bar with the 16″ dado

  85. Linnea Brunk

    I have just removed wallpaper above a master bedroom chair rail and want to paint two tones, one above the chair rail and one below. I will be moving from this house in a year. Is this wall treatment a bad idea for resale?

    • Brent Hull

      Hi Linnea,

      I think painting above and below a chair rail is a good idea. Very traditional and timeless. Wallcoverings can be very dated, painting is very appropriate.

      Good luck.


  86. Linda

    Great information in this article – thanks for sharing your knowledge!

    We have a dilemma: a Cape Cod-style house built in 1966. We just removed wallpaper and dark paneling from the family room and adjoining kitchen. The paneling, which was 41″ high, came off easily (nailed, not glued) but left a significant line (either in paint or texture) at the top We can’t get rid of the line without extensive sanding and then re-texturing, and I fear there’s no way to blend it in without redoing the whole wall. I want to put up chair rail at 41″ and paint a lighter color above and a darker color below (perhaps with a faux technique). The ceilings are 8′. I know this totally violates the rules of proportions but I don’t have any other good answer. If you have time, any ideas/advice would be appreciated.

    • Brent Hull

      Hi Linda,

      While I feel for you and your situation I can’t help but think the retexturing is worth the cost. I’ve thought through a number of different ways to hide this line but they all add up to a cost that I think will match retexturing.

      I think you can possibly hide or faux the look with paint, I just think it will read funny.

      Good luck.


  87. Chris


    I am not a master carpenter, but I am having some chair rails installed in one of the bedrooms in my reproduction colonial house in Simsbury, CT and this info. is very helpful! By the way, I just bought a copy of your book, Traditional American Rooms, and I noticed that one of the rooms in the back of the book is from a house right here in Simsbury (Goodwin House, 1760). Fantastic book! You and Christine did a great job documenting the style, craftsmanship and historic woodwork in these wonderful American homes! Thanks for your work.

  88. Brent Hull

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for the feedback and I’m glad this information helped. Also, I’m glad you liked Traditional American Rooms. If you ever get the chance to visit Winterthur please go. Its amazing.


  89. Christina

    We want to add in an accent wall in our dining room that opens to a kitchen. The ceiling is 8ft and there is a baseboard furnace present on the main wall that I am going to try to tie-in by setting some baseboard next to it at the same height.
    I have 2 issues:
    First, my cousin suggested a 3/4 wall with moldings to look like high wainscoting (typically 72 inches) to display art and framed photos. Our carpenter was suggesting a chairrail at 36 inches and I saw that it wasn’t working because 36 inches is half of 72. Typically these are off-set with frames above chairrail being larger and frames below chairrail being smaller.
    The best I could figure (before reading your article) was to go with a 6 inch baseboard, then trick the eye with a continuous piece of trim molding at 8 inches, and them make the lower frames 14 inches tall and the upper frames 22 inches tall, with 4 inch styles, with 6 inch wide crown molding (from 30-36 inches on the wall) and a 6 inch upper wainscoting cap.

    Now I am confused that, although this looks better, I still may not have completely remedied the problem.

    The second issue is that, to me, it didn’t work to just wainscot a single wall, even if as an accent. I am now leaning towards wainscoting the back of the large island peninsula, as well as 2 22 inch walls around a glass sliding door.

    These would stop at the chairrail next to the slider, and I was going to butt the chairrail just under the countertop on the peninsula.

    I really now think that the chairrail will just be way too high, but I am not sure then how to marry a lower chairrail into the peninsula, in order to unify the room. (The other wall has 2 traditional 6-panal doors and an open walkway so no further attention to that side.)

    I know specifics may be out of the scope of this BLOG, but can you at least set me in the right direction mathematically/ classically in terms of height for “high” wainscoting cap, based on proportions for a 8 foot ceiling (without crown molding), as well as the height of the chairrail.

    Finally is there any recommendations about proportions of the chairrail height to the high wainscoting cap height to the frame size to the baseboard height to the ceiling height?

    You may need to start a link to a new blog — LOL!
    Thanks for any direction you can provide to me. If anything, at least, you have me pointed in the right directions. Thanks so much for this article.

  90. Brent Hull

    Thanks for the note, I’m not sure I have a great answer. The cards are stacked against you with an 8′ ceiling and 36″ counters. It will be difficult to unify everything.

    I would probably shoot for 30-32″ chair rail in the dining room and not worry about how it impacts the kitchen. An open floor plan is not really conducive to classical arrangement.

