wide closeup of the detailed wood block chair rail and block frames below

Picture Perfect Walls: DIY Guide to Chair Rail and Molding

Have you ever stared at your blank walls and wished they had a little more…personality? 

You’re not alone! 

A wall’s possibility, beyond its paint color, is often overlooked in a room’s design, but adding a chair rail and wall trim molding can be a surprisingly simple way to elevate your space and create a whole new look. 

A chair rail is a band of trim mounted horizontally around the entire room or maybe just down one long wall. The wall beneath the chair rail can be plain, or you can add more interest such as board and batten inspired vertical boards, or box mouldings or wood trim in any other pattern you can dream up.

This feature wall in our daughter’s dining room is one of my favorite diy projects. It’s probably our personal best for ratio of impact vs. time & effort!!!

Now that it’s time to makeover their first floor powder room that was added to the house by a previous owner, we are again using a wall treatment to amp up the style, and to also help with the proportions of the room.

A dark wallpaper floor to ceiling was an option to up the style, but it would have contributed even more to the overly tall, narrow closet feeling.

By breaking the wall with a high contrast lower element we visually shorten the wall. By adding a focal point chair railing, we help to widen it.

Welcome to One Room Challenge — Week 5

One Room Challenge Logo

Don’t miss out visiting the other ORC participants. There are so many great projects happening!

But first a quick catch-up and recap. The first three weeks, I shared the three basic, but critical steps I always take when preparing for a room makeover.

Designing and Planning

First Step – Wk 1 – Determining your goals for your makeover — starting with functionality and then adding style including general color palette 

Next Step  – Wk 2 – Refining and finalizing design choices — from flooring to wallpaper, to furniture pieces and specific paint colors

Third Step – Wk 3 — Planning and scheduling before installation — Planning aids for total project management to streamline the process, saving time, energy and money.

These are foundational steps, the core of good project management. Do NOT skip them. 

The links in this post may include affiliate links, which means if you purchase anything using these links, you pay no extra, but I may receive a small commission that helps keep this blog running. I truly appreciate you using affiliate links whenever possible. Please know that I will never recommend a product I do not believe in!


We are finally on site at our daughter and her husband’s home in DC. We live in KC.

The master plan is to accomplish the entire makeover in one week. But in all honesty, there’s been a LOT happening in preparation for this one week!!!!

We are starting the installation process with a fabulous wall treatment that will really make an impact. We’re adding a detailed, unique chair rail with picture frame molding below.

Installation — Wk 4 — Easy Way to Make Custom Stacked Wood Molding — Streamlined, modern wall molding is just a jig away.

Today, I’m walking you through the design and installation of the wall molding.

Whether you’re a seasoned DIYer or a complete beginner, this tutorial will guide you through the process, including a bonus section on creating a unique built-up molding for a more modern twist on the classic look.  Get ready to ditch boring walls and transform your space with the magic of trim!

Planning Your Project


First thing is to determine the layout you want. And this starts with a “floor plan” of your walls. Each wall you plan to enhance, will be it’s own drawing.

Accurate measurements are critical. Add the placement and size details onto your “wall plans”, including:

  • trim around doors
  • windows and trim
  • base trim
  • outets
  • light switches
  • ductwork
  • any built-in cabinets
  • any plumbing

graphic of wall trim layout on graph paper background

You can use graph paper if you’re a pen and pencil type. Or you can use an app or program. I used Canva.com to fine-tune my original scribblings and sketches.

Trim Profile-

With your layout determined, now you need to decide on the style of box molding or decorative molding you want to use. Oh, and also the material. 

Yes, there are lots of options. Your material choices include hardwoods, MDF, primed pine, unfinished pine, primed MDF and even PVC. Your hardwoods are most expensive with your unfinished pine typically being the least expensive.

NOTE: I’m just dealing with the wood options in this blog post. 

