To Beadboard, or not to Beadboard


Few design elements are so versatile they feel both cottagey and elegant at once. Beadboard, a style of decorative wall paneling (wainscoting), is just that versatile. Beadboard originated in England four centuries ago with the practical purpose of keeping heat inside the house, and outside dampness at bay. It is said that early English settlers brought the design to the U.S. to remind them of the “history and architectural character” of the homes they left behind. Today, beadboard is still associated with coastal New England home design but is admired and emulated across the country.

Beadboard was originally made of evenly spaced, wooden tongue and groove planks that interlocked with ridges or “beads” between each one. In this style of wainscoting, the panels were lined up vertically on an interior wall and typically covered the lower 3 to 4 feet, the same height as most chair backs (hence nicknamed a “chair rail”). Over time, beadboard evolved into a decorative treatment used throughout the home. In the 1800s, kitchen cupboards often used beadboard as a backdrop for special china or keepsakes displayed inside.

Today, beadboard is available in varying profiles and panel widths and can be purchased in large, carefully milled sheets. Because humidity is hard on wood – causing boards to shift and paint to crack – we use medium-density fiberboard (MDF), which comes in ready-to paint sheets, generally 4 feet high by 8 feet wide. MDF takes paint very well, does not expand or contract, and is a rugged as oak.

We introduce beadboard as a design feature in many of our homes to add character and charm. However, the way in which we use it varies depending on both the overall height of the space and the tone and texture of each room. For example, if we want to reinforce a cottage, seaside vernacular, we may choose to create a room with beadboard on both the walls and the ceilings. Though the look is uninterrupted from floor to ceiling, we subtly define the space by using a 6” width plank on the ceilings and a 3” on the walls.

In a more formal living space – such as a master suite – we often include beadboard as a classic, warm accent, covering just half or three-quarters of the wall. We may also introduce it as a ceiling accent – alone or with cased or antique beams.

The traditional yet casual versatility of beadboard is rich: it can be used in lieu of plaster or sheetrock, installed at any height and be painted or stained any color. Although we typically use Ahearn White paint, there are times when a spar varnish adds just the depth and warmth the room calls for.

Beadboard is a classic wall design with rich history that will forever be associated with New England style homes. Both sophisticated and beachy, beadboard adds architectural character, grace, and charm to your home as a featured presence or a seaside accent.