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Laying Out Wainscoting with BuildCalc

I’ve been using construction calculators for quite some time. They are an indispensable tool for all kinds of layout work; from squaring up foundations, calculating materials, rafter layout, right on through to finish work. When I start any wainscoting job, I reach for a calculator before I even think about cutting any wood. A few minutes crunching numbers saves time and helps me avoid costly mistakes with expensive material.

Recently, I downloaded the BuildCalc app for my iPhone. I thought it would be a good compliment to the Construction Master app I’ve been using. While getting acquainted with the BuildCalc app, I took a look at the Baluster Layout function. I noticed the baluster function is arranged so you can set all the parameters and see all of the results on one screen. Then I thought: maybe I can use this function to lay out frame and panels. After all, balusters and spaces are really the same as frames and panels, right? So, I experimented, and sure enough, the baluster tool works exceptionally well for laying out frame and panel work.

Here’s how I do it:

Simple Shadow Box Layout

Once the app is open, follow these steps to enter the Baluster Function:

(Note: Click any image to enlarge)

With the Baluster Function launched, select the “Evenly Space” Analysis Type (see image below) and enter your desired parameters:

Next, scroll down to view the calculated results:

Rail and Stile Frames

When laying out wainscoting that is constructed with an applied frame of rails and stiles, the layout is a little more complicated. Inside corners normally require a wider stile on one frame assembly to compensate for the overlap in the corner. A great system, which I learned from Gary Katz’s wainscoting DVD set, is to make my frame assemblies 1/4 in. shorter than the required span, and the buried inside corner stile 1/2 in. wider than the field stiles (assuming you are using 1x stock). The result creates an equal exposure on both corner stiles.

Since BuildCalc doesn’t currently allow you to vary the ‘starting’ or ‘ending’ member widths (I did hear this feature will be available in a future release, though!), there is a little math to do before launching the Baluster Function. Thankfully, these calculations can be done in the calculator beforehand, and they will be automatically entered into the Baluster Function. Here are the steps:

1.    Enter your wall length and subtract 1/4 in: 96 1/4 in. – 1/4 in. (in this example)
2.    Next, subtract out the wider corner stile: – 4 in. (in this example)
3.    Press the = key and then the RUN key to store your ‘run’ length
4.    Press the CONV key followed by the Balstr key to enter the advanced Baluster Function

When the Baluster Function is launched, your new calculated ‘run’ length should automatically appear in the Run box at the top of the screen. Enter all of your parameters as in the previous example, with these exceptions: “Members at ends?”, “Number of Members”, and “Layout marks”. Since the wider end stile has already been accounted for, select only “at Start” for your end members, and reduce your “Number of Members” by one. Choose your layout marks at “leading edge” to easily locate the stiles.

To see the layout for a different number of panels (and different panel sizing), just change the “Number of Members” until you get what you want.

The calculator allows you to work in feet and inches or just inches. Also, if you close out of the Baluster Function window, all your numbers are saved, so you can return to the same calculations until you’ve finished that wall. Amazing!

(SketchUp drawings by Wm. Todd Murdock)

• • •


Harvey Raufman is a carpenter and cabinetmaker from Old Chatham, NY. Harvey writes:

I was on my way to college and a major in biology, when a furniture-making course in high school changed all that.

I learned to sharpen and use hand tools, cut dovetails…I was hooked.

I went on to one year of trade school, and have been in the trades ever since.

I have worked in production house framing, architectural millwork (miles of plastic laminate), a couple of years with a construction company doing urban renovations, and finally went out on my own in 1985 as H Raufman Woodworking.

My first job was renovating a 200-year-old house. I learned firsthand the meaning of “wattle & daub”!

I opened my first shop a few years later. At one time I thought about making furniture full-time, but being a starving artist was not for me.

Over the years, I have taken on projects with other solo contractors, and worked on several high-end millwork projects. The mainstays of my work have been renovations, additions, kitchens, lots of built-ins, and the occasional furniture commission.

I have had a lifelong interest in architecture, design, and furniture.

When I’m not working, I enjoy dancing, hiking, and getting out on the water in my homemade canoe (yes, it actually floats!).


18 Responses to “Laying Out Wainscoting with BuildCalc”

  1. Greg

    Nice tutorial on this. Are these programs available for blackberry at all? Has anyone found versions or comparable apps for BB? Would love to know if you have.

    • Harvey

      Thanks Greg. There are construction calculators available for the Blackberry. To the best of my knowledge, BuildCalc is not one of them.

  2. Jason Smoots

    BuildCalc is a great app I use all the time for a variety of calculations but for baluster and wainscoting layout I use BalusterPro…quicker, easier, and cheaper if you just need a layout tool.

  3. Sal Donato

    Pretty nice app just installed it on my iPad I love finding new apps to make my life easier :-)

  4. David Tuttle

    OK, your three weeks late on this article, I just did two sets of wainscoting back to back. This little app has more stuff on it than one could imagine. Thanks so much for the article.

    BTW, it was the first app I purchased when I got my Android.

  5. Harvey

    Sal; yes it sure does make life easier. David; I’m sure you will find lots of uses for this app. I use it just about every day. Before I discovered construction calculators, I used a scientific calculator, along with a cheat sheet listing the digital equivalents of the common fractions. What a pain ! Being able to calculate in feet & inches, & sometimes millimeters, is a great timesaver. The program also rounds the numbers, very useful. Good luck on the next wainscoting job.

