‘Should the walls above and below a chair rail be the same or different colors?’
I get this question A LOT, particularly with the 1990s homes and the old gals (referring to homes, not women). Chair rails were ONCE a sign of a fancy-schmancy home, but nowadays, look dated in a home where the goal is to update and modernize.
A chair rail (dado rail) is a horizontal trim running the perimeter of a room approximately 36″ from the floor. Alternatively, it can be awkwardly placed on a single wall (popular in the ’90s) – thanks for that, 90s peeps.
How to TREAT a room with a chair rail (as it relates to paint colors) comes down to the age of your home and your style.
Old homes (the oldies but goodies from the mid to earlier parts of this century and older) can pull off a two-color palette easier than a home from the 70s, 80s, or 90s.
We’ll get into that shortly.
As for homes built in the last 50 years, when updating them, the goal is to create a more modern look, one that’s more on par with what’s being currently built. Modern homes aren’t installing chair rails…evvvvver – chair rail molding is outdated. So, if your ‘newer’ home has a chair rail, the goal is to downplay it rather than accentuate it.
HOW TO PAINT WALLS WITH CHAIR RAIL
In general, the best approach to walls with a chair rail is the one that suits the style of the home. While personal tastes come and go, if you’re at all worried about resale, what people think, or keeping up with trends, you’ll want to listen to the ERA and style of your home and dress it accordingly. 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.
Let’s break things down into sections: older homes vs. newer homes…
PAINTING AN OLD HOME WITH CHAIR RAILS (1960s & earlier)
If you have an older home, you should be able to pull off a two-color or two-tone palette, whether your wood is stained or painted. This is because older homes don’t NEED to look modern.
Now, this doesn’t mean you HAVE to, but the age of your home will give you more flexibility.
Why are old homes more flexible?
Older homes that have rooms with chair rails often have other nice, decorative moldings, and a GREAT way to set off these moldings is with paint. Older homes ALSO suit a two-color 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 and has a certain charm.
Here are some tips to help you choose the best color palette for your upper and lower walls…
- The darker color ‘usually’ goes on the lower wall, and the lighter color on the upper wall.
- Using the dark color on the TOP part of the wall can make a room feel more intimate (popular in dining rooms), but it 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 colors, either upper or lower (compared to having two different ‘colors.’) However, as shown below, the right home and vibe can pull off two colors quite well.
- Consider a two-tone (lighter/darker version of the same color) or a two-color palette (i.e., cream and navy blue).
- Some homes suit a darker color on the lower or upper walls with a FANTASTICALLY coordinated wallpaper as its partner!
By the way, I rely 100% on my Online Color Consulting client’s photos to use on my blog. While I don’t have TONS of examples, I know you’ll find the images and info that I do have helpful.
UPDATING A 1970s OR NEWER ROOM WITH WOOD CHAIR RAIL
Notice that the previous title starts with ‘PAINTING…’ while this one starts with ‘UPDATING…’. And that’s the critical difference.
When painting an older home with chair rails, it’s often about picking colors that suit the HOME and its heritage rather than what’s ‘trendy and modern.’ Whereas in a newer home (the last 50 years), the goal is usually to UPDATE and modernize it with paint colors that suit today’s average homeowner.
And while a 1970s home isn’t new, it’s the new kid on the block compared to some of the old fellas, and the goal is usually to make it look as MODERN as possible!
Generally speaking, to UPDATE your room, you’ll want to use ONE paint color on the upper & lower walls.
Breaking your wall up with two colors or tones can definitely add a more ‘classic’ touch to your home, but classic doesn’t ALWAYS equal updated. One color gives a more updated look. If you’re thinking of resale and your target market is young and trendy, AND your home was built after the 60s or is one of the commonly found 1990s homes trying to keep up with current trends…
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.
But for the minority (wink wink)…
A NEWER STYLE HOME WITH A TRADITIONAL VIBE
If you have a newer home with a chair rail, but your personal style is more traditional, you can consider a two-tone or two-color palette (OR just one color if you’re so inclined). Two colors or tones will be a polite nod towards the traditional end of things, as shown in this next dining room with wood crown molding, baseboards, and chair rail…
For helpful tips, refer to the previous section on older homes and chair rails.
Just remember, you’re not updating your home when you do this – and this is okay if you LOVE the look and are staying in your home! However, if resale is on your mind, you might want to consider ONE paint color (or my next idea that you’ll read about in a second).
