Recessed Panel Wainscoting With Tile Accent – Part 1

I actually already showed you the start of my wainscoting the other day, but I’m still calling this “part 1” because I’m starting at the beginning.

At some point last week, I got the very start of the wainscoting on the far wall in place, which was basically made up of 1 x 4’s installed horizontally along the floor, and then again at about 37.5 inches high on the wall.  And then I created sections by adding more 1 x 4’s vertically between those horizontal pieces.  I also added a piece of trim (called panel moulding at Home Depot, sold by the linear foot) along the top of the top 1 x 4.

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Note: I’m using MDF boards for my wainscoting.  I’ve used MDF and eucaboard in bathrooms before with no problem.  Since everything will be caulked, primed in oil-based primer, and painted with at least two coats of paint, I don’t forsee (and have never had) any problems with moisture damaging the MDF or eucaboard.  I prefer MDF over solid wood lumber for wainscoting because of how beautifully and perfectly smooth it sands.  However, if you want to do this project in a bathroom that is used very frequently by several people for hot steamy showers each day, and/or has moisture/ventilation issues, you might be better off using solid wood lumber for your wainscoting.  Again, just be sure all of the edges are caulked (anywhere where water/moisture could seep down between the boards and the wall), prime with a good oil-based primer (I use Zinsser Cover Stain), and follow up with at least two coats of paint.  If you follow that and don’t cut corners, there should be no water/moisture damaging the wainscoting.  But only you know your own bathroom traffic/moisture/ventilation situation, so you’ll have to be the judge of whether or not this wall treatment is right for your bathroom.

Anyway, I ended up removing the vertical pieces, shifting them over to the left, and adding one more vertical piece on the right side.  It just felt so unbalanced before, with me using the tall floor-to-ceiling piece as the final vertical piece on the wainscoting, and then having the horizontal trim end so short.  The horizontal trim ended right where it needed to, but I was clearly missing a short vertical piece to make things feel balanced.

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So once I got everything shifted over,  and added that last short vertical piece, it looked so much better to me.

And as you’ve seen in other pictures, I based the height of the wainscoting on the vanity height, as I wanted this panel moulding to go right along the top of the vanity countertop.

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So that’s where I had left off with the wainscoting last week, and where I picked up working on it yesterday.  The first thing I did was fill all of the joints with wood filler.  And as I’ve said before, I use a very liberal amount of wood filler when I do projects like this.  It shrinks as it dries, and I do NOT like having to go back and add a second coat and wait for that to dry.

While the wood filler was drying, I added the moulding on the inside edges of all of the sections.  I used base cap moulding for this, mitering the corners, and attaching the pieces with Loctite construction adhesive and 1.5-inch 18-gauge finishing nails.

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Then I used wood filler to cover all of those nail holes. When I use wood filler on nail holes on this type of moulding, I only use the bare minimum amount needed to fill the hole.  That’s because any wood filler on that curvy moulding has to be sanded by hand (as opposed to the flat 1 x 4’s, which can be sanded with my electric sander), so I don’t want to create more work for myself than is necessary.

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I also added the moulding to the section that will be behind the toilet.  The section to the left of that didn’t get any moulding because it will be completely hidden behind the vanity.  Adding moulding there would be a complete waste of time and money.

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And I also did this section on the end.

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This section really isn’t visible for the most part when the vanity is in place.  But I did notice last week, before I moved the vanity out to paint it, that at one certain angle, you can see all the way to the back wall between this wall and the side of the vanity.  So it needed to be finished.  Probably no one else would ever notice it, but if I ever caught a glimpse of an unfinished wall at the side of the vanity, it would drive me crazy.

After all of the wood filler was completely dry, I used my sander and 150-grit sanding discs to sand the joints and nail holes on the 1 x 4’s completely smooth.  I also used 150-grit sandpaper to sand the nail holes on the moulding by hand.

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Things always look a bit rough at this point because the primer is sanded off in so many areas, but it’s nothing that a coat of primer and paint won’t fix!

