Back in April we covered part one and part two of our entry hall update. This significant feature of our home was what welcomed visitors and provided an initial impression of our home. We wanted arriving guests who were visiting for the first time to be pleasantly surprised by the home's interior, given the house's 15 foot width and plain exterior. We also wanted returning guests to walk in and feel at home and comfortable with their surroundings.

With the work we had completed, including the new leaded glass transom, harlequin paint pattern on the wall, and antique corbels, the entry hall had really taken shape. 

By the time the photo above was taken, we had already stripped and painted/refinished the stairs and re-plastered the stairwell walls, but the handrail situation really left something to be desired. From an earlier photo you can see the handrail we had when we moved in.

Besides being unsightly, it was dangerous. I nearly fell down the stairs several times when my shorts' leg would catch the top of the handrail as I rounded the newel post. We knew we wanted to replace it, but with what we didn't know. The space it quite tight, so something large really wouldn't work. Since there are two simple and plain walls, rather than an open handrail, we felt like something a bit more decorative might work well.

We really were a bit lost with what we wanted to do, and I was striking out with my ideas. I purchased some salvaged handrail brackets, but those wouldn't offer enough embellishment. I bought a handrail to match the handrail upstairs. When I brought it home Wendy just looked at me and shook her head. I ended up returning it. She was right, looking back on it, my purchase was way too large and I don't know what I was thinking. (Although in the moment I didn't concede quite that easily.)

I always really liked the raised panel wainscoting we would often see on home tours, but I just didn't know how to work it into our project. It wasn't until we went to dinner at a local restaurant that our solution presented itself through a bit of inspiration. 

The restaurant, currently Columbia Firehouse, is located in an old firehouse building. It is a large building with a lot of dark and intricate woodwork, fitting for an Old Town bar and eatery. The restaurant has multiple floors with handsome wood paneled walls next to stairs. One stair in particular has the handrail worked right into the paneling. When I saw this solution I realized that this was our solution and what we needed to pursue, just on a smaller and less "masculine dark wood" scale. Here is a quick but sort of bad cell phone camera photo of our inspiration. I took it while trying not to look too conspicuous on the way to the restroom :-)

**Updated with a slightly better photo

We decided to do a painted raised panel wainscoting with an integrated handrail to cap it off. This would accomplish the slightly more decorative approach we were looking for, and would allow us to use a less intrusive handrail that we could move to the right side of the stairs. I could see it in my head, but the plan was a bit complex, and was like nothing I had ever tried before. So we had to do a ton of planning and calculations before starting. 

There were basically two aspects to the plan, the raised panel component and the handrail component, so I broke the project into two smaller projects.

Raised Panel Wainscoting

I had seen raised panel wainscoting along stairs in many homes and the restaurant I mentioned above, and I liked the look. I had never installed wainscoting, nor cut raised panels, so doing a rail and stile raised panel wainscoting as my first project was a bit ambitious, but worth a shot.

Since we were going to be painting the whole thing, I decided I would do the rails and stiles using poplar, but would cut the panels from MDF. Since the MDF is more stable, we wouldn't end up with paint issues from expansion/contraction through the seasons due to heat and humidity.

With the materials chosen, I started measuring and planning. Here is the original sketch of our plan with all of the measurements, calculations, and estimations. Having never installed wainscoting, I was flying by the seat of my pants.

I had to account for how many stairs there were, how many panels we wanted, how many panels per stair, how the panels would look above each stair, with width of the stiles, the angle of the stairs, the length of the stairs, where the landing was, what height the handrail would need to be once you reach the landing, how many panels and their sizes once on the landing, and on and on. It was almost overwhelming, but the plan above was my guide throughout. If you look closely, you can even see my long division.

Once the plan was set, the first thing I did was order a rail and stile router bit set. We wanted the panels to look as much like the original doors in our house as we could, and this bit set matched the edge detail of the rails and stiles on the doors.

