Traditional wainscoting covered the lower portion of a wall with wood, which was topped with a bulging chair rail to protect the wall from damage. It's most often found in dining rooms, but wainscoting is making its way into foyers, kitchens, bedrooms and even bathrooms. Thankfully, you can use wainscoting to add a touch of elegance to your walls without breaking your budget.
The least expensive wainscoting option involves creating the look out of paint. Most wainscoting falls between 32 and 36 inches high, so measure and mark the area to paint. Cover the lower section of the wall with white paint. Top the painted area with a flat piece of 1/4-inch plywood cut to about 4 inches wide. Nail the plywood to the wall and paint it to match the bottom section of wall. The plywood isn't as expensive as chair rail molding, but succeeds in creating a finished top edge to your wainscoting.
Wallpaper is an inexpensive option for creating the look of wainscoting that allows you to bring in an extra design element to your room. The wallpaper can be a simple, elegant shadow stripe or a bold color that draws you into the room. Install it on the lower portion of your wall, and top it with painted plywood or chair rail molding. Ask your home improvement store to make the cuts for you if you don't have a miter saw; most charge a small fee per cut, but the fees are significantly cheaper than the cost of buying the saw.
Create the look of expensive raised panels on your wainscoting without the high cost by using plywood or thin wood planks. The plywood or planks only need to be about 1/4-inch thick. Cut them to about 3 feet tall by 4 inches wide. Use carpenter's glue or finishing nails to secure them to the wall every 20 to 24 inches. Lay a plank along the top, then add a chair rail above the plank if desired. Paint the wall and wood the same color to create a raised-panel wainscoting effect.
Beadboard is a low-cost option that adds the look of a Cape Cod bungalow to your home. Also used for ceilings, beadboard comes in tongue-and-groove sheets and planks; the sheets are easier and faster to install. Install the first section and nail it to a stud, then use glue and nails to secure the other pieces around the room. Top with a horizontal piece of plywood or a chair rail to finish the look, then paint the rail and the beadboard the same color.
Based outside Atlanta, Ga., Shala Munroe has been writing and copy editing since 1995. Beginning her career at newspapers such as the "Marietta Daily Journal" and the "Atlanta Business Chronicle," she most recently worked in communications and management for several nonprofit organizations before purchasing a flower shop in 2006. She earned a BA in communications from Jacksonville State University.