Think about the style of trim you want. How ornate? How wide? Symmetrical? Period specific? When deciding, consider:

  • the style of existing base trim
  • existing window and door frame
  • any existing crown molding
  • the weight and scale of other cabinetry

You can find several standard options at home improvement stores. Home Depot or Lowe’s, where we purchased ours. 

If you are looking for something more specific or period, here are several more sources:

PRO TIP: Consider making your own built-up molding or stacked molding by combining two or more standard molding pieces.

closeup of modern stacked wood trim

Katie and Jon’s style does not include anything fussy, intricate or delicate. Their home is an old historic row house with exposed brick walls and tall but simple base trim. 

We wanted a simple, modern moulding style, with the box trim symmetrical, but a similar trim that has a flat side to “encase” a raw wood chair rail insert that we are customizing.

Not finding that, we made it. We stacked a narrow piece of pine screen moulding (3/4″ wide) on top of a wider pine lattice strip (1 1/8″ wide). Very simple, very clean-lined, but still impactful still bringing dimension and interest.

Sounds like a lot more work, right? Actually, I came up with this way to make a jig to simplify the whole process and guarantee great results. Worked like a charm!


So many options!

You can paint, or even metal leaf, the trim pieces a different color for extra detailing and a pop of color. 

Or you can embrace the single hue trend of immersing an entire room in the same color, whether dramatic, moody, airy or even white!

The kids wanted to add the warmth of natural wood. The first way we are accomplishing this is with blocks of raw wood mounted between the two asymmetrical bands of our chair rail  trim. 

Then we will be painting it trim and rails a soft color pulled from the wallpaper and contrasting the white base and door trim.

Chair Rail Height-

There is no hard and fast design rule. 

And PLEASE, do not get hung up on the idea that the chair railing height has anything to do with the backs of chairs or the approximate height of most chair backs.

This design element has been around long before the name. 

What is more important to consider are other factors in the room.

Avoid splitting the chair rail with existing light switches. 

In a bathroom, above the sink is a more pleasing break point. 

In a room open to a kitchen, it might make most sense for it to extend the same line as the counter.

If you have long windows, it’s fine to have the chair rail break on each side of the window.

Good design often splits things in thirds. So a good rule of thumb is a third of your wall height. And that is just about where we landed for ours.

Determine Size and Placement of Box Frames-

Now that you know the space between the top of your base molding and the bottom of your chair rail, it’s time to finalize the design below the chair rail.

There is no right or wrong. Play around with it until you get the look you like best.

In our case, the wall across from the door is the longest expanse of wall and our focal wall. So we placed three evenly spaced equal-sized frames on that wall. The other walls will each have one frame. 

Next, determine the spacing you want between the bottom of the chair rail and the top of each box, between the boxes and between the bottom of the box and the top of your base moulding.

PRO TIP:  Streamline installation by using the width of your level or a block of wood as the distance between the bottom of the chair rail and the top of the frames, or even all three.

The spacing can all be the same or they can be three different size spaces. 

For ours, we went with continuity. All vertical spaces are 3-inches wide. And all horizontal spaces are 3-inches wide. These include between the top trim and chair rail, the chair rail and boxes, and the boxes and base. And vertically between the boxes and between the boxes and corners.

PRO TIP:  For visual balance, the space between frames should be the same as the space between the wall corners and the frame’s outside edge.

The frames will all be the same height. But the widths will probably vary.

To determine the box widths:

  1. The number of boxes on each wall plus 1be be the number of spaces that wall has
  2. Multiply the number of spaces times the width you decided your spaces would be
  3. Subtract that number from the length of that wall
  4. Divide by the number of boxes to get your box width for that wall
  5. Repeat for each wall

Calculate Amount of Trim Wood Needed-

For chair rail add the width of each wall and add them together.