After we had the bits, I focused on the construction of the panels. The doors we have are not the same as typical raised panel doors. Most doors have a slight angle towards the panels, then a small bevel before reaching the panel. However, our door panels are flat until you reach the bevel at the panel. The panel then comes after a very small but sharp bevel, not the gradual one you typically see on most doors. I've searched high and low and can't find the panel raising router bit to match this profile, so I had to improvise. Here is a photo of the door details that we were trying to match.

To accomplish this, I setup the router to make multiple cuts on each panel. First, I would remove all of the material using a standard flat cutting bit. This would give us the panels as a simple raised box. Then I used the V groove router bit to delicately cut the beveled edge. It took a LOT of measuring, but it came out looking the way I wanted it to.

Once we had all of the panels cut, and all of the rails and stiles routed, I nailed the bottom rail to the wall based on the angle I determined, and started laying out the whole setup to get a rough sense if everything was going as planned.

We were happy with the way the panels came together, so we were all set to move ahead. One tip I learned was to pre-prime the panels before install. This way, if they moved just a bit, you wouldn't end up seeing unpainted wood through any cracks in the paint.

Note: There is one thing I didn't do here that I should have. When you cut MDF with a router it leaves a little bit of "fuzz" in the cut area. You can't really sand it out, and when you paint that fuz, it gives a bit of a bumpy appearance. After this project I learned of a trick to take care of this. Mix one part regular wood glue with one part water and, using a small brush, paint the cut areas with a coat of the mixture. Allow the coat to dry and lightly sand with a fine sandpaper or steel wool. Repeat this process three times. This will give you a nice a consistent surface similar to the finished area of the MDF. I've done this on a few projects since then and it works really well.

After the panels were all primed, we proceeded with the install. Since everything had been dry fitted and numbered, the actual install went really quickly. I only glued the rails to the stiles, no glue on the panels, as they need to stay floating to allow for small amounts of movement.

A few hours later and we had what appeared to be a decorative wainscoting. It was looking really good. 

I really didn't want to remove the original plaster and lath, both for historical integrity and for the insulation and sound attenuating characteristics it offered, and I didn't want to try to remove the baseboard fearing it would either break or bring much of the plaster with it. This meant that the baseboard was set back slightly to the wainscoting, so I bridged the gap with a piece of molding that had a slight step back to it.

Now that the wainscoting was done, I turned my attention to the handrail detail.


As I mentioned, we had planed on integrating the handrail into the wainscoting design. We could have mounted a handrail to the front of the wainscoting, but we felt that would intrude too much on the already narrow staircase. Using the inspiration from the restaurant, we found a somewhat small stock handrail at our local Lowes. The stock only came in 10' lengths, so we would need to join a few pieces together to make it work.

My plan was to create a small ledge that the handrail would mount to. That ledge would then sit flush on the top of the wainscoting, and then a molding would bridge any gap left between the molding and the wainscoting, making it look like one piece. I would also route an ogee on the ledge under the rail to give less of an abrupt transition between the pieces. Here is one of the extra pieces we had after cutting. It gives you a good idea of the ledge with handrail joined to it. 

We then screwed the handrail to the ledge every two feet. The screw was slightly countersunk, hole filled with epoxy filler, and sanded smooth. Since the handrail needed to be made of several lengths, I was able to stagger the ledge and handrail pieces to create one solid, 26' handrail length. The handrail was much longer than the house is wide, so when I brought it up from the basement, in order to turn it around we had to take it out the front door, spin, and bring it back inside. (Wendy and I received some strange looks from passer bys when doing this. I guess it's not every day you see people bring their handrail outdoors.)

When everything was glued, screwed and pointing the right direction, we simply screwed the flat portion of the handrail ledge to the wall above the wainscoting. We used long 4" decking screws to secure the entire handrail into studs in the wall. This handrail wouldn't be going anywhere if someone grabbed it to steady themselves. 

We finished the landing portion of the stairs with the same handrail just for consistency. 

Our new handrail and wainscoting were installed and just needed the final few coats of paint.

For my first shot at doing several items on this project, and wrapping them all into one project, I'd say we did a really good job. I wish I had known the trick to knock down the MDF fuzziness, but it doesn't look too bad. We had a contractor come over the house to give us an estimate for something, and I was just generally talking with him about projects we had. When I showed him this wainscoting, he seemed very surprised it wasn't a kit of some sort and that I had cut everything on my own.