    I’ve seen a high wainscot work. but without pictures or a clear idea of how it comes together, I’m really just shooting in the dark.

    Good luck,


  91. Troy

    Hi Brent…
    I am confused still. You start with human proportions of 1:7, and shift to 80:6, or 1:13.33. So which would you use in constructing a column? Say on a fireplace surround. Is this just a change over time or are they two different rules for different situations?

    • Brent Hull

      Hi Troy,

      Sorry about that, the confusion is because there are 2 ratio systems being used which are separate but related. The first ratio is human proportion which closely relates to the column . They start with the male or Tuscan order with a ratio of 1:7. Then the female or Ionic order at 1:8 and finally the young maiden or Corinthian order at 1:9. These are the ratios I would use for constructing a column.

      The second ration is 3:5 or mathematically, 1.1618… This represents the ratio of the Golden mean or golden ratio which was used as an organizing principle when grouping the parts of building or façade. It is also used to establish the height of chair rail or wainscot.

      Thus to your question, when designing a column for a mantle play around with the proportions above and see what works. You’ll find historically that depending on the era, sometimes thin and dainty proportions are used, and sometimes heavy masculine proportions are used. It is really up to the designer. The rough ratios above will keep you close to ideal.

      Good luck, I hope that helps.


      • Troy

        Brent, I will do that, but the second ratio came from this part of your piece:
        ‘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.” ‘ This appears directly related to a column height of 1:13, not the golden mean- unless I’m missing something about adding a pedestal and how that changes the diameter of the column.

  92. Brent Hull

    Got it, sorry. Here’s the deal. There are many methods to dividing up a classical order. The ICAA for instance recommends breaking the Doric order into 19 parts. Some of the breakouts in earlier texts show a unit of measure called a “minute” 60 minutes= 1 diameter. Thus, my note about Asher Benjamin, and they way he was breaking it out. . . I see now that it was confusing.

    Please stick to the 1:7, 1:8, etc. ratios and you should be all set. The only thing I would add is to not hold too tight to the rules but instead use the rules to help get you in the right ballpark. Once your close, use your eye and sense of proportion to complete the picture.

    Good luck, and thanks for catching the confusing text.


    • Gary Katz

      I’m glad Brent responded and added some clarification. He’s a busy busy man, and I know we all appreciate his attention to detail.

      You probably will find this really hard to believe, but it seems like every writer of a pattern book came up with their own system for proportioning the classical orders. Yes, what a surprise.

      Asher Benjamin’s system is probably the most complicated! There are far simpler methods. Isaac Ware does a nice job in “A Complete Body of Architecture.” William Paine and Abraham Swan do a good job, too, especially Swan’s folio of “The British Architect” (I’ve attached an illustration of the Doric order from Swan’s book–notice how it’s broken into 10 parts, 2 for the entablature and 8 for the column including the base). You can also find solid and simple information in “Get Your House Right), pg. 40! That’s a book every builder/carpenter should own. But perhaps the best stuff you’ll find on the orders is “The American Vignola” by William Ware, originally published in 1903, which makes it one of the most recent pattern books. Plate 11 in Wares book is probably the very clearest explanation I’ve seen, and includes proportions for each order (the column including the entablature), as well as proportions for orders with pedestals–and pedestals change everything.

      After working through a variety of proportional rules, includes those by the authors mentioned above, Todd Murdock has helped me understand a simple fundamental concept, which Ware describes in his book on pg. 32 (you can get a Dover reprint of The American Vignola–another good book to own). Ware explains that there are three ways to determine the size of the parts: 1: if the lower diameter of the column is given; 2: if the height of the column is given; and 3: if the total height of the order is given (Plinth to top of entablature). Todd’s drawings simplify the entire concept, and I’m uploading two of them here. You’ll see these again in a future article devoted entirely to translating classical rules of proportion to contemporary homes.

      • Gary Katz

        Here’s one of Todd Murdock’s illustrations from the upcoming article on classical proportion. This one shows the proportional difference between an order with a pedestal and one without.

  93. Gary Katz

    And finally…here’s another one of Todd’s illustrations dialing down into the details of the base.

  94. Troy

    Thank you both for the responses and clarifications. I understand there’s no simple answers. The one thing I am assuming, which seems to put all this together for me, is that the ratio of the column diameter to the height stays in the same proportion, but when you add the pedestal the column height is diminished. So the diameter diminishes proportionally, even if the overall height- including the pedestal- is unchanged. Said another way, the diameter seems to remain proportional to the height whether the column starts on the ground or on top of a pedestal.

