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What’s the Difference Between Paneling & Wainscoting?

What’s the Difference Between Paneling & Wainscoting?

Whether you want to protect walls in high-traffic areas of your home or just add visual interest to a bare plane, paneling and wainscoting are easy solutions. It’s helpful to get familiar with some terminology so you can select the right option to fit your needs and aesthetic. In this post, we’ll define paneling and wainscoting, explain the differences between the two, and discuss why you’d use one over the other.

Wainscoting vs. Paneling?

In a nutshell, wainscoting is a type of decorative paneling. Whereas paneling can be placed from floor to ceiling — or even on the ceiling — wainscoting is typically limited to the bottom half or three-quarters of a wall. Wainscoting typically includes some type of molding at the top as well, to differentiate it from the wall.

Both wainscoting and paneling can be made of a variety of materials — traditional wood including PVC, medium-density fiberboard (MDF), embossed metal, ceramic tile, and molded materials, just to name a few.


When you hear the word “paneling,” you might automatically think of the once-popular, now-outdated plywood paneling seen in many 1960s and 1970s American homes. Although this particular version of paneling has long been out of style, different iterations of paneling have been popular for centuries. The staying power of paneling stems from the added durability and protection it gives walls and the way it can easily and dramatically change the look of a room.

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Types of Paneling

Paneling today incorporates veneers of traditional wood types, as well as interesting woods such as mahogany, teak, ebony and zebrawood. Panel sizes can vary from 4 x 8 to 2 x 4, depending on the look you want to achieve.

Raised or beveled panels, which have a three-dimensional look, add a touch of formality to any room. You can have panels installed vertically or, for a more on-trend look, horizontally. Shiplap is one of the most popular types of interior horizontal paneling right now.

Paneling can also be installed in other configurations, such as diagonal or herringbone patterns, particularly when using planks rather than wider panels. Paneling pieces do not have to be flush with each other. Some current installation methods feature spaces in between panels for an updated style.

Reclaimed wood is another paneling look that is currently popular in today’s homes. This type of panel has a lived-in, weathered look and is perfect for an accent wall. Other popular styles of paneling we haven’t yet mentioned include beadboard, tongue-and-groove, flat paneling and board-and-batten. Paneling is not limited to wood and faux wood. Today’s styles also incorporate faux brick, stone, rock and even fabric.


The word “wainscot” has been around for hundreds of years, originally offering insulation and wall protection. These days, wainscoting usually refers to wall paneling inside the house, and is generally limited to the bottom half of the wall. Wainscot as a style element has a timeless quality and is always a good way to add visual interest to your interior space.

Think about entryways, hallways, kitchen and dining areas where hands, shoulders and chairs may rub against the wall, causing your paint or wallpaper to get damaged. Wainscoting can add a layer of protection as well as decoration. If your wall is already damaged, it can be used to cover up blemishes. In any area of the house, strategic wainscoting panels can break up the look of plain walls, and add visual interest to a room.

Types of Wainscoting

Many of the types of paneling mentioned above also apply to wainscoting. It ranges from traditional looks to modern farmhouse shiplap with countless options in between. The panels can be carved with patterns or left incredibly simple. Wainscoting panels can be as simple as a chair rail, or as elaborate as paneling with carved molding at eye level. You can find options in every color you can think of, with straight or beveled edges. You can even combine types to add even more visual interest.

Common categories of wainscoting include beadboard, shiplap, chair rails, “chairs and squares” and tongue-and-groove. So what is wainscoting made of? In addition to wood and faux wood materials, wainscoting can also incorporate stone, brick and rock looks. Wall paneling wainscoting typically refers to interior elements, but you can also install it on the exterior of your home.

Pros and Cons

Both wainscoting and paneling offer insulation against temperature and noise pollution, protection against damage and the ability to cover blemishes. They are also easier to repair than drywall, and allow you to easily change the look of a room without extensive construction.

There are cons though. If you’re using real wood, the panels that are frequently exposed to humidity and moisture can rot if not properly sealed. If poorly installed, they can shrink and split, leaving unwanted spaces. Fluctuating temperatures can cause warping and bulging.

Prices on paneling and wainscoting can range from very affordable to exorbitant. Careful research before purchasing and installation will help make sure you don’t break the bank before the job is done.

Which to Use?

Ultimately, the look you want to achieve will guide your choice of wainscoting vs. paneling. You’ll want to match your panel or wainscot style to the aesthetic you want in your home. An ornate, elaborately carved wainscoting will look out of place in a house with modern, sleek décor. If you want to break up the length of a wall, you’ll choose wainscoting. If you want to transform an entire wall, you’ll pick paneling.

The same applies for exterior options. Paneling works for many homes, especially if you want one clean line from roof to the ground. If you want to incorporate rock or brick without covering your entire exterior wall with these materials, wainscoting is the best choice.

Now that you’re aware of the differences in these décor elements, you can better decide on the option that’s right for you. 

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