For Frame molding:

  1. Multiply the number of boxes by 2 for the number of vertical pieces you’ll need
  2. Multiply that number by the height of the boxes 
  3. Add the width of all the boxes together
  4. Multiply that number by 2 for your horizontal pieces
  5. Add the numbers from no 2  and 4 to get your total box trim amount

Planning is done, let’s get started installing.

Materials and Supplies-

  • Chair rail molding
  • Box frame molding
  • Caulk and wood putty
  • Painter’s tape
  • Brad nails, or small finishing nails
  • Sand paper
  • Tape measure
  • Stud Finder
  • Level
  • Carpenter’s square
  • Nail set
  • Nail gun, brad nailer or pin nailer, I LOVE mine!
  • Miter saw or miter box with hand saw, compound miter saw is best. This is mine at home, and this is the one I borrowed in DC. Both are great!
  • Coping saw, if making coping corners
  • Laser level, optional but very helpful
  • Detail sander, (I LOVE this little guy)

view of the corner of the powder room with the finished accent walls treatment with wood block chair rail

How to Install a Chair Rail

Start by locating and marking the wall studs. 

There are two main ways to handle interior corners:

  1. miter corners
  2. coping corners

Miter corners are easier, but rarely match up exactly. Coping corners take a bit of practice, take more time, but result in cleaner, more professional corners. Either corner technique can be conquered with a YouTube video or two.

Because we are painting our trim and have very limited time on site, I went with mitered corners knowing that I could caulk the corners to refine them a bit.

Unless your room is teeny tiny, like ours, at some point you will probably need to join two lengths of trim for your chair rail. 

PRO TIP:  whether base trim, chair railing or crown molding, always join two lengths with a scarf joint, sometimes called a bevel cut. Never join them with straight cuts.

Place your first piece of chair railing, with a level resting on top, secure with your brad nailer or pin nailer into studs. Dry fit your corners and any scarf joints, always checking with a level.

Putty the nail holes and caulk all the seams and the top and bottom edges that meet the walls.

Now it’s ready for the priming and painting of your choice.

How to Install Wood Frame Trim

woman in the sunshine on a deck cutting miter corners on a saw

Cut your trim with 45-degree angle cuts so the distance between the longest points equals the outside corners of your frame box. 

Check that your base molding and chair rail are both level so the distance between them is constant around the room.

If it is, then you get to take advantage of a great short cut.

PRO TIP:  Cut one, then use it as a jig for all the others

Repeat for each different horizontal width needed.

To install each frame:

  1. checking your level, hold the top trim piece in place and nail
  2. matching up corners, and checking with level, place one nail in the top of the first vertical piece
  3. repeat with the second vertical piece
  4. dry fit the bottom piece, checking the verticals with a level
  5. adjust as needed and finish nailing verticals and bottom

Our Specific Chair Rail Installation Process

Due to the uniqueness of our chair rail,

I thought I’d step you through our process.

And I want to give a huge shout-out to Jessie of Eye in the Detail. Her Instagram reel on her wood block chair reel inspired this project!

Additional Materials Needed For Our Detailed Chair Rail

  • wood blocks
  • block backer (not required, but highly recommended) see Note
  • construction adhesive or epoxy, we used this one.

NOTE: By adding a backer behind the blocks, the sheetrock will not be destroyed in the process of possibly removing the chair rails in the future..

Let’s face it, trends change, our tastes change, homeowners change.

Adding a backer took 10 minutes and cost nothing. Now the sheetrock is protected from future chair rail removal.

For a backer, we used a few 2-inch wide strips of wallpaper between the sheetrock and adhesive.

Step 1) Cut the Wood Blocks-

We used wood lengths of 1-1/2 -inch by 1/2 -inch poplar.

I cut them into 1-1/2 -inch lengths.

closeup of woman using a miter saw set with a wood block jig to cut identical length wood blocks
closeup of woman's hands holding two woods blocks checking to make sure they are identical size

PRO TIP: For consistent cuts, create a jig by clamping a block of wood to your miter saw

While I still had our saw and jig set up, I cut two more blocks just a smidge longer to be our spacers.

