If you’re staring at a blank plasterboard wall that is begging for a little dressing up, consider adding a dado rail, also known as a chair rail, fixed horizontally to the perimeter of the room.

I seriously doubt that the back of any chair has touched a chair rail as a way to prevent damage to the wall in a long, long time.  Rather, the molding device is now mainly aesthetic as a way to help define space and create interest within the envelope of a room.  Particularly in the past few years the chair rail, along with other types of trim such as wainscot, tall baseboards and crown molding, have sallied forth for denoting upgrades and creating luxury.

In architectural terms, the dado rail is traditionally part of the dado or wainscot and, while its purpose may be mainly decorative, there are probably cases where it, along with the baseboard, does in fact provide protection from furniture and human contact.  For instance, in the condo building where I now live, the hallways feature generously-sized chair rails and baseboards, and I note that the maintenance staff is frequently touching up the scuffs that occur from passersby.

To plan the addition of a chair rail, there is some discussion about its proper height from the floor.  Traditionally, the height of the dado rail is derived from the height of the pedestal of a column of classical order, typically 24 inches from the floor or about one-fifth the height of the room. But, modern trends have opted more toward 30 to 36 inches, based on the assumed notion that its actual purpose is to protect the wall from chair backs.  If the ceiling is 8 feet high, it’s best to stay lower with the chair rail.    But, even in colonial rooms with 10-ft. ceilings, I’ve seen the chair rail set at 30 inches from the floor.  Let your own sense of aesthetics be your guide.

For the do-it-yourselfers, the next step is to select the molding at the lumber yard to be used. It should not be too heavy in proportion to the size of the room and the height of its ceiling.   When I lived in an 18th century house with 9 foot ceilings, the original chair rail molding was 4-1/2 inches deep, which seemed appropriate. The next step is to take careful measurements of each wall and to get busy with the miter saw and miter box for the interior and exterior corners.

The best sequence is to paint or paper the wall behind where the chair rail will be prior to its installation and, further, to paint the rail itself.  The following steps are to locate the studs and mark them with pencil, then measure up from the floor or use a leveler to mark the height at the end of each piece.

Attach the molding with finishing nails recessed into the molding with a nail set, and the nail heads are covered over with putty.  The final steps are to caulk the joints where the segments meet and to touch up the paint wherever there is putty or caulk.

Here are some other tips:

When painting or papering the wall behind the chair rail, consider using different, coordinating colors or designs above and below the rail. It is an inexpensive way to add definition.

A good lesson I learned by experience:  measure twice, cut once. If in doubt, cut a bit too long. It is easier to trim a little extra than to replace missing material.

Molding for chair rails may not always be sold as such. If you think molding of a particular shape would look good as a chair rail, use it, even if it is labeled for use as a baseboard.

A chair rail offers homeowners the opportunity to create a two-toned wall. To ensure aesthetically pleasing two-toned walls, note the following:

First, consider neutrals. Although this may seem somewhat boring, neutral shades open up the door for a whole host of options and allow you to add more wall decor without cluttering the space. Neutrals add dimension to the room without dominating the design.

Or, experiment with different shades of the same color. For example, a navy blue on the bottom half of the wall could look dramatic when contrasted with a light blue on top. Additionally, a chocolate brown below the rail paired with a medium taupe above can give any room a warm feel.

Another option is to utilize a paint/wallpaper combination, with the wallpaper applied either above or below the chair rail.  I have used this effect in several of the rooms I’ve decorated. Each time, I’ve matched one of the dominant colors from the wallpaper to select the color paint for the rest of the wall.

A chair rail addition can be an excellent weekend project to add warmth and interest to your home.  But, for those of you who have decided that do-it-yourself projects are best graduated to let-someone-else-do-it projects, I have several good carpenters I can recommend.


Bill Primavera is a licensed Realtor® affiliated with Coldwell Banker and a lifestyles journalist who writes regularly as The Home Guru. Visit his website at: and, if you would like to consult with him about buying or selling a home, contact him directly at 914-522-2076.

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