Step-by-Step Guide: How to Paint Wainscoting Like a Pro

calander Jan 31 , 2023 user-icon Nash Painting

Do we love the power of well-chosen and applied interior paint? Absolutely. But do you know what else we love? Fine carpentry and detailing. There’s nothing that pulls a room together, adding elegance and sophistication, like beautiful molding, trim, and wainscoting.

What’s really interesting is that wainscoting in particular was born out of practicality. Back when home efficiency just wasn't what it is today, heavy wood paneling offered an extra layer of vital insulation. It also protected plaster walls from being damaged during the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

Today, we’ve let that style spill over into our modern homes, appreciating the aesthetic even if it doesn’t bear quite the same level of functionality. We’re glad our insulation has come such a long way! If you're wondering how to paint wainscoting in your home, use this blog as a guide through the process, offering some practical tips and insights. As a Nashville painting company, we’ve had the pleasure of painting miles and miles of wainscoting and trim - we can definitely smooth the way for you!

What’s the best paint to use for wainscoting?

Even more important than color, you need the right TYPE of paint to meet your needs. Something that offers a blend of form and function, durability and style.

We’d recommend a satin or semi gloss finish. The higher sheen will make the wainscoting easier to clean and will also give it more of a professional, high-end look. Additionally, the higher sheen will help to reflect light and make the wainscoting really stand out.

Keep in mind that lower sheen paints have also come a long way and are much more durable than they used to be. Still, they aren’t as rugged overall as the more glossy, higher-sheen products specifically designed for doors, trim, and other high-wear surfaces.

It’s also important to note that higher sheen paint is less forgiving of blemishes and flaws. This means that it’s all the MORE essential to really invest in careful surface preparation. Speaking of which, let’s tackle that next…

how to paint wainscoting

How to prepare your wainscoting for painting

  • First, clean the wainscoting with a damp cloth to remove any dirt, dust, or debris.

  • Next, remove any hardware (switch plates, outlet covers, and light fixtures)

  • If there are any holes or cracks, fill them with wood filler and let it dry.

  • Next, sand the wainscoting lightly with fine-grit sandpaper.

  • Use a tack cloth to remove any dust created during sanding.

  • Apply painter's tape around the edges of the wainscoting to protect the surrounding walls or flooring.

  • Finally, cover the floor with a drop cloth to protect it from paint splatter.

We can’t overemphasize the importance of these early steps. They aren’t fun or glamorous, and certainly aren’t as satisfying as actually laying down paint, but they contribute to the beauty and longevity of the finished product. Prep is everything!

Running a bead of caulk around the joints where trim and panels meet is another way to get a really pro-level finish. It eliminates hard edges, gaps, and seams. Invest in high-quality caulk specifically for interior use, running a thin bead, then quickly smooth the bead with a wet fingertip (just dip it in a cup of water beforehand).

How to paint wainscoting

We recommend starting with a coat of primer. If you need more info about your options and why it’s such a big deal, click over to this article.

The stain-blocking power of the right primer is really key when you’re painting wainscoting, particularly since you want to avoid any wood grain or knots from bleeding through your topcoats. Even if they look okay at first, they WILL make an appearance eventually.

And speaking of quality, get the very best paint you can, too. Those bargain products might be tempting, and could even look passable at first, but they don’t hold a candle to the value of a more premium product in the long run. At Nash Painting, we use Sherwin-Williams products and are always extremely satisfied.

After your primer has thoroughly dried, cut in with your paintbrush around the wainscoting trim, including your baseboards, then use a roller with a short nap to paint the more open panels. Remember to keep a wet edge, meaning that you don’t want to let the paint dry between where you cut in and where you roll. Work section by section, incrementally, so that you’re rolling and blending wet paint. Otherwise you run the risk of getting streaky “lap marks.”

We also recommend painting 2-3 lighter coats of paint, letting each coat fully dry before you apply the next. This builds a sturdy, beautiful covering.

How to maintain and care for painted wainscoting

It really is about just that: maintenance.

  • Dust regularly

  • Clean with a damp cloth, as needed

  • Use a mild detergent only when necessary, and never harsh chemicals

  • If the wainscoting is in an area with a lot of moisture, such as a bathroom, use a sealant to protect the surface

  • Touch up your paint when necessary, not neglecting your surfaces until you need a full repaint

best way to paint wainscoting

What color should you paint wainscoting?

Far and away, white is the most popular color for wainscoting. This is likely because it’s both traditional and timeless, plus it offers a gorgeous contrast with any wall color or wallpaper you’d like to use. With that said, you certainly can walk on the bolder side and paint your wainscoting something different. It’s a commitment though, so we recommend carefully considering your lighting, space, and how willing you are to potentially repaint your wainscoting down the road (rather than just repainting your wall).

Here’s another helpful resource for picking interior paint colors.

What’s the takeaway?

Painting your wainscoting can be extremely fun and rewarding, but you’ve got to take the process seriously and focus on the details. Every step and stage matters, from sanding and priming to that final topcoat.

Do you have more questions about interior painting in Nashville? Contact us at Nash Painting! We’re here to help and would love to chat with you.