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And then it was time to caulk.  Caulking is my absolute least favorite part of this process, but it’s so important because it really gives everything a clean, finished look.  Also, since this is a bathroom, it’ll keep water/moisture from getting between and behind the boards.

The three main places where I caulk the wainscoting are (1) the mitered corners of the moulding, (2) where the moulding meets the 1 x 4’s, and (3) where the moulding meets the drywall on the inside of the “frame.” And of course, I caulk anywhere else I see that needs it, like where trim meets in the corners of the walls.

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Next I needed to build out the area where the accent tile would be installed.  The moulding below where the tile will be placed sticks out from the wall almost an inch, so if I put the tile (which is about 1/4-inch thick) directly on the wall, it would be recessed too far and look ridiculous and poorly planned.

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So to add some needed thickness to that area, I cut strips of 1/2-inch drywall and attached it to the wall with construction adhesive and nails.

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And then I topped the drywall with more trim.  I used the same panel moulding attached to a 1 x 2.  The 1 x 2 was a little taller than the panel moulding, so I ran it through my table saw to remove about 1/8 inch and make the 1 x 2 and the panel moulding the same height.  So when it’s finished, that 1 x 2 won’t show at all.  Its only purpose was to give the appropriate thickness to the panel moulding.

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I didn’t have enough trim to finish the other two walls,so called it quits for the day.  But this section between the moulding, where I installed the strips of drywall, is where the tile accent border will be installed, and that is what will act as a backsplash behind the vanity.

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I’m hoping to be able to finish it today!  I still need to find some sort of small ledge-type trim as a cap on the very top (probably some sort of lattice) and then I need something to finish it off along the floor.  Then priming, painting, and tiling.  That’s doable in a day, right?  🙂  I guess we’ll see tomorrow!

UPDATE:  Click here to see the finished wainscoting!

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  1. It is looking amazing and your attention to detail and sometimes tedious task always inspires…Good job…

  2. Hi Kristi,
    Thanks for the GREAT blow by blow, including photos. I am going to tackle this project later this year, and it will be nice to have your guidance. Your bath is going to be amazing.
    One question..why adhesive and nails? I have constructed many things, bookcases, wall units, etc., and never glued. Is there really that much benefit?
    Love reading your blog. I am a Kristi ‘junkie’, lol!!!

    1. I find that there’s a huge difference in the stability of whatever it is I’m building when I use glue along with nails. When I just use nails, I find that things shift or come off way too easily for my liking.

  3. Looking really good. I love all the moldings and you’ve done a great job on them. No worries on MDF in bathrooms. I used 6 inch MDF for a baseboard and topped it with PM6 I think. Which is why I have to ask, didn’t you use something like that. It has an edge to fit over the base but the other edge fits flush against the wall. Just tapers from the trim to the wall. Seems it would have saved a step and mine looks almost exactly like what you used. BTW, another reason to use MDF is it paints so much better. We also used it as window sills. It’s done all the time for all you doubters out there.

  4. Woohoo, lookin’ good, Kristi! Question: will you be painting the storage cabinet in the linen niche the same as the vanity, or paint it to match the lower walls? Will you trim that storage cabinet out the same as the vanity, or do something a little different so the vanity is still unique? just wondering!

    1. I’m keeping the teal and the furniture look (i.e., feet) for the vanity only. The linen storage will look completely built-in, so it’ll be the trim color. I am thinking of doing something unique to the back of the open shelves, though. Paint it teal? Tile the whole back in the accent tile? Cover it all with a mirror? I’m not sure yet.

      1. I love the idea of a tiled shelf back! It would be totally unexpected and it will be a beautiful reflection from the mirror over the sink. Is there a plug receptacle there for a small lamp on the linen vanity? Your tile selections are stunning!

        I can’t wait to see how the tile looks as the back splash behind the vanity!

