Gorgeous Details: How to Make Your Millwork Shine

Houzz.com’s latest piece cited a designer sharing his tips for creating beautiful rooms with wainscoting, paneling, molding and more



If you have decorative wainscoting or wall molding, or you’re thinking of having some installed, you need to think not only about how to finish the molding, but also about what to do with the rest of the wall. To help you get a beautiful, balanced and polished look for your entire wall, here are some of my favorite ways to work with molding and wainscoting, no matter the room or style.


What Is Molding?


Molding refers to any applied material — usually made of plaster, wood or wood alternatives like MDF — that is used to protect or decorate a wall. It can be applied in strips along the ceiling, baseboard or anywhere else on the wall, in which case it is often referred to as strip molding or trim.


A chair rail is one of the simplest forms of strip molding. It’s a straight horizontal strip running across a room that divides the wall into an upper and lower half. Traditionally the purpose of a chair rail was literally to keep the backs of chairs from hitting the wall as they were pulled out or pushed around. However, many modern chairs have a back height too low to hit a traditional 32-inch-high molding, so today chair rails are often installed for style more than anything else.


What Is Paneling?


Paneling is molding in large, solid pieces instead of strips, dressing one or many walls in panels.


What Is Wainscoting?


Wainscoting is a specific form of panel molding, typically defined simply as paneling that runs only up to the height of a chair rail or lower — 32 inches and below.



Why Add Paneling or Molding?


Paneling can be functional and also decorative. It can help protect a wall in a high-traffic or moisture-prone area, similar to tile but less hard (and generally less expensive). If you move furniture around a lot or have rambunctious children at play, molding will take impacts better than drywall and usually will be easier to wipe clean, although this depends on the paint or finish on top.

Traditional Entry by Robert Rhodes Architecture + Interiors

Robert Rhodes Architecture + Interiors

Strip molding doesn’t offer the wall much protective coverage, but it adds a lot of decorative impact. Both forms of molding can break up a wall to allow for creative wallcovering combinations and help draw the eye to different features.


In this example, the chair rail helps the high-ceilinged space feel a bit more proportionate. The horizontal line across the room breaks up the tall walls. The lower part of the wall is painted a subtly darker shade, so the walls feel richer without being busy.


How to Decorate Around Molding


So if you’ve decided to add molding to your home, or you already have beautiful molding you want to show off, what do you do with the rest of the wall? There are many options to suit virtually any decor taste and molding style, but let’s start with one of the simplest.




The easiest way to complete the look of a wall with half-height paneling or molding is by using a contrasting paint color to dress the unadorned portion.

Traditional Entry by Omniform



Subtle off-white


Pale off-white for the plain wall portion contrasted against crisp white molding gives a subtle sense of definition, putting the visual emphasis on the molding and other details. Note that with a paint effect this subtle, you will likely still want to add at least a few decorative pieces to make the wall feel a bit more filled in (more on that later).


You can also reverse this paint scheme (with the off-white on the molding or wainscoting instead) if you want to reduce the appearance of scuffs and marks on the molding in busy areas.


Rich deep neutral.

Using a deep, rich neutral paint for the upper wall portion may seem like it would visually shrink the room, but dark colors visually recede when contrasted against light shades, so the combination can actually make a room seem grander. Here, the dark green-gray paint appears to recede, highlighting the depth of the molding below.


It works especially well here because the molding rises more than halfway up the wall. This is a great solution for walls with molding or wainscoting about three-fifths to two-thirds of the way up. If the molding weren’t as high, the overall look could be too dark or feel too empty.

This space uses a similar deep shade on the walls from top to bottom, which makes the wainscoting less immediately noticeable. The walls feel rich, with a sense of architectural texture, but other elements in the space feel like more of a feature.


If you prefer to emphasize other architectural elements like windows or door frames, this is a good option to make the walls feel “finished” but not busy.


Contrasting Molding


A bold yet classic way to dress wall molding for maximum contrast is to use a different hue on the entire wall area and use white or a pale color on just the molding. This is the strongest way to highlight rich molding, especially delicate molding like this that leaves a lot of negative space.


This can be applied to molding that runs floor to ceiling or just partway up the wall, but it’s generally safest to use a dark color for the wall and white for the molding. Using a bold color for the molding itself can work, but it’s definitely a bigger design gamble. When in doubt, look to heritage homes for timeless color combinations, and bring in modern or trendy touches with elements that will be easier to change.


Keep in mind that painting the walls and molding separately will take more effort, especially if being done retroactively after an installation has already taken place, so you can expect a labor-intensive (but rewarding) DIY, or a higher rate from a hired painter.


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