Designing a Raised-Panel Wall

A design discussion of full-wall-height raised-panel wainscot delves into issues of ideal proportioning versus matching existing elements. March 20, 2007

I have been asked to build a raised panel wall. The wall is 32'x9'. There are two doorways and in the middle is a fireplace mantel they purchased from me. I refinish antique furniture and build furniture, so a raised panel wall is new for me. The mantel is solid mahogany and 1890's. They installed a fireplace insert also (lots of heat coming from exhaust pipe). Customer wants solid wood with raised panels. I plan on using sapele, since it has the same grain, but is better wood to finish and work with than mahogany. My stiles and rails will be 4" max and I am trying to keep panel size to a minimum without making the wall look too busy and overpower the mantel (the focal point). I plan on using a stile and rail shaper cutter for joints. I will be finishing both sides and maybe trying the space balls for expansion and contraction. I would just like some thoughts on this from any point of view.

Here is a drawing of the panel wall. There is a soffit about 20in square at the top.

Click here for higher quality, full size image

Forum Responses
(Architectural Woodworking Forum)
From contributor M:
Sounds good so far. Here's a hint. If you are going to use solid wood, which I agree with, on the back side of the panels, apply a coat of fresh hide glue with a layer of canvas and then more hide glue. This will help to stop the checking you sometimes get (I hate central air and exceedingly hot zones).

From contributor L:
I hate to say it to you, but... that's one ugly wall of paneling. There are no lines of conformity to it. It looks like a random mix of panels. If it were me, I would make the panels in a vertical line. It just don't look right to me. If the homeowner likes it, then all I would say to myself is "it'll look great from my house."

From contributor C:

It is a good money making job. Maybe make the panels above the chair rail double height, eliminating one horizontal rail. If you use kiln dried lumber and seal the backs well, you should not have any problems with expansion and contraction. The space balls can exert a lot of pressure if you don't have a dedicated space for them and the typical s&r cutter set is only 3/8 or 7/16 deep. I make a relief on the edges of my panels so there is a space around them but leave the corners full size and point the corners with a block plane. This is a very typical job for us. I don't think the fireplace insert will give any more heat than is okay for the wood to tolerate. We build these completely loose and start installing from the baseboard up. Level it accurately and then stack and square up as fast as possible. Draw it out accurately and it should install in one or two days. Pre-finish everything and leave only a minimum of fasteners visible, then wax over the few you can't hide. We price jobs like this at about $36 per sf plus finishing.

From contributor Y:
You have an opportunity to add to the great deal of bad design in this profession, or you can do a little work and rise above that. Many people would say to break it up however you want, just bill 'em and move on. But what you have been asked to do is the current endpoint of many centuries of design based upon proportions and classic architecture. It is anything but a bunch o' panels on a wall.

If you work with antiques, then you probably know about the Golden Section (or Mean, or Ratio, or Rectangle) and now is the time to drag out those old references so you can apply it to this opportunity. Also, if you work with antiques, you already know to go to history and find out what has gone before, why it is considered good, and how it came to be good.

You may look to the AWI quality standards to differentiate between blueprint match, sequence match, and random match of the panels, and advise your client of the whys of each. Then consider the joinery and the molding profiles, and the reasoning behind a bunch o' panels. But please don't build what you have drawn.

From contributor A:
Back to the drawing board...
1. Vertical symmetry before horizontal
2. (3) vertical panels are preferable to (4) even if they are all different heights.
3. (2) narrow panels are better than (1) large one (next to the fireplace).
4. Don't use the heads of the doors as a horizontal line. You can use smaller panels above them and taller panels next to them.
5. Square panels are ugly; tall and narrow are more pleasing.