      2. Just a few thoughts about the various choices: if you tile the back of the open shelves in the accent tile, will that overpower the rest of the bathroom? Since the mirror over the vanity will reflect the storage niche and shelves, mirroring the back of the shelves would bounce the reflection back and forth; could be an interesting effect. Painting the wall behind the open shelves the teal of the vanity would compete with the vanity, but what about a lighter shade of the teal? or maybe use a completely different color from the fabric? or maybe something altogether different – what about covering the wall behind the shelves with the same fabric as the shower curtain? just an idea to consider! It’ll be interesting to see which you choose!

        1. On second thought, why not paint the wall behind the recessed shelves the same celery green as the other walls?

  5. Thanks so much for all the details!!!! It looks great! Love it and can’t wait to get started myself. So helpful!!!

  6. Hi Kristi, really appreciate this post as I plan on tackling a version of this later in the year. It’s looking wonderful, too. I’ve a question on spacing. I’ve viewed many tutorials on board and batten alone and the thinking seems to vary. I would think that it is best to end each wall with a vertical piece (not everybody does this), so how do you get even spacing all around a room when wall distances vary? I’m not the best at problem solving so any advice is much appreciated. 🙂

    1. Well, the short answer is…you DON’T worry about even spacing around the entire room. 🙂

      I had the same question before I started mine, and probably looked at 100 pictures or more of wainscoting in small rooms (most bathrooms) on Pinterest and Houzz. I didn’t see on room where the spacing was completely equal on all four walls. It varied depending on the width of the wall, what was on the wall (e.g.,toilet, sink, etc.) You might want to take some time to look at some inspiration pics yourself, so that you can see how others hae done it.

  7. Great step-by-step and extremely informative. We are wondering if you use oil based primer, does that mean you don’t have to use oil based paint? Can we use latex paint with oil based primer? We have used oil based primer/paint on all cabinetry and crown moldings because the paint “expert” at Home Depot suggested it and said it’s the “best way to get coverage”. So now, we are basically confused. And seriously, we aren’t stupid but just wanted the best coverage. We are in the early stage of bathroom remodel with poor ventilation but not used much – your idea works for us but the paint confusion has us shaking our heads.

    1. Oil-based primer is very different from oil-based paint. You should never paint with latex paint directly over oil-based PAINT. However, most oil-based primers can be painted on top with either latex or oil paint. I specifically use Zinsser Cover Stain (the oil-based version), and it says on the instructions that you can use either oil or latex paint on top. So just be sure to check the label on the primer that you use to be sure it will accept latex paint.

      But in my humble opinion, the paint expert who told you to use oil primer and oil paint was right. Oil-based paint is my absolute favorite,but it’s just so inconvenient to purchase it. I’m ALWAYS at Home Depot, and they don’t carry oil-based paint. But I do have great success with Behr. It’s my favorite latex paint, and I find that it’s very durable once it cures.

      1. I also love oil based paint…used it on the trim and doors in our house..after doing the paint test to determine what type paint was used…turned out to be oil paint and after 13 years of wear and tear and rambunctious little grandkids..most of our wood trim and also our doors are in great shape and really dont need to be repainted..I also love the high gloss, bright white look it adds to our house..looks almost like new!!

  8. I just wanted to give you a compliment on how hard you work. This has quickly became one of my favorite blogs.

  9. Kristi, that is going to look amazing!

    You didn’t say what tools you use for caulking. I used to hate it too until I bought a wireless power caulking gun – one of the best tools in my collection. It worth its weight in gold. Makes my life so much easier.

    I have a question about the wainscoting – is it a normal practice to have the central parts of the sections uncovered drywall? For some reason I thought there should be a sheet of MDF covering the whole area, and then the horizontal and vertical boards to form the sections. I have no experience with wainscoting, never lived in a house with one, it’s pure logic (I am left brained 🙂 ) – the purpose of the wainscoting is to protect the wall, so it has to be continuous. Might be wrong, though. If it is made of 2 different materials, does it look and feel uniform after painting?

    Can’t wait to see the finished bathroom! Great job!

