JLC magazine recently asked me to answer a reader’s question: What’s the right height for chair rail and wainscoting? Of course, everyone always wants the short answer, so here it is: Somewhere between 26 in. to 32 in. off the floor.
Now here’s the same answer I wrote in JLC, and I’ll bet you’ll regret asking this question!
The height of wainscoting and chair rail depends on many things: the style of the home, the size of the room, the height of the ceiling…and your personal opinion on beauty. Because, you see, there are rules—rules and rules and rules. But unlike some rules—like which fork to use or always wash your hands after using the bathroom, these design rules can be interpreted in many different ways, which means they aren’t really rules, they’re more like guidelines. I have to admit my understanding of these rules would be extremely limited if it weren’t for the help of Todd Murdock, who not only understands all the math and proportional ratios, but he can draw in SketchUp, too. And he knows which fork to use.
Like all the moldings we install in our homes, their origins can normally be traced back to the classical orders. Wainscoting (also called dado wall paneling) is meant to replicate the pedestal on a classical column—also called a dado. And chair rail represents the molding that caps the top of the pedestal. Some people think that, since it’s called ‘chair rail’, the height should match the height of a chair back, but nothing could be further from the truth, because, like I said, there are rules!
These ‘rules’ have been interpreted in many different ways, but the result is still pretty close, and most often MUCH lower than the back of a chair! Why? Well, that’s the long story. First we have to take a quick look at the classical orders, you know, the Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite. But let’s be quick about it.
Some authors stipulate that the pedestal or dado should be one-fifth the height of the order (or room), while others dictate a different proportional rule, with some saying one-third the height of the column. I believe the truth is closer to what William Chambers said: “With regard to the proportion which their height ought to bear to that of the columns they are to support, it is by no means fixed, the ancients, and moderns too, having in their works varied greatly in this respect, and adapted their proportions to the occasion, or to the respective purposes for which the pedestals were intended” (A Treatise on the Decorative Part of Civil Architecture,  Dover: 2003, Pg. 75).
In other words, or rather in our words, that means your wainscoting should terminate at a height suitable for your room. But what does that mean? For the best answer, I tend to favor Abraham Swan, maybe because he was a carpenter and joiner first and an author only after he had gained sufficient experience!
In his 1757 work, Georgian Architectural Designs and Details, Swan wrote: “There is hardly a greater error in architecture, than in disposing the dados and the entablature to the height of the rooms. When the entablature is too large, and the dado too high, the room appears lower than it really is, whereas a light entablature, and the dado of a moderate size, gives height to the upper panel.”
But the truly wonderful thing about the pragmatic Mr. Swan is his recognition that dado height also determines the height of window sills—or vice versa! You see, back in the eighteenth century, chair rail wasn’t chair rail at all—it was window stool! Now THIS is where rules are important. Georgian homes were classically inspired; they attempted to follow rules of classical design, without interrupting the lines or divisions of the classical orders. Which is why windowsills or stools were placed at the height of the dado, leaving one continuous line of molding defining the top of the pedestal and the bottom of the window.
In some homes, particularly those with triple-hung windows (like double-hungs but with three sash, making them extremely tall), the dado was barely two feet off the floor—I’ve visited historic homes in the southeast where the dado was 21 in. from the floor (yes, I had to measure it!). And I’ve worked in one colonial home in, of all places, Los Angeles, where the wainscoting was 23 in. above the floor.
Once again, Abraham Swan approached the problem with a resolution befitting a carpenter: he explained that if the wainscoting is too high, it spoils the view—visitors must stand right next to a window in order to see the ground outside the building. Swan’s fix should be etched in stone, for it solves one part of the problem:
If the room be 10 feet high, I should think about 2 feet 5 inches would be a moderate height for the dado; and for every foot that the room is higher than ten, let 3/4 in. or 7/8 in. at most, be added to the dado. This method has had a good effect, and has been much approved by some skillful judges and persons of good taste (pg. 8, Georgian Architectural Designs and Details: The Classic 1757 Stylebook , (1757) Dover: 2005).
Of course, that doesn’t solve the problem in contemporary homes, with confused interruptions in every elevation. My goodness, how many homes have I visited where the tops of doors and windows aren’t level and in one straight line! Sometimes there’s an inch or more between the interior and exterior door heights! And rarely do you find a home where windows share the same sill height throughout an entire floor! For cryin’ out loud, in most homes these days, wainscoting is almost always higher than the window sills, which presents a variety of design and molding installation complications for finish carpenters, like resolving the chair rail directly into the casing! Listen to me whine!
Oh, but wait, maybe I misunderstood your question! Yes, I’m just another typical author listening mostly to my own words. Maybe you’re asking about all that wainscot paneling that is four, five, even six feet from the floor? And what about the ‘chair rail’ that terminates that dado? Well, that’s not a dado at all—it’s wall paneling often capped by a plate rail, sometimes, in Arts-and-Crafts homes, supported by corbels or modillion blocks. But Swan’s rules still apply: run that wainscot paneling too high and the ceiling will seem low, and the room small. But at least you can put the window sills wherever you want!