There was one particularly tricky spot on this project, it was the panel that happened to land on the transition from the stairs to the landing. 

As you can see from the photo, I had to get creative with my measuring and cutting. We didn't have much of an option. If the panels were larger so this wouldn't happen, they wouldn't look right on the stairs, smaller and they would look too thin. So I ended up making it work given what we had to work with. This photo also gives a good view of the stepped molding we used between the wainscoting and the baseboard. 

Here's another shot looking down from the top.

Almost without fail, when people first come to our house, they often ask us about the wainscoting and handrail. It has become one of the focal points of the entryway when you are a few steps into the house. In our opinion, it looks like it has always been there, and provided an aesthetically pleasing solution to improving the safety of our staircase. No longer do I worry that our handrail will get caught in my shorts' pocket, and cause a nasty spill down the stairs.

There's one very important lesson that we've learned over the years though: hold onto the handrail when going down the stairs! The stairs themselves are a little slippery, and we try not to go up and down them in stocking feet. If only Wendy had been holding our beautiful new handrail one summer day in 2008, she wouldn't have ended up with this attractive bruise just north of her backside.

Have you completed a home improvement project in the name of safety that also serves as a design feature in your home? And don't worry about Wendy. Luckily she walked away from the incident with only bumps and her backside (and her ego). Lesson learned. 

Comments 31


6/1/2011 at 11:06 AM
What a beautiful project!! I am so impressed by all the details which went into building this - that transition from stairs to landing was handled very nicely. It just has a perfect look for that stairway.
Donna, thank you so much. I am quite detail oriented, sometimes to a fault. With the walls on both sides of the stairs, we feel like this is the closest we'll really be able to get to a comfortable and decorative feeling staircase. We ended up liking this look so much, we carried the wainscoting into our guest bathroom just at the top of the stairs. But we'll save that for another post :-)
11/6/2012 at 10:22 AM

I'm still awaiting the guest room wainscoting. Did you already post about this and I missed it? I did a quick search and didn't see anything about it.

Hi Dean -

No, you haven't missed it. We haven't talked about the guest bathroom yet. Similar to today's post about the master bedroom, we realized there are a few projects we need to catch everyone up on. Stay tuned!
6/1/2011 at 8:25 PM
Absolutely beautiful! We have a similar stair set up in our brick farmhouse. We've stripped and refinished the stairs, but have yet to do anything about fixing up the walls. We have the original cast iron hand rail brackets that I love so I do want to keep those, but I just love the paneling.
Fixing up the walls was a true adventure, let me tell you. The walls in the staircase area were in very bad shape. They were cracked pretty significantly wherever the handrail brackets were previously attached. We ended up skimcoating the entire thing, which is pretty much what we do in every room now. This gave us a very smooth and consistent finish that still looks quite good.

I know what you mean on the brackets. I still have the ones I originally bought. I'm hopeful that we'll have a need for them somewhere. Maybe on a railing to a finished basement someday...someday far from today.
6/5/2011 at 10:06 AM
This turned out fabulous! I absolutely love it!!!
Kari, thank you! The best part is that we get to enjoy it every time we go up or down the stairs.
6/13/2011 at 6:38 PM
That looks great! Did you just figure everything out yourself, or did you go off instructions for designing and constructing wainscoting? If it was the latter, would you mind sharing?
Thanks, Veronica. We actually just figured everything out on paper, no instructions. I had seen how to build raised panel doors of some sort while watching an episode of This Old House. They covered how to use a router on the rails and stiles, how to use MDF for the floating panels, etc. From that we just started measuring and calculating. The photo of the rough drawing in the post is what I had to go on, and we made that ourselves. If I were doing it again, I would probably start with wainscoting on a level floor, not the stairs. But we typically do things the hardest way first and just home it works out, in this case, it did ;-)
6/14/2011 at 9:26 PM
Alex you have done an incredible job on your stairway - it is simply gorgeous! I am loving the diamond patterned wall and the wainscoting is simply stunning. Fantastic work. Thanks so much for linking to the Sunday Showcase Party. I am a little behind commenting - but I have featured this Sunday. Hope you are having a wonderful week ~ Stephanie Lynn
6/17/2011 at 1:51 PM
Did you guys use any sort of backer between the wainscoting and the wall? How did you attach it--with your nail gun or something more substantial? Thanks for posting so much about your project--it makes it a little less intimidating for more timid DIYers like myself!
No, we didn't use any backer. The existing plaster acted as the backer so we were able to just use the nail gun. I did found several studs to nail into though, just for good measure. Sorry it took so long to respond.
7/10/2011 at 11:23 AM
Hey, since you did such an awesome job, and I really enjoy your blog, I'll share with you a trick for the MDF fuzziness.