Advanced paneling techniques…
1. Flame the grain on the panels (flat sawn panels have a top and bottom, flames always point up).
2. Google Fibonacci's sequence, Golden Section.
3.There are excellent books with line drawings of old homes with fully paneled walls.
4. Personally talk to the electrician about placement of receptacles. Integrate them into the design.
5. There is always a compromise between ease of construction versus pure aesthetics.
6. Remember it's a layering affect - use that to your advantage. It's not one big piece of furniture. It's composed of various layers of mouldings, reveals that hide the fasteners below.
7. Try your best to hide all surface nailing/screwing.
8. Don't get too hung up on one panel that isn't perfect. (There are always a couple that no matter what you do will never be perfect, only correct.)
9. Use exaggerated thickness and protrusions to give more depth (i.e. thick mouldings on base/chair rail/etc.). Lay out the section view and make sure it isn't flat.
10. Lay out the fussy sections full scale on plywood. Definitely lay out the entire wall on story sticks for accuracy and this will help you feel the dimensions. Some layouts look real good on CAD/paper and awful full scale.

This is only meant as constructive criticism. Looks like a great project. Double your install estimate.

From the original questioner:
This is a picture of the wall in 3d. On each side of the mantel are raised panels that were original. There will be shelves built behind the panel with raised panel doors. What should I do different? I live 5 hours from the house this is going into, so I want it right. The client's brother is the contractor and he is installing.

Click here for higher quality, full size image

From contributor D:
The better installations of this kind of work often have the room designed for the panels, with doors, mantels, windows and such all laid out to augment the expensive woodwork. The mention of a fireplace insert suggests a lack of historical or design perspectives. You might tell the owner or contractor that this project is more complex than one would first think, and you suggest the skills of an experienced design professional to pull this together with sensitivity and proportion. This will leave you to work that cope and stick joint all over the place, without a care about the overall look, just the craftsmanship.

From contributor W:
I agree - get someone else to design it. It'll be easier and you won't sit in the shop saying "hey, this might look better if I make this stile just a little bigger…"

FYI on the Golden Section, it's built into SketchUp, which seems to be what the 3D image was created in. If you use the rectangle tool, start to drag out relatively square and you'll see a dashed line form on the diagonal and the word "square" will appear on screen. Just change the dimensions a little and you'll see "Golden Section" appear too. It may take a little time to get good at it, but it'll be helpful.

From contributor B:
For the record, my first inclination was that the panel layout was goofy. But then I reconsidered that the designer could be going for a particular effect... Better to design something that works with the room than be a slave to the golden section. Most historical walls wouldn't have been paneled this way, but then lots of stuff has been done that was unconventional, and that may make it more interesting.

From contributor J:
If that were my job in the Northeast, here are some things I’d consider doing:

Running crown molding both sides of the ceiling beams and all around the room. This would cut down the encroachment of the ceiling beams into the soffit, and then I could treat the soffit more like a box beam with only one or two panels each side of the fireplace, running horizontal.

Holding the chair rail height low and using one panel above it going to the soffit (in line with the panel below the chair rail).

Using a backband on the casing to greatly aid installation and to give some base and relief to the job.

But everything depends on the style of the rest of the house as well. One thing I always do is make a story pole, snap some lines on the wall and then freehand the paneling right on the wall as close to the right sizes as I can get. I pick the wall that I think looks the most awkward. Then I use a lumber crayon in a walnut crayon holder I got someplace out west about 30 years ago, and freehand the whole wall in - casing, base, chair rail, crown picture mold and all. If you do the job, you might tell the GC that his installation will be much easier if the electrician just runs his wires long and wild, and uses old work boxes after the paneling is installed.

From the original questioner:
Thank you. I have redrawn the initial drawing. The house is existing, built in the 1980's I am guessing and remodeled in 1992 with an addition where the wall is located.

What sizes do you generally make stiles and rails? I have drawn them in at 4". Do you change them along wall and doorways and a little smaller between panels or not? The main reason for the large panel next to the fireplace is the owner has two large sconces to place on each side. With two panels they will not be able to center it. Maybe three will work. Miscellaneous outlets will be placed by the contractor and owner and all are existing. The one thing that was stressed by the owner was that this wall was the only one being touched. It will be an accent wall, as interior decorators seem to be doing so much.