Hanging Laminate Chair Rail

Advice on ways to efficiently install chair rail in volume on commercial jobs, plus a side discussion about contracts and quality specifications. October 20, 2013

Question (WOODWEB Member) :
We have a job to make and hang about a mile of 8" wide p-lam chair rail in an office environment with lots of corners and bends. How do you guys install this stuff with blind fastening? We tried a little clip screwed to the drywall and then snapping the rail onto it, but the clip was just sinking into the drywall and not giving us good strength.

Forum Responses
(Cabinet and Millwork Installation Forum)
From contributor Y:
We leave a hollow down the back side (dado/groove) and at the top of the groove we put a negative 45 degree chamfer. We screw another piece approximately 38" thick to the wall again with the negative 45 degree angle on it. French Cleat is what we call them (a little panel adhesive and finished). We can scribe the top edge to the wall and corners are easy. On big jobs one guy works ahead with the laser putting the backer piece on the wall and another follows along after with the hand rail.

From contributor M:
It doesn't get any easier than Contributor Y's way! You can buy lengths of cabinet hanging rails (metal rails with very slim profile and lots of holding power) to avoid the need to make wooden French cleats, but the idea's the same.

From contributor T:
Be sure you have an understanding of what will be acceptable. Long hallways are rarely straight and chair-rail looks rough on a long wavy wall. If the wall is not straight, ask the contractor to have it fixed by the framer to meet the specifications, which, if there are any on the job, will require the walls to be plus or minus 1/8" in 8', plumb, flat, and true. This is achievable by someone who tries but is rarely found. It's best if you can have this discussion before the walls go up and the rock is on. If you put up your rail and it looks bad, they are going to look to you to fix it, and the only way is to true it out with shims and then scribe the top surface to the wall, which is crippling expensive. Does it sound as though I speak from experience?

From contributor S:

The easy way to do this is to screw the chair rail to the wall with shims for straight, and then to put the plastic laminate over the screws. Then apply color-matched PVC tape on the edges of the chair rail running with the wobbles in the wall. (PVC tape typically comes about 1" wide) You can trim off the PVC on the face of the chair real with a sharp chisel. There is also a way to bring the chair rail to the job with the glue (contact cement) pre-applied and with the plastic laminate pre-trimmed to fit the face of the chair rail boards, so you don't have to spend any time on the job putting on glue or trimming laminate.

From contributor G:
Some guys like laminating in the field and this is the last way I would do it. I don't think you want to substitute PVC when it is specified as laminate without a written change order. Steel stud walls are usually pretty straight, couldn't the studs be pulled a little if you used something like the panel clips? I understand if they are wood or worse old masonry it isn’t happening. When you start working on the job you have tacitly stated that you accept the walls. It seems to me that you simply reject the walls and avoid having to be responsible for them. There are certain areas that you want to be proactive in heading off trouble.

From contributor T:
We may be talking at cross purposes as often happens in these forums. I think myself and Contributor G are talking about a job where materials and tolerances are specified. In such a case you might not be able to use PVC, regardless of whether it's better or worse than laminate. If there are no specifications and no architect involved, you can probably do whatever you want, but I would bet that you can't do a field application of laminate and edge faster or better than it could be done in the shop with good laminating equipment and an egdebander.

Another approach to the problem of scribing would be to put 1" or 1 1/4" banding on 3/4 or 5/8 substrate and scribe off the overhang, but this is still a lot slower than hanging chair-rail on a straight wall. Unfortunately, even though steel studs are somewhat flexible they will not pull out to true unless the chair rail is very rigid- even an 1 1/2" solid wood rail will tend to follow a crooked wall rather than pull it straight.

I agree with Contributor G that it's important to be proactive. Get out there and establish your requirements. We set it out in our proposal - "walls, floors, and ceilings must be within 1/8” plumb, level, and true in 8’ or additional install cost may be incurred." We also indicate where blocking will be required on our shop drawings.

From contributor G:
I have controlled many situations like this with my proposal which becomes part of the contract. Exclusions that the contractor was insistent was part of my scope until I pointed them out in my quote. Contractors bending over backwards to put in in blocking because it was part of my quote; and as the contractor pointed out to me if the contract never gets signed by both parties the proposal becomes the contract, which is good reason to spell this stuff out in your proposal but at the end of the day being proactive is king.

From the original questioner:
We have been doing this for some years now by various methods. The most recent (and successful) was to CNC a groove, 1/32" deeper than the surface laminate, right down the middle of the strips. After face-screwing and counter-sinking the screws we glue in a strip of laminate to cover over the bare area and the screw heads. It is efficient and the client is ok with it, but I would like to find something better. With that said we are going to try the French cleat idea in our lunch room to see if we like it.

From contributor C:
We have had great success with the panel clips and the French cleat, but that is real time consuming unless you get set-up to run it.