This smidge was just enough to allow for the two coats of paint that will be on each of the rails.

I know, I’m covering a LOT! I encourage you to save this pin so you’ll remember where to find this info when you’re ready to makeover a boring wall.

pinterest pin showing the design on graph paper next to the finished wall

Step 2) Finish the Blocks (optional)

closeup of woman's fingertips holding a detailll sander against small wood blocks

Since this chair rail is for a bathroom, we sealed the blocks of wood with a clear sealer, 2 coats on all sides and the face. And don’t forget a light sanding between each coat for a smooth finish.

The blocks behind the sink and on each side of the sink got two additional coats.

I probably would not do this if in a “dry” room. Or maybe just brush on one coat once installed.

Step 3) Add Block Backer

scrap strip of wallpaper is shown on the wall bellow the laser level lines

With the heights marked on the wall, I added the 2-inch wide wallpaper strips.

Step 4) Apply Bottom Rail to Wall

With my brad nailer, I applied the bottom rail to the wall using my level to double and triple check.

One of the nice things about such a small room, is that it was pretty easy to dry fit the corners before firing a nail.

Step 5) Apply Top Rail-

raw wood trim boxes and chair rails installed on wall

Using the two spacers, I applied the top rail while again dry fitting the corners first.

Step 6) Caulk and Sand-

closeup of woman's fingertips holding a detail sander against the caulked wood trim

Molding always looks more finished and professional if it is caulked between the wall, nail holes and any corners.

You may be tempted to skip this step, but DON’T! It’s always worth the time in the end.

I have a great tip to speed this process along and make it much easier on your fingers. I’ve shared it in a 2-minute video in the SHD Resource Library for all subscribers.

What? You’re not a subscriber but would love access to all my exclusives? Well, we can take care of that right now! You are always welcome to join this creative community — it’s free!

Thanks Bunches! Now back to our chair rail:

Step 7) Finish the Rails-

You can get creative here or do a we did, and immerse the wall, rails and trim all in one color..

If we had not done wallpaper above, we might have accented this gorgeous chair rail by painting the rails something different. But with the paper, it would just be too much.

So The Hubs jumped in here and took over the painting, while Katie and I worked on other elements.

Step 8) Add Our Top Trim Rail-

Most wallpaper treatments would stop at the chair rail.

However, in our case, we wanted a bit more separation between the wallpaper and the detailed chair rail, so we added one more 3-inch channel of spacing with one more band of our modern stacked wood trim.

spacer blocks are shown between the chair rail and the top trim with a nail gun ready to go

We painted this trim off the wall. Painted the wall up to where the wallpaper would stop. Hung the wallpaper and then applied the trim. Then it was a quick caulk below the trim, touched up the corners, filled the nail holes and touched up the paint.

Step 9) Add the Blocks-

woman's hands holding spacers and adding a wood block to the chair rail

Once the two coats of paint were good and dried, we used a 2-part epoxy to add the blocks between the rails.

PRO TIP: a small consistent space between the blocks is important. We used thick junk mail cut up as our spacers. Experiment with how wide you want that space.

closeup of the finished trim wall with detailed chair rail above

TA DA! The bottom of our walls are finished!!! And it’s fabulous.

What’s next? The top of the wall of course. Be sure to check back.

As always, don’t hesitate to reach out with questions or comments! I’m here to help!!!

round image of Diane smiling next to a Signature that reads: With Joy, Diane


  1. Missy

    Wow! This is absolutely stunning! Great job and great tutorial! I am in total awe! -Missy

    • Diane

      I thought you might like the bright colors — no basic creamy white for my daughter, or for you!!!

  2. Wendy McMonigle

    Wow, this is truly amazing, Diane. You are the masters at bathroom renovations. I need you at my house.

    • Diane

      You are so sweet Wendy! Think what fun we’d have if I came and ripped out your bathroom — ha ha!


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