How to Install Inexpensive Wall Paneling... So It Doesn't Look Cheap!!

by Michael Chotiner

Installing wood wall paneling is a great way to add interesting tones and texture to room decor. When paneling is done right, it reflects good taste and a sense of craft. But when installation details are sloppy, the impression is lost. Doing the job right means thinking through the design, planning, wall preparation, layout, fastening and finishing thoroughly. To achieve a high-quality finished appearance, the devil is in the details.

Design Styles

A great variety of off-the-rack products that can be classified as "wall paneling" are available, so the first step is decide which is best suited to achieving the look you want and how much time and effort you want to put into the project. The table below illustrates some of the typical possibilities and suggests what it takes to achieve each. Of course, an infinite number of other looks can be achieved by mixing and matching materials and adapting the fundamental skills to your particular project. Here are five of the most common styles:

1) Library-Style Frame-and-Panel

Achieve with: Hardwood veneer plywood, wood moldings, wood stain and varnish.

Required tools: Tape measure, level, finish nailer or hammer, circular saw, saber saw and miter saw.

Skill level and cost: This style requires finishing, so it takes high skills and effort to pull off. It can also be expensive.

2) Vertical Groove Board Pattern

Achieve with: Solid tongue-and groove boards, milled with desired joints, wood stain and varnish, or use prefinished 4 x 8 sheet panels.

Required tools: Tape measure, level, finish nailer or hammer, circular saw, saber saw and miter saw.

Skill level and cost: This project requires moderate skills and is moderately low-cost. Note that if you're using prefinished sheet panels, you don't need to use finishing.

Style 3: Beaded Wainscot with Chair Rail

Achieve with: Solid tongue-and groove boards, milled with desired joints, or use prefinished 4x8 sheet panels, chair rail molding. baseboard molding and paint.

Required tools: Tape measure, level, finish nailer or hammer, circular saw, saber saw and miter saw.

Skill level and cost: This project requires moderate skills and is moderately low-cost.

Style 4: Barn Siding, Horizontal Pattern

Achieve with: Reclaimed solid lumber, wood bleach and wood stains.

Required tools: Tape measure, level, finish nailer or hammer, circular saw, saber saw and miter saw.

Skill level and cost: This project requires moderate skills and is moderately low-cost.

Style 5: 3-D Decorative Paneling

Achieve with: Proprietary molded plastic panels, paintable caulk and paint.

Required tools: Tape measure, level, utility knife and caulking gun.

Skill level and cost: No matter the design you choose, 3-D decorative paneling is moderately low-cost and require moderate skills to install.

Planning Your Paneling Project...

One of the keys to successfully transforming a space with wall paneling is not to overdo it. Remember that if you're planning to introduce a bold color or pattern, a little paneling can go a long way. For example, rather than finishing all four walls of a room floor to ceiling with heavy, dark wood that has a strong vertical groove pattern, apply panels to only one wall, or install the paneling as a wainscot that stops short of the ceiling.

If you're planning to redecorate an existing room with paneling, think through what it will take to adapt the design and materials to the space. One of the key considerations is the thickness of the material you choose. Four-by-eight-inch paneling sheets—prefinished or unfinished—are nominally ¼ in. to 3/8 in. thick, while solid boards range from 3/8 in. to 7/8 in.

Keep in mind that wherever a panel edge meets a finished opening—like at doors or windows—the panel edge needs to be concealed. If you can use thinner panels, you may be able just to butt the edges to existing casings, baseboards and other moldings rather than having to remove them and extend window and door jambs before resetting the moldings.

Also consider that if you choose solid-board paneling in a vertical pattern, you will need to prepare for fastening boards to the wall by applying horizontal furring strips. This will increase the finished wall thickness an additional ¾-in. plus the panel thickness, complicating the finished molding assembly at openings and outside corners. On the other hand, if furred-out paneling runs wall to wall between inside corners, the increased wall thickness shouldn't present a problem.

Wall Preparation

If your plan is to install ¼ in.-thick plywood or hardboard panels or thin composite 3-D decorative panels that will be nailed and/or glued in place, you must start with a flat, solid base wall finish like drywall or plaster. Check the wall for bulges and correct them structurally if necessary. Remove all protruding fasteners and repair any large holes or depressions. Remove all switch plates and other decorative electrical accessories, as well as the screws that hold switches and receptacles in junction boxes so that they can be repositioned on the same plane as the finished paneling surface. If the panel design features dark vertical grooves, it's a good idea to paint thick stripes of a similar color on the wall at locations where joints meet between panels to prevent "show-through," as joints tend to open and close with changes in humidity.