    • Brent Hull

      Thanks for the visuals. Great stuff.

      Troy, one of the comments, and it is the comment I hear MOST often as I speak to classical architects, is that we shouldn’t let the math destroy the art of the design. They point out that in classical buildings, there is a range of scale that is common but no 2 Greek Doric temples are the same. The proportions and the orders are guidelines not rules.

      I like Vitruvius whose 10 books of architecture (the ONLY book that survived from antiquity) describes the orders in terms of gender. He describes the masculine (thick, strong) nature of the Doric order and feminine (tall, supple) nature of the Ionic and Corinthian.

      Remember this as you design your mantel and put it together. The orders and these parts should be expressive of the overall design of the home. For me the Federal style is much more feminine than the Georgian style. Appropriately the columns on a federal mantle are tall and thin and are not thick and bold. Even the egg shaped or elliptical shape of the moldings contributes to the softer or feminine feel.

      All the parts and pieces of the home work together to express a narrative. I would work just as hard on the narrative of your designs as I would on the math/ratios of the columns.

      Thanks again for your insightful comments.


  95. Craig Cox

    Hello. My home is a saltbox. The Living Room has a mono pitch sloped ceiling. Low point 9′ high point 18′. What do I use for a ceiling height? This room is openly adjoined by the Dining Room and Foyer with 9′ ceilings. Should I change the trim design per those rooms based on the 9′?

    • Brent Hull

      You need to ground the room. I would work off the 9
      ft wall side and ignore the height change. I would start around 30-32″ then let this height ground the room and tie things together.

      Good luck,

  96. Michael


    This is an amazing read, and I’m glad I found it when I did. We are about to do some work in our living room, but there is nothing straight forward about the space. We have a 1978 build with 90″ ceilings (picture below). The room has a knee wall separating it from the foyer along with a beam (I believe it is faux).

    The knee wall has caused us some issues in determining our design. We can’t decide where the paint color from the living room should transition to the foyer (any thoughts?). We also don’t know how to handle it in regards to a chair rail.

    We have a short-term and long-term plan for the room. Currently, our plan is to install a chair rail and paint different colors above and below it (possibly with picture frame moulding below). The long-term plan is for wainscoting, crown moulding, and potentially a picture rail (Please tell us if we’re crazy).

    With that in mind, how high do you think we should place the various moulding? Also, any recommendations on moulding sizes? We’re open to replacing the baseboards too.

    Some measurements:
    Ceiling: 90″
    Knee wall: 34.5″ h x 24’w
    Window (not including moulding, since we want to replace it) is located 29″ from the floor and 9″ from the ceiling
    Beam separating the living room from the foyer is 8.5″ tall

    Any advice you can provide is appreciated. With the window being 1/3 of the way up the wall, and the knee wall even taller, we’re juggling more items than we know what to do with.


    • Brent Hull

      Hi Mike, Hmm, well that is a very difficult room. Your ceilings, as you know, are 7’6″ tall and are really low. I can give you the classical answer but I’m not guaranteeing anything. The architectural style should be considered, other walls in the room, how rooms relate to one another, etc.

      Classically, I would lower the half wall to the molding height of the window sill. I think the base height is fine. I would give the windows an apron and stool and then add crown in the room. I wouldn’t try to do too much, you are really just playing with proportions. A tall vertical element could help. Something to give the room some visual height. Just a thought.

      It is a difficult space, good luck.


  97. Kelly

    Hi Brent,

    Thank you for the great article – I had never considered all of this information when thinking about our wall moulding. I actually found your article when trying to figure out how to blend chair rail and moulding with our door frame, which is 1″ from the wall corner (your photos of what NOT to do came up, with the moulding cutting off the door frame).

    Your article has swayed me to do the chair rail at the same level as our window sill (30″) rather than the 36″ I had planned but I’m still unsure about the door frame and where the moulding will meet it. Our current door frame is 2″ wide and I’d like to make it 3″ wide to go right up to the corner of the wall. Is it possible for me to do this while doing chair rail and wall moulding or do I have to keep the door frame at 2″ so that I can put moulding right up to the wall corner?

    Attached is a photo of the space I’m looking at (on the left) as well as the moulding look I’d like to use (which I’m questioning now if 2 squares will look right within a 30″ space – any advice?).
    Thank you for all of the wonderful information and in advance for your help!

    • Brent Hull

      Hi Kelly, good questions.

