Wainscoting & Chair Rail: The Rule of Proportion and Scale

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If you had the chance to ever visit the St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, Hagia Sofia in Constantinople or another Cathedral in the world, then you, my friend, know what it means to stand in awe. And although this feeling is partly a consequence of the historical weight of such sacred buildings, frescos, and mosaics, it’s also the result of the disproportional (for humans) size of such constructions.

How does this relate to wainscoting & chair rail?

Think of residential buildings. You get a sense of awe when you walk into loft apartments with huge floor to ceiling openings, upper floors, and great heights. Although most people would admire such constructions, they still consider them rather cold. We, humans, feel more comfortable in average size homes.

Even if there is a cathedral ceiling in one or more rooms, the overall ceiling height is usually sized to human measures. The rules of classic architecture dictate that the size of the residential building will follow the human scale. And that’s because people like to feel ‘proportionally equal’ to their dwelling. It’s all about symmetry and harmony in the space we live.

If you go a bit deeper, you can see that a wall panel wainscoting and along a chair rail have everything to do with proportion.

After all, what is wainscoting?

Isn’t it the horizontal panel which covers the lower (or more) part of the wall? Back in the ancient times, it was used to insulate and protect walls. Today, it serves the same purposes but also provides an elegant wall decoration alternative.

And what is the chair rail?

Isn’t it the molding running horizontally on the wall and usually covering the upper part of the wainscoting? Once upon a time, this molding served as a protecting board against wall damage from the chairs. Although some ancient buildings had chair rails installed at much lower heights.

So what do wainscoting & chair rails do?

They actually split the wall into two sections. And the proportions must be right to be pleasing to the eye. Have you ever walked into a room and something didn’t just feel right? This often happens when the chair rail is not installed at the right height.

Which is the right height for chair rail & wainscoting installation?

It depends on ceiling height. The conventional rule is that the chair rail is installed at about 36” over the floor. But what if the ceiling is lower or higher? The best method to avoid architectural ‘mistakes’ is to divide the wall height by three and bring the chair rail up to one third of the wall.

The height of the chair rail will define the proportion in the room. It depends on whether you want to give the impression that the room is high or low. It’s a visual trick. You visually heighten the room when you place the chair rail lower. And you visually shorten the room by installing the chair rail higher.

Symmetry, proportion, and scale in molding

Symmetry in the room also comes with the interior trims you use. In order for you to feel right when you walk into a room, wainscoting, chair rails, baseboards, crown molding, door casing and all other interior trim elements must be related in terms of proportion.

And once more, the size of moldings you choose depends primarily on ceiling height. I mean, it’s not architecturally ‘right’ to install a very slim chair rail if the ceiling is too high.

Then, it has to do with the size of the other trim elements. The width of the chair rail must be proportionally right with the scale of the rest of the moldings. Usually, the baseboard is the wider board – apart from the wall wainscoting panel. The door casing will most likely be around ½ to 1 inch thick. The chair rail should stand somewhere in between.

And don’t forget about details. Ornamental chair rails stand out more. So they could be thinner than plain moldings.

Why all the effort?

Although the myth of chair rail is that it was used for wall protection, the common utility of this molding was to separate the wall into two sections for the purpose of accentuating scale. Don’t forget that more often than not, chair rails are installed alone – without wainscoting panels. This advocates the argument that the chair rail is used to make a distinction between a wallpaper & plaster or painted wall & wainscoting.

People inclined to follow the more modern architectural rules, abandon the idea of wainscoting and chair rail altogether. If they want to split the wall, they simply draw a line in a different color.

With the chair rail running the wall horizontally, the room’s proportion and scale instantly changes. You feel it. You see it. You sense it. For these reasons, it must be done right.

A few more tips to make the best out of your efforts

  • If you don’t like the feeling of proportion and scale in the room, don’t tear down the chair rail or flat panel for that matter. One smart trick is to paint them both in the wall color to help them NOT to stand out. This will ease the ‘trip’ of the eye around the room.
  • If you really want to install a chair rail to protect the wall from the chairs – in your kitchen, bedroom, or dining room for instance – measure the chairs you use in each room and thus the height of the chair rail. Also, make sure the chair rail is wide enough to cover the chair’s top panel.
  • It’s important to cut the end of chair rails properly. Although this molding can be a great decorative element, it shouldn’t ‘ruin’ other moldings in the room. For example, if the chair rail goes all the way to the door casing, don’t let it cover it and cut the door casing in two. And don’t cover the door casing with wainscoting either. The idea of door casing is to create the sense of ‘columns’ in the opening.

Follow your instincts

It’s always helpful to have some knowledge of the basic architectural rules since proportion and scale are hard to achieve. But by all means, follow your personal preferences and instincts too. If you want to put emphasis on the chair rail or use it to hang coats or as a shelf, focus on depth and install a wider board. Wider boards give a more dramatic look. After all, if you don’t like it or change your mind later, you can always paint in the wall color to level the aesthetic scale.


Alexia studied sociology at Essex University and did postgraduate studies at Sussex University in the media field. In Greece she worked for many years in printed and electronic media. She has written and illustrated the children's book "Little Bobby Steps Into the World", which is available on Amazon. Today she is spending endless hours with homedearest.com, regularly writes articles for websites in America and Europe, and is a top rated content writer on Upwork. Alexia has always been interested in interior design and has written relative content over the years.

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