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The Ways of Wainscots

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The Ways of Wainscots

No matter which direction they run, wood wainscots rise in prominence with every succeeding era of old houses.

by Gordon Bock

Rich interior woodwork in varied forms often distinguishes old houses from their later cousins, and wood wainscots are easily among the most creative of these finishes. Dictionaries define a wainscot simply as a paneling treatment bordering the lower part of an interior wall. Though they can be made from any number of durable materials--from marble or ceramic tiles to heavy fabrics--wood wainscots, both painted and natural, are the most familiar types. In fact the term wainscot is derived, improbably, from wood wagon siding.

At their lowest, literal level, wainscots are extensions of baseboards or mopboards that run the perimeter of the room just above the floor. Common baseboards (up to 8'' in width) are usually a single board moulded along the upper edge to make a decorative transition to a smooth plaster wall. For wider baseboards, however, carpenters find it more practical and attractive to finish the upper edge with a separate piece of moulding, typically in a more elaborate pattern. From here it is a short step to a deep baseboard or skirting composed of two or three horizontal boards, flush-matched to make a uniform surface 18'' to 20'' wide. When capped with a protruding rail moulding, this skirting becomes, in effect, a low wainscot or dado, a type often seen in the common rooms of pre-1840 dwellings, such as vernacular Greek Revival houses.

Customarily higher are the wainscots found in bathrooms and halls. In these relatively narrow, well-trafficked spaces, the wainscot is intended to protect as well as decorate the wall, making 48'' or 54'' a common practical height. By the mid­19th century, the favored construction for these service wainscots was a series of tongue-and-grooved boards running vertically (rather than horizontally) along the wall, and blind-nailed in place like flooring. The most functional installations, such as bathrooms and back halls, used boards 2 1/2'' to 3 1/2'' wide on the face and beaded at the edge (and often in the face) to disguise joints--the ubiquitous beadboard or ceiling popular right up to World War I. More expensive work might call on boards decorated with v-joints, moulded shapes (often with different designs on alternate boards), or any one of the scores of other patterns widely available as machine-produced millwork. These vertical-board wainscots often extended directly to the floor without meeting a baseboard, and they were capped with a horizontal moulding rabbeted to fit over the tops of the boards.

Higher still is the level of wainscots that appear in many turn-of-the-century dining rooms. By 1905, tastemakers noted that as much as 60''seemed to be the new standard, though wainscots could go a foot taller in a high-ceilinged room. This was the heyday of the Arts & Crafts movement, and even houses that did not, strictly speaking, share this aesthetic philosophy followed the vogue for strongly vertical wainscots in dining rooms. The now-legendary design called for large, flat panels, 18'' to 24'' wide, separated by flat, vertical strips about 3'' wide. The panels themselves could be wood or, in the best Arts & Crafts tradition, coarse fabric, such as fine burlap, grasscloth, or heavy linen, often dyed in a rich color. As a finishing touch, the wainscot was capped with a 4'' wide board supported by brackets and grooved on top to display decorative tableware--the standard-issue plate rail of bungalow dining rooms.

When turned to living rooms, wainscots were supposed to be a moderate height of 32'' to 36''. In front halls and stairways, however, the wainscot has long played a featured role. In grand Georgian houses, for example, front halls were central public areas, and the wainscot often defined the space as the primary wall decoration. Construction might be horizontal flush boards but, as early as the 18th century, raised paneling became the treatment of choice. Here the wainscot is a frame of interlocking stiles and rails constructed to hold a series of rectangular panels that float in this frame--essentially the same system of joinery used to build doors. The height of front hall wainscots varies with each era, but they can easily rise to 50'' to fit the proportions of a large hall or a staircase.

In fact, the higher they rise, the better wainscots look when they relate to, rather than run independent of, other architectural elements. A century ago, perhaps the golden age of wainscots, carpentry texts regularly advised that wainscoting should be of the same height as some other feature of the room--a mantel or bookcase, for example. Windows, which are an ever present interruption on outside walls, could be integrated by simply running the wainscot to their bottom level, then making the stool (the interior equivalent of the sill) continuous with the cap moulding. In houses where this strategy would not leave the wainscot high enough, the alternative was to run it to the top of the window. In this case the cap moulding would connect with the header moulding at the top of window and door mouldings or entablatures--a popular, but by no means exclusively Arts & Crafts scheme, especially where the wall extended a couple more feet before reaching the ceiling. This approach not only avoided chopping the wall into zig-zags of doors, windows, and wainscots, it played up the horizontal lines of the room--right in step with the open room plans and horizontally oriented houses that put their mark on a new century.




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