      First on the door casing width. I would actually shoot for 4″ casing. 2″ is entirely too small. The classical tradition uses the casing to “punctuate” an opening. Casings historically were much wider than is used today. I realize that this is wider than your space but I would cut it to 3″ behind the door and then let the other side and top be 4″

      Second, if you go with a stacked square on a 30″ wainscot it should look ok. The size of your panels can really dictate the feel of the room. Long horizontal panels will emphasize the horizontal, tall thin vertical panels will make the space feel taller.
      I would experiment with a couple of sizes and have fun.

      Hope that helps.


  98. Bella

    Hi! Thanks for the great info. I had no idea how much math was involved- I always thought it was personal preference. That said, I really love high wainscoting, in most cases. I know you said to err on the side of too low, rather than too high, but here…maybe it is a personal preference? I really love the look, in most cases, of higher wainscoting or board and batten. It can really give a room a cozy, put-together feel. Thanks again for all the great info! Definitely a lot to consider and think about! Appreciate it!

  99. Brent Hull

    Hi Bella,

    Thanks for the note. The high wainscot I suspect you are referencing is a 3/4 high wainscot that is most common in the Arts and Crafts era. It is also popular in the Tudor/English tradition.

    Both of those eras celebrate the rural/rustic/cottage narratives and thus are not classically driven. If you like them, use them. In those architectural traditions a high wainscot is the right choice.

    I hope that helps.


  100. Virginia Kirby

    Hi Brent – I have a question. My husband and I are tired of our 1990s wallpaper. We have it above our chair railing and the wall is painted below the chair railing. I would like to put bead board over the wallpaper and keep the painted color below the chair railing. I think this is opposite of what is normally done, but would it be ok to do this?

    • Brent Hull

      Hi Virginia,
      Your right, it is not common but I’m not sure it changes your look that much. Currently the wallpaper pattern is a stronger visual pull. The bead board will add a heavier texture over the wainscot. It is not common or typical but might still work. I would encourage putting up 3-4 boards to make sure you like the look, before going all in.

      Good luck,


  101. Dino

    Hi Brent, great article I found just in time. As I almost went forward with a 36″ chair rail. I’ve been remodeling my apartment, and wanted to add chair rail and a classic raised panel wainscoting to a long entry-way wall that leads past the kitchen and into living room. I’ve read similar comments above about open floor plans but no one had pictures, I have 8ft ceilings and 36″ counter tops.

    In the left side of my picture, you can see the peninsula countertop at 36″ high. In your opinion, would it be the best to follow the 28″-30″ chair rail along the opposite wall?

    (dont let the refrigerator confuse you, it is in out in the living room.. remodeling while living in the unit has been tough)

    Thanks so much,

    • Brent Hull

      Hi Dino,
      This is a tough space. I would definitely NOT do a chair rail at 36″ but I would also question doing a chair rail/wainscot at all. This space is long and low. I think a chair rail/wainscot will only exaggerate the long low lines.

      If you do go forward, the shape of the panels can’t be too long, or again you are emphasizing the horizontal lines as opposed to the vertical.

      If it were my space I would do a chair rail only, at 30-32″. I would make sure my moldings are not to thick but rather dainty. I think the smaller Kuiken Federal moldings will work best.

      I hope that helps.

      Good luck.


  102. Leslie Blanchard

    I’m so glad I stumbled upon this article, it help me out in so many ways. One question if I may?…you stated to set chair rail to window sill, what if I have low windows at 9″ off the floor? Do I just disregard this rule and set rail at 30?” I’m really only wanting the look of picture frame/panel walls where lower bottom are frames with longer drawing the eye up on top.
    Thank you!

    • Brent Hull

      Hi Leslie,
      I’m glad the article helped. Yes, quick answer, ignore the 9″ window sill. With a 9′ tall ceiling, you may be able to get away with the chair rail at 28″. You can play with that height, but your in the ballpark.

      Good luck.


  103. Leslie Blanchard

    I forgot to mention 9′ ceiling. But in room with window 9″ from floor ceiling height is 9′ box around then cathedral to 18′ I believe.

  104. Frankie G

    Brent – keep in mind not everyone is 6’5″ tall like you so sense of proportion is relative. When many of these “templates” or guides were created man was much shorter. I truly believe part of the decision process must be preference. I have placed chair rail at 24″ with 8′ ceilings and up to 34″ with 10′ ceilings with existing 6″ baseboards. If you like it when it is done that is what truly matters. Otherwise, you are very precise in presenting historical form!

    • Brent Hull

      Hi Frankie,
      Thanks for reading. I agree with you that the final test is how it looks and feels in a room. I would make one tweak to your comment; height has nothing to do with proportion. According to the Greeks, the male form (the Doric order) had a proportion of 1:7. No matter how tall a person is, 5’8″ or 6’4″, the same proportion of width:height should hold.

