Wainscoting to me speaks of cool ocean breezes, blue walls, and tacky, distressed driftwood signs on the wall telling me, “Life is a beach.” In other words, wainscoting is very Cape Cod and nautical in style. It is used in many homes, and there is nothing wrong with that. I love it, to be honest. However, the bathroom is the one room that should have pros and cons heavily considered before installing wainscoting.
This is because wainscoting can cause significant issues in the bathroom. Many people just assume that wainscot is the same as installing drywall, but this is not the case. Some of these problems include wood buckling, cracking paint, and mold growth.
Below, we’ll take a look at some of the more common problems seen when wainscoting is installed in the bathroom. We’ll also suggest some possible solutions to avoid these problems. In the end, it is your choice whether the pros outweigh the cons for your install.
What Is Wainscot?
Wainscot is a product that comes in a variety of shapes and styles. It is typically a piece of wood slid over a portion of the wall for decorative purposes. Originally, wainscoting was used to protect portions of the wall from elements and damage. For instance, chair rail is a type of wainscoting that is placed at the exact height as the back of chairs so that they will not ding the drywall if it is hit. Ironically, in the bathroom, it can be the cause of damage.
Many people are used to beadboard wainscot, which looks like very small slats of wood lined up beside each other. However, there are five main types of wainscots: board and batten, raised, beadboard, overlay, and flat. Each of these styles will bring in its own issues over time, but the beadboard style may be the biggest culprit.
The Ledge Collects Dust
I won’t claim to assume I know what your bathroom practices are like, so I’ll stick with my own. I shower. My husband shaves (well, he showers, too). I use body sprays, lotions, hairspray, gels, makeup, powders, and any number of other chemicals to keep me looking and smelling my best. On top of this, I flush my toilet (gasp!), and I let my pets wander into the bathroom when I’m getting ready.
So, what does all this have to do with wainscot? Installing a wainscot includes trim work, which creates ledges and gaps for things to collect on. Sprays, hair, fur, germs, and dust are just some of the most common things to settle on those ledges. I mean, did you know that every time you flush, toilet water spray travels around your bathroom up to six feet away? Keep your toothbrush in the cupboard, am I right?
This is a problem that just cannot be avoided. Trim creates a ledge, and it will remain there no matter what. The good news is that you likely already deal with this! Yeah, the baseboards in your bathroom are disgusting. Go ahead, I’ll wait while you go look… Gross, right? Most people don’t bother looking at the baseboards, and you certainly won’t get any compliments on clean baseboards from visitors, so it makes sense that this part of your home is ignored.
There is no way to avoid dust collection on baseboards. Some may argue that the slanted tops are better than squared edges, but don’t be fooled. At a higher level, the trim on your wainscoting will collect debris that may never make it to the ground, like hairspray and powders. To protect your bathroom wainscoting, you’ll need to clean it often to make it look good.
One suggestion that is rampant on the Internet is to clean the trim with dryer sheets, which should help to repel most dirt and dust. This technique is only temporary though, so you’ll need to make cleaning your ledges a regular bathroom habit.
The Boards Warp
Humidity is a dangerous element for wood, and the bathroom is the most humid room in the home. When humidity reaches wood, it causes the wood to swell. In turn, the swelling will cause buckling and warping over a long period. Once the wood has buckled, there is no easy way to fix it. You can attempt to lift it from the nails and use adhesive to reinstall it. However, if the wood has warped, you’ll need to completely replace the wainscoting. This is also a common problem found in basements.
One option to offset the chance of warping wood is to use one of the newer materials on the market for your wainscot. Rather than use traditional oak or even MDF (medium-density fiberboard, which is made of wood pulp), consider installing vinyl wainscoting. Technology has improved the usefulness of these materials for building. Now, vinyl beadboard can be rolled in sheets to lessen the cracks and creases normally found between wood slats.
The Paint Cracks
We’ve already discussed that humidity causes wood to buckle and warp. Let’s look into this a little more. Wood is like a sponge that reacts to the environment around it. Most of us enjoy hot, steamy showers. The hotter the shower, the more porous the cells of the wood become. When the cells are porous, they absorb the water and cause the wood to expand in size. It may not be visually recognizable at any given time, but this is happening. As your bathroom cools and the humidity dissipates, the wood will shrink.
This swelling and shrinking is a serious problem for paint. When your wainscot is painted, as most are, it creates a hard coating over the wood. Latex paint is a bit more flexible than oil-based paint, but when there is enough movement within the wood, wear and tear will happen to your paint. This will cause cracks and unsightly gaps in between the seams.
Some DIYers believe that filling these cracks with caulk and then repainting will solve the issue. While the caulk is much more flexible than paint, it will simply expand and shrink just like the wood. The paint will still split and crack.
Your best options are to either stain the wood or paint a thin coat on the tongue side of the tongue and groove. A thin coat of paint that has been primed will be less likely to cause cracks. Choose a very dry day, where no one will shower for at least 48 hours to prevent any wood swelling and shrinking.
However, your best bet may be to use a whitewash stain to lighten the wood, while protecting it from too much moisture. The stain is absorbed into the wood and does not create a hard layer that will eventually crack.
The hidden issue: mold. The problem with mold (one of many, I know) is that it hates the light. Because of this, it will not grow where it is easily seen. The darkness behind wainscoting is a perfect dark gap for this pesky fungus to grow. Another problem with mold (I know, I know) is that it loves moisture. As we’ve discussed before, bathrooms are one of the moistest rooms in the home. Humidity, warmth, and darkness are prime Petri dishes for mold growth.
Wainscoting, no matter how well it is installed, will move slightly with the wall. As the walls and wood swell and shrink, small gaps will form where moisture droplets can sneak through and find a nice home to settle in and ferment. It’s best to think of moisture molecules similar to pests. If there is even a slight crack where it can find a way in to make a home, it will.
While it is nearly impossible to avoid moisture behind your wainscoting, there are things you can do to help prevent it from turning into mold and mildew. It may seem counterintuitive to paint before installing your wainscoting since the walls will be covered, but some paints and primers are mold- and mildew-resistant. By adding a layer of this before wainscot installation, you’ll have an additional barrier that will block the mold from growing.
Since you’re clearly renovating your bathroom, consider adding ventilation systems that may not already be in place. Bathroom fans help to suck the moisture from a room, setting it free into the wilderness where it belongs. Okay, maybe comparing moisture molecules to pests is getting out of hand. You can also install a dehumidifier to remove the humidity from the room constantly. This is a tactic used in basements (I have one), and it can be set to a specific humidity level before it turns on automatically.
Okay, so this one is minor compared to the problems mentioned above, but cost should be a consideration. Yes, wainscoting can make a room look brighter and refreshing, but is it worth the cost? For the materials only, you’re looking between $7-$40 a square foot.
Wainscoting, as mentioned before, was originally used to protect the walls. There is nothing in the bathroom that can damage a wall for the wainscot to be a proper protective barrier. In fact, it can be the cause of damage to the wall. Tile costs between $1-$20 (on average) per square foot, and will be much better in the humid environment.
To protect the wall with wainscot, you will want to hire a professional who will seal the wall as much as possible – an additional cost. On top of that, is the cost of the mildew-resistant paint. Also, if damage is done to the wall, you’ll have additional costs to repair and replace it. Sometimes, removing the wainscot is not enough. Sometimes, the mold has penetrated the drywall or the wood framing beneath, which racks up costs very quickly.