Thicker, solid-board paneling can be installed directly to wall framing, where solid-board vertical paneling will be installed, fasten horizontal blocking between studs spaced no more than 24 in. on center. Solid-boards can be applied directly to wall studs spaced 16-in. on center without blocking. Unfasten electrical junction boxes from framing so that they can be repositioned flush with the front edge of the paneling when it's fastened to the framing.

Laying Out Vertical Patterns

When planning the layout for 4 x 8 sheet paneling with a vertical pattern, consider these issues, which affect the finished appearance:

Using a level, mark a plumb line 48 in. from an inside corner on a wall where you wish to start installing 4-foot wide panels. Tack a full panel in place with one long edge aligned with the plumb mark, then check to see how the opposite edge fits into the corner. If the corner isn't straight and plumb, you'll see gaps. Use a compass, as shown, to trace the irregularities on the panel edge, then take the panel down and trim it with a jigsaw to fit the corner contours before fastening it permanently in place.

If the vertical board pattern is regular rather than random widths or varied, you may wish to shift your starting plumb mark to the right or left to center the pattern and avoid a narrow "sliver" at the opposite corner.

Laying Out Horizontal Patterns

Horizontal paneling should be laid out with the decorative pattern dead level. Check to see if the corner where the wall meets the ceiling is level, and mark your starting level guideline in a spot that ensures that a full pattern module will appear at the top of the wall.

It may not be necessary to scribe the top edge of the paneling to fill gaps between the top edge and the ceiling if you're planning to finish the transition with a crown molding. Pattern irregularities at the bottom of a wall can usually be concealed with baseboard molding.

Methods of Fastening Wall Paneling - Nails and maybe Adhesive!!

Whether you choose to install plywood, hardboard or solid-board paneling, it's best to set the material in the room where it will be installed at least a week before you start nailing it up so that it acclimates to the ambient humidity. This prevents seams from opening up if the material should dry and shrink or from buckling if it should take on moisture and swell.

Cut panels to size and cut holes for outlets and switches as needed. When working with a circular saw or jigsaw, cut panels facedown to minimize marring of the finished surface.

The general principles for fastening paneling are:

When applying thin, prefinished paneling sheets over drywall, use one and one-half inch ring nails matched in color to the pattern grooves in the material. Nails should be driven into the grooves at edges and within the field through the wall finish and into studs spaced no less than 16 in. apart.

To cut down on the number of nails required, consider applying construction adhesive to the back surface of thin ¼-in. panels before nailing them in place. Using adhesive provides insurance that paneling won't buckle over time if nails should begin to pop as a result of expansion and contraction of the panels or settling of the foundation.

Panel adhesive is available in tubs and tubes, and can be applied with a notched trowel or a caulking gun. Before starting to apply adhesive, make sure that the existing wall surface is clean, dry and sound. Scrape off any flaking paint or plaster. If the wall finish is at all glossy, sand it with medium sandpaper.

If working from a tub of adhesive, apply dollops of glue in strategic locations on the back of the first panel, then spread it all over, working toward the edges with a notched trowel. If applying adhesive with caulking gun, run beads in a serpentine pattern all over the back of the panel. Don't apply adhesive to more panels than you'll be able to set within 15 minutes.

After the glue has been spread, carefully set the panel in place against the wall surface. Most adhesive manufacturers recommend pulling the panel away from the wall momentarily after the first contact, then resetting it and pressing it in place. I like to drive a few color-matched ring nails at the top, bottom and center of the panel, then burnish it in place by running a hard rubber roller all over the surface with extra passes along the panel edges.

Where paneling is applied over furring strips, make sure the furring is nailed or screwed firmly through the wall finish and into the wall studs with 10d common nails or 3-in. drywall screws. For solid-board paneling, choose tongue-and-groove or shiplap stock. Drive finish nails (usually 6d) at an angle through the tongue no more than 24 in. apart; when fitted properly, the next board will conceal the fastener heads.

The Takeaways

Decorative wall paneling projects can be as simple or elaborate as you choose. No matter what style you choose, even if you don't spend a whole lot of money and effort, paneling will look great if you think things through and avoid silly mistakes.

About the author: Michael Chotiner has worked as a cabinet maker and general contractor in construction for many years, and contributes articles on do-it-yourself home projects for Home Depot. To review a wide range of paneling choices, including styles discussed by Michael, you can visit