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Wainscoting No, It Was Not Invented In Wainscott!

Originally Posted: January 08, 2010

Douglas MacKaye Harrington

Wainscoting was first used to keep out cold and dampness in 16th century homes. (Jupiter Images)

Southampton - Wainscoting! First and foremost I can tell you that this form of ornamental paneling was not invented in that little village between Sagaponack and East Hampton. The village of Wainscott was actually named for a village in Kent, England from which its first East End inhabitants heralded.

Nor, for that matter, can I trace the origins of wainscoting directly to that quaint little British village. However, the English village of Wainscott, at least that part of Kent, is thought to be the setting for the early part of the great Charles Dickens novel "Great Expectations," a novel that I must admit made this writer an early and avid reader. But I digress.

Consider painting traditional white wainscoting with pop colors.

Literature and locations aside, wainscoting is a popular form of decorative wall paneling found throughout the Hamptons and New England in particular and the United States in general. It origins date back to 16th century England, at least in several sources I have researched, and was functional not decorative in its original purpose.

Wainscoting was first used to keep out cold and dampness in 16th century homes prior to the invention of modern insulation techniques. That being said, considering the location of Wainscott, Kent where the North Sea meets the English Channel, that little English village might indeed be the origin, but I cannot verify it. Often found in kitchens and dinning rooms, I thought that wainscoting was created to protect plaster walls from damage created by chair backs hitting the walls. Although its purpose may have indeed morphed into that and clearly is a result, it was not the intended purpose.

In its original structural application, wainscoting consists of three components: baseboard molding, wall panels and chair or top molding. Originally made from superior oak, which is a very hard wood that repels rather than absorbs moisture like a soft pine, today wainscoting can consist of anything from soft woods to low maintenance vinyl faux wood to ceramic tiles or heavy wall fabric, which was particularly popular in turn of the 20th century, Victorian style formal dinning rooms. For this discussion, we will stick to the traditional wood version of materials used in the original form of wainscoting.

Wainscoting is most commonly painted white to leave a clean palette for decorative wallpaper or contrasting wall paint.

Today wainscoting can be purchased in pre-manufactured lengths from three to six feet, but its original construction was that of the tongue and groove method of individual boards of widths that ranged from an inch to a foot interlocked in a tight, and again, moisture proof fit. The panels are held fast at the bottom by the nailed or screwed base board molding and at the top by the chair molding which extends beyond the width of the panels by at least an inch. Logic tells me our forefathers may have indeed been thinking about chair damage to the panels or walls, as the top molding would take the impact and is far more easily replaced than the tongue and groove paneling.

Although the aforementioned fabric version of wainscoting might extend as high up the wall as six feet, most wood wainscoting is between 36 to 48 inches in height. Today it can be quite decorative with narrow carved beading or designs. The chair and baseboard moldings can be quite elaborate, as moldings come in varying unique shapes and styles.

Wood wainscoting can be left its natural color treated with a clear vanish or polyurethane or in the case of a light wood like pine, stained to a desired shade. It can, of course, be painted any color, but is most commonly painted white to leave a clean palette for decorative wallpaper or contrasting wall paint. A friend of mine hired a muralist to paint subtle, trailing ivy on her white wainscoting, quite beautiful I thought.

Wainscoting, both useful and decorative, is a mainstay favorite of Hampton homes that dates back to Southampton's origins as the first English settlement in New York State. It remains today a subtle and beautiful decorating option that can easily be reinvented based on individual taste.

Frequently mistaken for the "Most Interesting Man in the World" from the Dos Equis commercials and the iconic gray-bearded Sean Connery, DMH is the Senior Contributing Editor at Hamptons.com. www.hamptons.com Hamptons HamptonsOnline HamptonsOnline

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