    1. I just use a cheap caulk gun. I’ve never even heard of a wireless power caulker! I’ll have to look into that!

      As far as the wainscoting, you are correct. If you want to do it the correct way, there should be a full panel (MDF, plywood, etc.) covering the entire lower part of the wall, and then the trim goes on top of that. I just didn’t want to add any more thickness to my walls. In a room this small, every single inch counts (especially with my vanity inching closer and closer to the door with every layer I add), so I skipped that part. 🙂 I’ve found that as long as you’re working with smooth drywall that doesn’t have any texture on it at all, once it’s all painted, it’s not noticeable at all that it’s drywall rather than a solid panel.

  10. Im surprised you haven’t been nominated for the HGTV Design Star show..in all seriousness…your talent, in my opinion exceeds many of the people Ive seen on that show..I enjoy each day your posts..and just as nice..you interact with your readers..Ive learned alot and am trying to be brave and try some building projects…well not really building..but construction type things..with my husband’s scroll saw…I want to add the beadboard on the ends of my kitchen cabinets…can’t decide if I should use beadboard wallpaper…Ive done a few projects, very small, with bb wallpaper.. I just keep thinking it would be better in the long run to use the actual pine beadboard panels on the cabinets…thanks again for your wonderful blog..Sincerely, Nancy O.

    1. Nancy, I keep forgetting to answer your question on that other post about the trim I use on the cabinets.

      I left a couple of links in this post to the trim I used for the vanity. In addition to those, I also used this one around the bottom of the kitchen cabinets


      I put the thin side up, and then the rabbet on the back perfectly wrapped around the 1 x 4 lumber that I used to make the decorative feet.

  11. Think I may have to do the recessed panel look in my dining room and stairwell (oh the joy of figuring out those angles lol). Beautiful, Kristi, just beautiful!

  12. Kristi, can you please explain a little bit about how you do your caulking to get a smooth line? Doesn’t it get all over the woodwork? What kind of caulk do you use? I tried to caulk my molding on my bathroom ceiling years ago and I made a big mess. It was all over the woodwork and its still peeling off.

  13. WOW! LOVE IT Kristi just love it! Darn girl you are so talented. I love your blog. Going to do the wainscoting to my living room, dining room & kitchen (all one area). You totally amaze me always.

  14. I think it’s getting to be time for you to have an app for your site. Maybe Matt can work that out for you! 🙂

  15. Another day closer to the room being completed. Every step is beautifully thought out and worked upon. Kirsti you are amazing. Bet you are getting excited with each step finishing. The Bathroom is taking shape beautifully.

  16. Kristi,
    I’ve been reading your blog for a few months since searching “header beam install” on Google. I recently purchased a 60s fixer upper and your blog has helped tremendously in my kitchen remodel. It seems everything you tackle is very similar to my own issues. I am inspired by how much you do yourself as I try to do everything I can on a tight budget. Your writing style is extremely thorough and honestly one of my best resources now for upgrading my house. You are a true budget friendly DIYer that doesn’t give up and hire someone to do the difficult tasks or buy something pre-made.

    Just wanted to say good work and I look forward to reading this blog for years to come!

    – Craig

  17. The tutorial was great and I love that you explain why you do everything. That is something you don’t get on home improvement shows. It looks amazing and that tile will be the icing on the cake!

  18. I just pinned yet another one of your excellent descriptive tutorials on how to “practically” install mouldings that we will be referencing soon to (FINALLY) finish up our kitchen project! Thanks again – you rock!

  19. Good work, Kristi. I’m always educated by what you do and why you do it as well as how you do it!

    Have you ever used contour sanding grips? Like these: http://www.leevalley.com/us/wood/page.aspx?p=20183&cat=1,42500

    These grips might make the onerous job of sanding molding a little easier.

    And if I may add to the discussion of nails and glue: An old woodworker told me once that the purpose of nails was to act as clamps while the glue set. When glue is properly clamped and cured, it is actually stronger than the wood itself. The wood will break before the glue joint.

    1. I’ve never seen those before. They’re amazing! I’m going to order some ASAP.

      And i totally agree about the wood glue and nails. Wood glue is amazingly strong, which is why I use it on just about every project. Gives me confidence that whatever I’m building will be built to last.