While there’s more than just a chair rail going on in this next room, the warm beige paint color is lower contrast with the wood trim. Remember, you have to LOVE the home you live in, and these homeowners LOVE this look for their slightly Craftsman style space…
PAINT COLOR TIPS FOR NEWER HOMES WITH CHAIR RAILS
- To blend in your chair rail (assuming it’s painted a white trim color), choose a color with a higher LRV to create a low-contrast palette. Dark colors with white trim will highlight the chair rail.
- Stained wood chair rails can be more challenging. While darker colors will blend in more, creating a more low-contrast look, they aren’t always the best choice for the average room. In this case, you might go for a color with a more moderate depth, perhaps between 60-70 in LRV.
While I LOVE this palette, it’s not a super modern approach – however, the furnishings and decor help A LOT!
WHAT COLOR SHOULD THE CHAIR RAIL BE PAINTED?
I rarely #never recommend painting a chair rail the same color as the walls. Sure, it will blend in, but it will look like you’re trying to hide it – yet like my passion for Ryan Reynolds (or Gosling), white wine, and Cornuts – it’s not very well hidden.
Your chair rail should be painted the same as the rest of your trim, no matter its color (usually satin finish).
Long story short, unless it’s wood, your chair rail should almost ALWAYS be the same color as the rest of your trim, NOT your walls.
AN EASY CHAIR RAIL UPDATE IDEA
Rooms with a chair rail often benefit from ‘enhancement,’ where you add additional moldings to your lower walls and paint them ALL the same color and sheen as your trim and existing chair rail (read more about this below). While this works for old and new homes, related to homes built in the last 50 years…
It’s a great way to make your chair rail work WITH you rather than against you – these moldings are a SUPER MODERN, coveted application!
SHOULD YOU REMOVE YOUR CHAIR RAIL OR ENHANCE IT?
There are a few things to consider before deciding to remove or upgrade your chair rail…
1. Do you have the skills to add additional moldings? I don’t, but I can handle a simple chair rail upgrade with my limited abilities and two left hands. There are SO many great how-to’s on Pinterest.
2. If you remove the chair rail, will there be a thick layer of paint butting up to it, leaving a ledge around your room? Are you prepared to sand THE LIVING HECK out of this horizontal line, but still possibly NEVER make it entirely go away (or end up with a super smooth area to your more orange-peel texture upper/lower walls)?
While sometimes the best thing to do is take it off (the same thing my hubby says to me), my favorite way to update a chair rail is to convert it into wainscoting, beadboard, or board and batten.
While the above bathroom is likely an original installation, you can do the same by adding a beadboard between your chair rail and baseboard. This can work better than board and batten if your existing baseboards aren’t super thick (battens are often thicker than existing baseboards).
This being said, there are easy ways to fudge it if your new vertical moldings are thicker than the old baseboard they sit on top of.
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SOME CHAIR RAIL UPDATE INSPIRATIONS
In the decorating and design world, visuals make ALL the difference. The following rooms show chair rails that are upgraded/enhanced and wainscoting/board and batten ideas for inspiration.
Rooms with tall walls/high ceilings can look vacant and boring; adding moldings is a great way to add personality. This next dining room has WAY more charm than it would without its chair rail. The white lower walls make this space look more intimate and add character to the otherwise pretty plain-looking walls…
Sherwin Williams Pavestone
This next photo is THE PERFECT example of updating a simple chair rail, except this time, it’s going up the stairs!
There’s a perfect chance that the top molding in this next dining room was originally a simple chair rail. By adding wainscoting style moldings and painting it all the trim color, the chair rail went from dated to DYNAMITE!
Remember, you don’t have to go overboard (#theaboveisoverkillformosthomes). This next living room is a great example of a super simple DIY. The homeowners added a narrow horizontal molding approximately six inches beneath the chair rail. They painted it ALL the trim color, which helps give it a ‘wainscoting’ look without the costs/labor of doing the full-meal deal…
You can see how the above application looks a touch traditional. But that’s not a bad thing, as it also adds personality and visual interest with its crisp, clean contrast.
All it took was one THIN piece of horizontal molding and some white paint.
So there you have it: some great paint color/layout options, as well as one of my FAVORITE chair rail ideas. Have you done something wild and wonderful with your chair rail? Want to show it to me? I’d love to see it! In the meantime, check out these blog posts…
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ORIGINALLY WRITTEN FOR YOU IN 2019, FULL UPDATED IN 2023