‘I have a chair rail, should the walls above and below it be the same colour or different colours?’
This is a question I get a LOT, particularly with the 1990s homes and the old gals (referring to homes, not women). The chair rail was ONCE a sign of a fancy-schmancy home but nowadays, can just look dated in a home where the goal is to ‘update and modernize’.
And you all know that I rely 100% on my E-design client’s photos to use on my blog, so while I don’t have TONS of examples, I know you’ll find the images and info that I do have helpful.
What IS the right way to paint a room with a chair rail? Obviously, that can vary according to personal tastes, but generally speaking, the right way is one that suits the style of the home. If it doesn’t SUIT the home, it won’t look good. It’s like me trying to wear wide-leg pants. I may think I’m at the height of style, but really, I look like a tree stump.
Now, if you just read my blog for my charm and wit (I love you) then, like most things I type, you might be thinking to yourself, ‘is Kylie in the cups again, what the heck is a chair rail?’. A chair rail, also known as a dado rail, is a horizontal piece of trim that usually runs the perimeter of a room approx 36″ from the floor, but can also be awkwardly placed on a single wall (popular in the ’90s).
When you have a chair rail, it can be hard to figure out whether to use the SAME paint colour on the upper and lower portion of the walls or to do two DIFFERENT colours.
AN OLD HOME WITH CHAIR RAILS (1960s & earlier)
If you have an older home, you should be able to pull off a two-colour or two-tone palettE, whether your wood is stained or painted. Now, this doesn’t mean you HAVE to, but the age of your home will give you more flexibility. Why? Well, older homes that have rooms with chair rails often have other nice, decorative mouldings and a GREAT way to set off these mouldings is with paint. Older homes ALSO suit a two-colour palette more than a more modern home because that’s what was done when the home was originally built (often with wallpaper) – it’s authentic.
WHAT ABOUT ROOMS WITH WOOD CHAIR RAIL/TRIM CIRCA 1970+?
If you have wood trim in a home that’s 1970s+, it’s ALL about your intentions and style.
The more MODERN you want your home to look, the less likely you’ll want a two-colour palette. Unless it’s a NEW home with purposeful modern decor, it’s usually best to keep things simple by using the same colour above and below the chair rail.
If you like a cosier vibe and aren’t as worried about an updated, modern look (common in a mid-century, country or farmhouse style home), here are some considerations…
- the darker colour will often go on the bottom of the wall, the lighter colour will go on the top of the wall
- when you have dark wood trim, using the dark colour on the TOP part of the wall can also weigh a room down and make it feel heavier
- consider a two-tone (lighter/darker version of the same colour) or a two-colour palette (ie. cream and navy blue)
HOW TO UPDATE A 1970’s or NEWER HOME WITH WHITE CHAIR RAIL
Okay, so maybe a 1970s home isn’t THAT new, but it’s definitely the new kid on the block compared to some of the old fellas! Generally speaking, if you want your home to look more updated and modern, you’ll want to use ONLY one paint colour. Breaking your wall up with two colours or tones can definitely add a more ‘classic’ touch to your home, but classic doesn’t ALWAYS equal updated.
However, there are some transitional homes that pull off a two-tone or two-colour palette QUITE well – it’s allll in the colours.
- using the dark colour on the TOP part of the wall can make a room feel more intimate (popular in dining rooms), but can also weigh a room down and make it feel heavier if the ceiling is too low or the furniture doesn’t ground the space
- it’s MORE common to have white, or at the most, a very SOFT off-white as one of the colours, either top or bottom (compared to having two different ‘colours’
In this next room, notice the additional moulding added to the lower walls which helps give it a ‘wainscoting’ look, without the costs/labour of doing the full-meal deal. The white lower walls look classic and striking with the gray-blue upper walls…
And while it does add a slightly more traditional vibe to the space, it also adds personality and visual interest with its crisp clean contrast.
NEWER STYLE HOME WITH A TRADITIONAL VIBE
If you have a newer home, but your personal style is more traditional, you can consider a two-tone or two-colour palette (OR just one colour if you’re so inclined. Long story short, you can do what you like! Two colours or tones will be a polite nod towards the traditional end of things as shown in this next dining room…
On the other hand, one colour gives a slightly more updated look. If you’re thinking of resale and your target market is young and trendy, then one colour is a safer bet with a newer home.
Are there exceptions? HELLS yeah. There are always exceptions, but for the sake of ease and appealing to all of you crazy masses, I like to appeal to the majority.
HOW TO UPDATE A CHAIR RAIL
SHOULD YOU REMOVE IT OR ENHANCE IT?
While sometimes the best thing to do is take it off (the same thing my hubby says to me), the BEST way to update a chair rail is to convert it into wainscoting, beadboard or board and batten.
While the above bathroom shows what’s likely an original installation, you can do the same thing by adding beadboard between your chair rail and baseboard. This often works better than board and batten if your existing trims aren’t super thick (as the battens are often thicker and would stick out farther).
This next photo is THE PERFECT example of updating chair rail, except this time it’s going up the stairs!
There’s a very good chance that top moulding was originally a simple chair rail. By adding simple moulding underneath and painting them all the trim colour, the chair rail went from dated to DYNAMITE!
In this next room, while these mouldings were all installed at the same time, the same approach could be taken by adding vertical boards every 18 inches (on the studs) in between your baseboard and chair rail (creating a board and batten look). Again, it’s important that the vertical mouldings don’t stick out farther than the original ones!
Undoubtedly, you’ll be heading out in the near future to grab paint samples – stop right there! I want you to check out SAMPLIZE. Samplize offers peel & stick paint samples that are more AFFORDABLE, EASIER and more ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY than traditional paint pots. Here are just a FEW reasons why I recommend Samplize to my clients…
- samples arrive ON YOUR DOORSTEP in 1-3 business days, depending on location
- at $6.99, they’re more affordable than the samples pots/rollers/foam boards that are needed for traditional paint sampling
- if you keep the samples on their white paper, you can move them around the room
Sherwin Williams Pavestone
In this next bathroom, the top horizontal board could’ve EASILY been a simple chair rail at some point. By adding an affordable beadboard below it (super affordable at Home Depot), it becomes an architectural detail…
While you don’t need to get THIS carried away (below), adding decorative mouldings between your chair rail and baseboard is an awesome update…
Need help deciding what best suits YOUR home?
Check out my E-design – I’d love to help!
ORIGINALLY WRITTEN FOR YOU IN 2019, UPDATED IN 2021