How to Install a Chair Rail
One of the best ways to improve the look of a room is by adding chair rail. While not every room is a good candidate for chair rail, a properly installed chair rail is a great accent that provides a clear dividing line for paint and wallpaper or adding shadow boxes. This do it yourself project does not require special carpentry skills so even a novice can complete it in a day.
Basic carpentry tools are required, but if you are using hardwood, such as oak, maple, or cherry, a power miter is recommended. You can buy one for less than $150, or rent one for the weekend. If the room is large, you may want to rent an air compressor and nail gun, but be wary of any hidden dangers such as water supply pipes and electrical lines. A nail gun can pierce a copper pipe and you may not discover the problem for weeks or months later. If you are planning on using a built-up chair rail constructed out of several stock moldings, then a nail gun and compressor are a must. There is also less chance splitting small pieces of trim and positioning the molding is much easier.
There is some discord with the proper height of chair rail. Traditionally chair rails were set very low, well below the 32 inches currently used today. In homes from the 18th century it is common to find chair rails at 24 inches or lower, even in rooms with 9 or 10-foot ceilings. The chair rail helps define the scale and proportion of a room. For most rooms a height between 28 and 32 inches works best. You may want to tack a piece of trim or place painter’s tape around the room at the desired height to get the feel for the final product.
Installing the chair rail too high diminishes the size of a room, making it feel small and stuffed. The chair rail is meant to mimic the top of a column base not the height of the back of a chair, so be careful not to use your furniture as a gauge to your molding.
Chair rail height in a traditional home
Tools and Materials
Hammer and nail set – if nailing by hand
Air compressor and Brad nail gun
4-foot level or water level
8d finish nails
Wood filler or glazing compound
Sandpaper (100 grit)
If you plan on painting your chair rail, it is a good idea to prime and paint it first. Let it dry completely, and then start your project. This way you will only need to touch up the areas where you nailed and caulked.
1. Determine the height of your chair rail and place a mark at that point; typically between 32 and 36 inches. It is a good idea to start at a doorway or at a corner where an interior and exterior wall meet. Transfer the height around the room using a 4-foot level, laser level, or a water level. Tip: If using a 4-foot level to draw the line, flip the level over as you go to even out any inaccuracy in the tool. Snap a chalk line if using a water level to transfer your line quickly.
2. Locate all studs with a stud finder and tape measure. Once you find one, measure over 16 inches. Check with the stud finder or a small nail to determine if the stud is there. As you get to corners, the studs may be closer than 16 inches on center. Make a note of locations of electrical receptacles and plumbing fixtures in adjacent rooms.
3. Measure and cut the chair rail for the longest wall with straight cuts on each end. Whenever possible use one length of chair rail molding per section of wall length. To piece together two pieces of chair rail use a scarf joint to join two sections of chair rail molding together. A scarf joint consists of 45o angled cuts on two lengths of chair rail molding that butt up against one another. Make sure that you make the seam over a wall stud so both ends can be fastened to the wall stud with nails.
4. Nail the chair rail to the wall with 8d finish nails. Drive the nails below the surface of the molding with a nail set.
5. The next piece can have a straight cut on one end and a coped cut on the other to fit into the first piece of chair rail you nailed onto the wall. To cope a joint;
Coping an inside corner
a. Cut the end that butts up against the first piece on a 45-degree angle.
b. Cut away the back of the trim to leave just the profile showing.
c. Place it up against the first piece of chair rail and check the fit.
d. Remove any excess wood from the cut using a utility knife or wood rasp.
6. Repeat the process around the room.
7. At doorways or openings, hold the chair rail back from the edge about 1/8 inch. Cut the end on a 45-degree angle and install a return, also called a miter end cap. The return is made by cutting a sliver of a miter that is glued into place between the last piece and the wall. This is similar to making an outside corner, but the length of the piece goes only as far as the back point of the miter. Be careful when cutting this piece – cut the miter first and then the flat cut second. You may want to place the chair rail on a piece of scrap 1 x 4 to keep the piece from falling into the saw. Apply glue to the surfaces of the chair rail and hold it in place with a piece of painter’s tape.
Returns or miter end caps
8. Fill all of the nail holes with wood filler or glazing compound. Caulk along the chair rail and wall and all miter joints.
9. Touch up paint the chair rail and wall if necessary.
For outside corners – tack a mitered scrap into place and use it to test fit the miter joint. Adjust the angle of the saw a degree at a time until the joint is tight.
If your chair rail is thicker than the casing of doors or windows, sand down face of the chair rail on a slight angle to meet the casing.
You can also use your miter saw to remove a small piece on an angle. If you are using a built-up chair rail or a cap, you can hold the chair rail back as with an opening and then notch the cap around the door or window casing.
Return cut for Door casing
You can also cut the chair rail square and butt it against the casing.
Butt joint for Door casing
Never back-cut chair rail moldings