      Thanks again.


  105. Alastair Hewitt

    I visited Chesterwood, the summer estate/studio of Daniel Chester French (sculptor for the Lincoln monument). He was a classicist and his home reflects that in the position of the chair rail. Note the height of the dado to the backs of the chairs. I estimated the ceilings were about 8ft and the chair rail is (correctly) around the 18-19″ high.

    • Brent Hull

      Nice! Thanks for sharing. Good pics.

      Not surprisingly the room looks good and well proportioned.


  106. Natalie

    I would like to thank you for the most educational article. I used your work as a launchpad for my own research, delving into the indeed magical world of entablature. In my house with 9ft ceilings I dropped chair rail to 28″ – an executive decision I am most proud of. I think that 26″ would have been even better. The contractor and the carpenter were apprehensive and doubtful as they have never installed them too low, but like a ship captain enriched by the knowledge that you so kindly shared, I proceeded with confidence. The results are spectacular.

    If I were making a recommendation now to home builders, I would suggest go with 24″ (26″ if you are very scared) for 8″ ceilings and 26″ (28″ if scared) for 9″ ceilings. Once you see that mirage of a column in the trim, anything too high becomes a disconcerting sore.

  107. Carol


    Great article!

    I have 7.5′ ceiling heights in my 1973 home with a 5.25 “crown and chair rail height at 29″ with a 2 .25 profile on the chair rail in my dining room.

    We’re updating the dining room and I was advised by my designer to raise the chair rail to 36-38” to accommodate for trim boxes below the chair rail.
    Based on your previous comments to other readers, is my current chair rail height ok aesthetically? And would boxes look ok under the existing chair rail height?


    • Brent Hull

      Hi Carol,
      The current height is great. DO NOT put at 36-38. Show this article to your decorator or have her call me. UGH!

      “Boxes” under the chair rail could work, depends on the execution.

      Good luck,


  108. Dale Almond

    Thank you! Your article is terrific, and just saved me from making a terrible high chair rail error. Some experimenting with painter’s tape showed the dramatic difference in the look and feel of the room, drawing the eyes upward. It’s quite extraordinary how it “lifts” the room.

    I have a question regarding the width of the chair rail. We have 12″ baseboards, 8″ casings, and a 9.5″ ceiling in a room that’s 13’4″ by 29, with five windows that go to the floor. Is a 3″ chair rail too skimpy considering the scale of the other woodwork? I’m tentatively planning on putting the chair rail at 29″, given the height of the baseboard.

    Again, my thanks.

    • Brent Hull

      Dale, what big moldings you have!! My word. Your room is pretty big and long, but your ceiling heights aren’t. The classical model would mean your casings should be 4-5″ wide and the base no more than 7″ tall. I might change those first if it were mine.

      If you keep your moldings then you’ll have to see if the 3″ chair rail (which is a good size historically) looks too small in proportion to your existing moldings. Thus I’m recommending the “eye-test”.

      Good luck,


  109. DC

    I have a few questions please. I have my 8ft ceiling on my Dining room, living room together. There is no separation at all. Can I put chair rail the entire 2nd floor or just the dining area. how I am going to separate my dining ? size 11ft x11ft
    -Just Chair rail on my dining room?
    or a Wainscoting frame
    – How about my staircase? wainscoting frame or just chair rail and what size please for 8ft ceiling ? Is 28″ or 32″?
    thank you

    • Brent Hull

      Hi DC,
      The break between the dining and living is treated like a newer home, all sheet rock and no casing or crown. A more traditional condition would be to have a cased opening between the spaces. Thus you have small (4-5″) projections on the walls that visually support the beam. These side walls would get cased out, creating a cased opening. This break would obviously allow you to use wainscoting in one room and not the other.

      As far as height goes, my first gut would be to have it at the same height as your window sill. I can’t tell from the picture, but it appears to be the same height as your table, thus 30″.

      You can try to wainscot both spaces or stop at the beam, but I don’t think this will look as good.

      Good luck,


  110. Bob U.

    I have a modern home with Cathedral Ceilings. The outside wall ceiling is 8 ft. and transitions to 9 ft. 2 in. at the center. I want to add a chair rail. What would you suggest for a height that looks appealing? Using your formula, for the 8′ wall the chair rail should be approx. 19.5″ . For the 9’2″ wall it would be 22″. Should i just pick a happy medium between the two measurements?