Generally, when cutting it, there's not a whole lot you can do to prevent some of the actual texture, but if you want to have a really smooth (glass smooth) finish, what you need to do is apply a diluted varnish (50/50 with thinner) to any of the cut edges/sides (there's no advantage to applying it to the flat surfaces). Once that's dry, sand it with very fine sand paper, and then paint over it.
JC, great tip, thanks! The method I use takes a long time with all of the sanding. Your approach seems much more efficient.
11/18/2011 at 2:25 PM
That looks amazing!! We're going to be raised panel wainstcoating in our dining room... eventually. I'll be referring back to this post multiple times. Well done!
2/29/2012 at 5:27 PM
Do you think you might be able to write out how exactly you were able to accomplish this? I'm going to be installing wainscoting soon and I have no idea where to start. Any guidance / lessons learned would be greatly appreciated!!

Thank you,

3/7/2012 at 1:58 PM

Did you have a 'go to' site where you learned how to do the wainscoting? I'm going to be starting this soon and am looking for all advice / lessons learned.

No, I actually didn't have any site that I referenced. I just sort of drew it out the way I thought it should work, then figured out how to make the panels work based on some geometry, a little math, and watching New Yankee Workshop on how to build panel doors. It was all very rudimentary and lots of measure twice, think about what I was doing for a long time, measure again, and then cut (and hope not to make a mistake).

For our project, the critical element was the measurements. Determining the length and angle from flat of the incline of the stairs and bottom rail of the wainscoting was the first step. Once I had that, all of the rest of the measurements fell into place.

The rest of what we did was more or less spelled out in the post. Step by step is pretty hard on this since everyone will have slightly different angles and number of stairs.

If I had to pick any one lesson learned it's to try to make a panel end at the top of the stairs. The trick I had to do for that half panel at the transition to the landing was a true pain. Beyond that, just paint the handrail piece (if you're doing one) before you screw it to the wall. It's much easier that way.

Good luck on your project, and let us know how it turns out.
3/7/2012 at 3:40 PM
So I'm a big nerd (engineer) and have been planning this out mathematically for a little bit. It works when I run it through my Java simulations, but that doesn't necessarily translate into the real world.

So far this is what I have:

1. Measure total distance of wall you're looking to add paneling to.

2. Subtract from item 1 the space (in inches) between each panel. This gives you the total length of potential workable space.

3. Take the result from item 2 and divide it by the sum of panel size and the space in between each panel. This give you the number of occurrences you'll have of a panel and stile.

4. Take the absolute value from item 3 and multiply it by the sum of size of the panel and space between the panel. This gives you the exact measurement of your total workable space given the absolute panel and stile size.

5. Take the original length of the wall and subtract the result from item 4. This gives you how much "extra" space (in inches) you have to work with.

6. Take the result from item 5 and divide it by the number of panels (The absolute value of item 3). This gives you how much space you can add into each panel / stile.

7. Apply the value from item 6 onto either the panel or the stile or a combination of the two (just make sure it adds up to item 6's value).

Take the size of the panel, the size of the space between each panel and the result from item 6 and multiply it by the number of panels. It should add up to exactly the wall size in inches.

Applying to real world:
Say you have a wall that is 12 feet, 7 and a half inches. (151.5 inches)
You want to panel it with with 24 inch panels and 4 inch stiles.