  6. Stan Pearse

    Not having a “smart phone” I am unable to make use of this app. Do you have any alternative recommendations?


    • Harvey Raufman

      If you own a Mac computer, you may be able to download the BuildCalc app from the Mac App Store. I use a pc, so I don’t really know if this is possible. (I’m switching to a mac sometime soon). Another option is to purchase a Construction Master calculator. It can do all the tasks the BuildCalc app can do, it just requires a slightly different approach.

  7. Alex

    Harvey, first off, this is a great article, reading this convinced me to buy the app. I’m a home owner who loves carpentry and will be taking on this project in the next few days. is there a way to use this tool to calculate the layout going up a stairway?


  8. Harvey Raufman

    Hi Alex;
    I’m glad you found the article helpful.
    Construction calculators and apps are very useful tools. Before they were available, I solved construction math problems with a scientific calculator, using basic geometry and trigonometry (sine, cosine & tangent). All of that stuff is written into the code of construction calculators. You don’t need to deal with it. Instead you get to work with real world numbers: feet and inches and construction terminology.
    However, to get work done, you need to establish the basic geometry of your situation. Gary Katz and Mike Sloggatt wrote a great article called “Finding The Right Angle”. Check it out:

    Running wainscoting up a stair will require you find the right triangle, based on the pitch of the stair, and calculating from there.
    In fact, it’s very similar to laying out a bay, as described in “Finding The Right Angle”.
    Also check out Gary Katz “Mastering Finish Carpentry DVD Series”:
    I highly recommend these dvd’s.
    Program 8 deals with running wainscoting up a stair.
    Good luck with your project.

  9. Alex


    Thank you very much for the prompt reply and helpful links! I’m assuming once I find that angle, it becomes the Rake Angle input on the calculator. Correct?


    • Harvey Raufman

      That’s correct, assuming you are using the baluster function in BuildCalc.

  10. Jessica

    Hi Harvey,

    I decided to do a basic wainscoting in my front room (rail and stile). I got so excited I went out and bought everything before really researching and thinking it through…..I put up a 3.5in chair rail, with a 5.5in base. After reading this article I purchased the BuildCalc to figure out the spacing between the 3.5in stiles (which I was planning on putting up tonight). However, I didn’t leave 1/4in gap in the chair rail at the corners and the app has been updated so you can enter the width of the start and end member. My questions are: How do I correctly do the corners since I didn’t leave 1/4in gap? How do I correctly enter my information on the app to figure out the spacing. (This is my first big construction project.) Should I put a stile in the corner by my front door since it is already cased with the 3.5in border? Lastly, how do I figure out the spacing with the window? Thank you so much for your time and help!!

  11. Harvey Raufman

    Hi Jessica;
    Re read the article ! Then read it again ! Take your time.
    The 1/4″ gap is between one of the corner stiles and the corner. (You do not want a gap in the chair rail !) The purpose of the gap is to create visually balanced sizing of the corner stiles. It’s a nice detail but not critical. In fact, most people won’t notice the difference if you skip the 1/4″ gap. The concept is that when all the stiles are installed, they all appear to be the same size.

    BuildCalc has made improvements to the Baluster layout functions, but the process remains essentially the same.

    One way to handle the door is to treat the door casing as if it’s a stile.
    Another option is to butt a stile against the door casing. It’s a matter of personal preference.

    I suggest trying to line up the stiles with the window casings, or split them in some visually pleasing way.

    To get the layout to work with all the different components in the room will require trial and error. Since no two walls are exactly the same length, I typically end up with slightly different layouts for each wall. I always do the layout for all of the walls before I begin. I crunch the numbers until I have a set of layouts which are as similar as I can manage.

    Good luck &…. Re read the article !

  12. Rich


    Great article, great information… Fast question,do you do anything different to calculate the measurements for the next wall besides changing the wall length? Assume I am using the same number of stiles.

    Thanks so much!


    • Harvey Raufman

      Hi Rich
      The short answer is yes, just change the wall length. I typically calculate the layout for all the walls in the room before I start cutting. The stile width stays the same throughout, leaving the panel size and wall length as the only variables. My goal is to have the panel widths as close in size throughout the room as the room dimensions allow. If your room is square, all the panel sizes can be the same, or quite nearly the same, depending on the location of doors, windows and other architectural features. In most rooms, the panel sizing will have to be slightly different on each wall. After I have done the initial calculations, I tweak the numbers until I get panel sizing I’m satisfied with. Panels a few inches different in width will not be noticeable. I try to avoid panels with a substantial difference in width. I look at the entire room and strive for a balance, taking in to account how the stiles will relate to the various features of the room. I try to have the stiles relate to the window casings in some purposeful way. Make sure to adjust for inside corners. I hope this helps.


  13. Johan

    Hi, I’ve got myself stuck in the ongoing planning of wainscoting for the attic. Are there any ideas available anywhere on how to solve the planning of the wainscoting where the attic roof beams protrude out of the wall where the wainscoting is expected to be?

    • Harvey Raufman

      Hi Johan
      I am not aware of any resources devoted to solving that unique problem. Without knowing the particulars of your situation, I can only advise in general terms. If it’s a kneewall you’re working with, then the simple solution would be to cover the entire wall and stop short of the intersection of the wall and the rafters. Perhaps you could install a trim detail to cap it off? If that is not the case, or that is an undesirable solution, or not possible, then it seems you might have to resolve yourself to notching the wainscoting as needed. Feel free to send a few photos if you would like more ideas. Best of luck to you.


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