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What is Beadboard Wainscoting?

By Lou Paun
Updated May 17, 2024
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Beadboard wainscoting is beadboard installed on a wall to wainscoting height, typically about three feet (0.9m). The distinctive lines that run the length of each narrow panel have an interesting visual effect. Beadboard wainscoting usually has a cap at the top of the wainscot and a narrow baseboard at the base. The beadboard is typically installed so that its lines run vertically, but it is sometimes installed horizontally for a different effect.

Beadboard is a millworked wood that was enormously popular at one time. Each strip has at least one half-round bead milled into the surface, usually with an accompanying sharp recess called a quirk. The bead is often located near the edge of the strip. Around 1900, there were at least ten common beading patterns for beadboard, and specially designed patterns were often produced with custom millwork. Beadboard had a variety of uses and was known by several names, but it was especially popular as beadboard wainscoting.

Traditional beadboard wainscoting is edged matched, so that each strip connects to the next via a tongue and groove arrangement. The strips expand and contrast slightly in response to moisture in the environment, so sometimes a slight gap is visible between the strips. In the past, the strips were variable in width, typically from two to three inches (5 to 7.6 cm) wide, and less than one inch (2.5 cm) thick. An installation could have uniformly sized strips or strips with varying widths.

Around the turn of the 20th century, beadboard wainscoting was enormously popular, especially for summer cottages and shore houses. This may explain why it is still considered an informal decorative element. The wood was sometimes stained and finished, but white painted beadboard wainscoting was, and still is, especially popular.

Solid wood beadboard wainscoting is still available today, although there are not as many stock patterns available as there were a century ago. Kits for beadboard wainscoting can be installed by most do-it-yourselfers. The only real difficulty is in aligning the boards perfectly vertically, since slight variations repeated around an entire room will create an unpleasant visual effect.

Large sheets of beadboard wainscoting made from medium density fiberboard (MDF) are also commercially available. These sheets are particularly easy to install. They are attractive when painted but are not suitable for stained finishes.

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