1. 151.5 inches
2. 151.5 - 4 = 147.5
3. 147.5 / 28 (24+4) = 5.27
4. ABS(5.27) => 5
5 * 28 (24+4) = 140
5. 151.5 - 140 = 11.5
6. 11.5 / 5 = 2.3
2.3 inches of play room for every panel / stile. (I add it to the panel)

Total panels: 5 cut at 26.3 inches/panel in width. Stiles remain at 4 inches.

This is how I'm planning on attacking this... like I said, on paper and through simulations it works well. I just don't know if that translates into the real world. Only one way to find out I guess.

3/7/2012 at 11:07 PM
Errata: Sorry was doing this off the top of my head earlier. Fixed mistake from above.

Make sure to subtract a stile width from step 5:

5. 151.5 - 140 - 4 = 7.5 (The '-4' is the stile at the end of the wall)

6. 7.5 / 5 = 1.5

1.5 inches of play room for every panel or stile. (I add it to the panel)

Total panels: 5 cut at 25.5 inches/panel in width. Stiles remain at 4 inches.

When put together you should have 6 stiles (# panels plus 1) at 4 inches (24) + 5 panels at at 25.5 (127.5).

Sum the two 127.5 + 24 = 151.5
Without running through all of the calculations top to bottom myself with graph paper and pencil, it does seem like you have it pretty well worked out. I think I took a little bit different approach than you are, which may have been what caused the partial panel at the top for me.

You are starting with your measurements and working backwards. This is great to give you specific panels and stile dimensions and ensure a proper fit. The way we did it was to start with what the "correct" size of a panel should be from an aesthetic perspective, then determine the "correct" width of stile. From this I began working through the various measurements using these values as near constants. I allowed myself slight adjustment for convenience but tried to stick with these values as close as I could.

Also, remember that you may want to slightly narrow the stile at the start or end of the project to account for the fact that it will not have a routed edge on it. Not sure how you are terminating the ends but it may appear wider than it should if it has an extra .5" of square edge to it.
2/18/2013 at 5:00 PM
Is there a building code for the "grasp ability" of the handrail that you had to follow when constructing this?
4/10/2013 at 12:06 AM
Excellent job!!! Is the ogee on the ledge piece what your fingers grab when using the handrail? Thanks.
6/20/2013 at 10:22 AM
I appreciate your final remark (and classy butt shot ;) about safety.

I am curious about what methods were used in your early days stripping paint and glazing old windows. Are you using safer methods now - like low infrared heat and steam? Clearly you both are advocates of restoring not trashing old windows. With so many folks being influenced by the deep-pocket-marketing of the window replacement industry, it is encouraging to hear from folks like you.
3/23/2015 at 12:35 PM

Thank you so much for this post—the rail looks beautiful! I slipped down my stairs a little over a year ago and likewise had nasty bruises (and my muscles went into spasm, I had to go to PT, the whole 9, and it still hurts). Boy, I learned my lesson there. Our handrail is like your original one, except it doesn't come up past the level of the second floor, meaning you have to go down a few steps before you have anything (aside from balustrade) to grab on to. I really like the idea of putting a rail around the outside, and the wainscoting looks so classy!!

4/5/2016 at 11:17 AM

Hi Alex,

I did lay out a plan for our stairs based on your project (gorgeous!) but I'm interested in the measurements of your panels? The ones in my sketch seem enormous and I like the proportion of yours if you don't mind sharing the average width? Thanks!

2/13/2018 at 7:27 AM

Looks really good, one lesson I've learned that will help with future plans. Function over fashion, safety first on those steps. The hardwood looks good, but not functional in hazy sock moments.

11/7/2020 at 3:34 PM

Great job, working on a very similar project and plan on using 1/2" poplar over drywall for shaker look panels. Also wondering how you like your handrail and whether it is easy to grab. My stairs are narrow around 33" so thinking of using your handrail idea to save space. Thx

11/25/2020 at 12:05 PM

Can you tell me how wide your staircase is? Trying to visualize how something similar would look in my house. Beautiful job!!

Diane Lewis Costlow
1/31/2022 at 12:41 PM

You did a beautiful job! You should be so proud of yourself!

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