wainscoting on stairs oak

Left side of split staircase.

This was the first and last stain-grade molding project I ever installed — oak wainscoting on a split-level staircase.

All of the these pictures show the wainscoting I installed before it was stained and sealed by some very talented painters.  When they were finished, it matched the old oak baseboard and wainscoting perfectly.

Right  Notice the oak wainscoting panels installed on the landing wall in the upper left of the picture.

That wainscoting came with the house, installed by the builder’s trim carpenter.   I based my design on that pattern, but made a few changes that I think complimented his original work.

wainscoting molding trim panels on stairs oak

Note how the wood grain in the raised panels very closely matches the wood grain on the surrounding oak.  This is the dominant side of the stairs, and so received the best matching grain patterns.

Open floor plans, with their vaulted ceilings and complete lack of architectural symmetry (like in this foyer), will test your improvisational finish carpentry skills.

So our goal when installing moldings in modern homes is to make the moldings appear as if they were planned — not an afterthought — which they are.


wainscoting on stairs oak

Below  Note the white crown molding in the upper left of the picture.

Regardless of what you may have read or been told, you can mix stain and paint-grade moldings, and there are mansions and palaces all over the world to prove it.

wainscoting oak panels stairs

This is the subordinate side of the staircase. Wood grain in the panels does not match the surrounding oak wood grain as well.

Architectural Subordination: Matching Wood Grain Patterns

You don’t have to be concerned about the quality and direction of the wood grain when designing and installing painted moldings.  If you want to create truly beautiful stain-grade architectural details, however, then wood grain is a huge factor to consider.

  1. Material Selection  If you want your wood grains to match, then you have to be very selective about the materials you buy.  You can’t just walk into your local lumber yard and grab moldings and plywood at random.  Instead, you’ll have to pick through the stacks to make sure the wood grain patterns match.
  2. You Have to Buy More Material  I wanted the wood grain direction on the wainscoting raised panels to be in-line with the oak plywood panels I installed them on top of, and this meant that I had to buy twice as much material if this orientation were not an issue.
  3. Subordinate the Least-Matching Material  When your choice of materials are limited by time and budget like on most any project, then you will have to make some decisions about where to put the less-than-perfect material.  I faced this very issue on this project.  The c. 1/2″ oak plywood was special ordered ($85.00 each in 2004 dollars vs $13.00 for a similar sheet of MDF board), so I had to work with what the lumber yard sent.  I used the least-matching wood grains on the side of the staircase that is not seen by guests when they arrive through the front door.
wainscoting on stairs oak pilaster

Split staircase as viewed from first landing. Guests arriving through the front door see the right side of this staircase first, and so is the architecturally dominant side.

Below  Even though I couldn’t install a proper newel post to help with the transition between sides (budget constraints), I did make a newel post-like cap out of scraps.

wainscoting on stairs oak pilaster

This is the dominant side of the split staircase. Note how well the wood grains match.

Wainscoting Panels Installed by the Builder

The picture below shows the wainscoting that the builder’s trim carpenter installed when the house was built.  I didn’t want my design to clash with his, so I took my design cues from this installation.

But there were two things I insisted on changing:

wainscoting on stairs oak

I replaced these original raised panels with ones that matched the wainscoting panels I installed on the stairs.

  1. The raised panel wood grain had to be oriented in the same direction as the wood it is installed on.
  2. The raised panels needed more detail than the simple routered edges of these.

So I replaced these raised panels and made replacements that matched my design.  I don’t have a full after picture of the panels I made, but you can see them in the background in the second picture from the top of this page.

The Cost of Having Stain-Grade Moldings Professionally Installed

I didn’t intend for this post to end up on this subject, but it’s a good time to make this point.

It costs about five-ten times as much money to hire a finish carpenter to properly design and install stain-grade moldings as it does to design and install comparable painted moldings.  Those reasons are:

  1. The materials cost much more
  2. Selecting the materials takes quite a bit more time
  3. The installation itself takes much more time (this is where the real money adds up)
  4. Requires a finish carpenter with a very high skill level
  5. Requires more specialized and higher-quality tools

Mixing Stained Moldings with Painted

The good news is that if you already have stained moldings installed in your home, but can’t afford to have more professionally installed that match, that’s OK, because you can mix the two finishes.

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