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Decorating Ideas: Wall Panels

Panel a wall in one weekend for less than $100

Bedroom Wall PanelsFamily Handyman
Create the look of traditional paneled walls for your bedroom or living room with painted MDF strips. For very little money you can completely transform the appearance of your house.

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Wall Panels Overview

Quick transformation

Creating a new look for one wall or a whole room is as easy as nailing boards over the drywall. Lay out an attractive grid pattern and go to work. You’ll be done in a weekend.

Here’s a simple method for creating an elegant paneled wall without the expense of solid lumber or the skill of a master carpenter. We fashioned this paneled wall by nailing strips of inexpensive MDF (medium-density fiberboard) directly over the drywall. The square-edged strips are easy to join, and the smooth MDF surface makes a perfect surface for a flawless paint job.

With a little perseverance, you can nail up the strips on Saturday, leaving Sunday to sand and paint. You’ll need a basic set of hand tools, a circular saw, a power miter saw, a sander and a finish nailer to complete the job. We show how to rip the MDF strips with a circular saw (Photo 2), but if you own (or have access to) a table saw, use it instead. Making accurate square cuts on the end of the strips is easy with a power miter saw, but you can just use a circular saw and guide. If you don’t have a finish nailer, consider renting one for a day. There’s a lot of nailing to do and it will speed up the job considerably.

What’s MDF and Why Should I Use It?

MDF (medium-density fiberboard) is a pressed wood product that offers several advantages over solid wood for a project like this. First, it’s inexpensive compared with solid wood, and the smooth surface looks great painted. Unlike strips of lumber, which can be bent or twisted, strips ripped from MDF are perfectly straight, simplifying installation. And the material is flexible enough to conform to slightly wavy walls. Finally, we preferred the look of 1/2-in.-thick strips. (It’s hard to find 1/2-in. lumber.)

MDF isn’t perfect, though. It’s heavy and the 4 x 8-ft. sheets are hard to handle without help. Some home centers will cut it into smaller pieces for you. Also, the dust from cutting and sanding is so fine that it’ll drift and settle on everything in sight unless you take special precautions. Collect the dust with a vacuum or dust collection system if possible. Otherwise, try to do most of your cutting outdoors.

Tape a mock-up to the wall

Photo 1: Mock up a design

Tape up strips of masking paper to lay out the wall pattern. Adjust the arrangement until you like the results. Take a photo as a reminder of the pattern.

Start by prying off the baseboard and the window and door trim. Slip a wide, stiff putty knife behind the pry bar to spread out the pressure and prevent damage to the drywall. With the moldings out of the way, tape up 4-in.-wide strips of masking paper to simulate the look of the MDF strips (Photo 1). If you can’t find 4-in.-wide masking paper at the home center or paint store, cut a wider roll to 4 in. with a miter saw. Start by placing strips at the top, bottom and sides. Then run vertical strips along the windows and doors. Line up horizontal strips above doors and windows. Add a horizontal strip under windows too. Now divide the remaining spaces to create an attractive grid. When you’re happy with the arrangement, make a dimensioned sketch to guide you later. Then count the number of 8-ft.-long strips you’ll need to complete the project. You’ll get twelve 3-7/8-in.-wide by 8-ft.-long strips from every 4 x 8-ft. sheet of MDF.

If you’re going to change the wall color, patch imperfections in the wall with spackling compound. Even if you’re not changing the color, sand and paint before applying the MDF strips. You’ll have to do some touch-up painting later, but at least the bulk of the work will be done. This is especially important if you’re going to paint the MDF strips a different color than the wall.

Cut MDF into strips

Photo 2: Cut strips

Cut straight, uniform strips of MDF fast using a cutting guide with a stop on the underside. If your saw has a vacuum port, use it! Cutting MDF is dusty.

Photo 3: Sand edges

Sand the cut edges of the strips fast by clamping several strips together.

Photo 4: Paint edges before installation

Prime and prepaint the edges to avoid fussy brushwork later. Roll on a coat of primer, let it dry and sand lightly. Then roll on a coat of paint.

The 4 x 8-ft. sheets of 1/2-in. MDF you’ll need for this project are available at lumberyards and home centers. If you don’t have a way to haul large sheets, ask a store employee to cut the sheets into 16-in.-wide strips that you can tie to your car top. Also pick up a few tubes of paneling adhesive to attach the strips that don’t align with studs (Photo 7).

Cut the MDF into 3-7/8-in.-wide strips. If you don’t have a table saw to cut the strips, assemble a cutting guide (Photo 2). Start by cutting a 6-in.-wide strip from the edge of a sheet of MDF. Cut another strip 4 in. wide to use as a stop. Position the stop and screw it to the bottom of the guide so that you can cut 3-7/8-in.-wide strips by running the edge of the saw base against the guide. With this setup, you won’t have to measure for each strip. Just reposition the guide and clamp it to the MDF sheet after each cut. Note: Sawdust from MDF is very fine and will cover everything in sight if you’re not careful. Cut outdoors if possible. Otherwise, put an exhaust fan in the window and use a shop vacuum to collect dust from power tools. Make sure to wear a dust mask and safety glasses when cutting.

After ripping the strips, sand the edges to remove saw marks. Clamp a bunch of the strips together and sand all of the edges at once to speed up the job and avoid rounding over the corners (Photo 3). We used a random orbital sander and 80-grit paper. After sanding, leave the clamps in place while you roll on a coat of quick-drying, stain-blocking primer such as Kilz or BIN. Make sure your stain-blocking primer a is solvent-based type, not water-based. After the primer dries, sand lightly and apply one coat of paint. Prepainting the edges will save you a lot of time on the final paint job.

Nail the strips to the wall

Photo 5: Nail base and ceiling first

Nail the base and ceiling rails to studs. Splice rails over studs.

Splice ends

Join the ends with 30-degree bevel cuts.

Photo 6: Mark stiles for cuts

Hold stiles in place and mark them with a utility knife rather than a pencil.

Mark in place

Use a utility knife to create fine, precise cutting marks.

Photo 7: Fasten stiles with panel adhesive

Fasten the stiles without worrying about stud locations. Apply adhesive to the stiles and tack them to the drywall with brads. The brads hold them in place until the glue dries.

Window reveal

Leave a 1/4-in. reveal around windows and doors.

Photo 8: Install rails

Mark the position of the rails above and below the windows. Use a string to align the marks with the windows.

Photo 9: Fill in

Divide the remaining space and mark the location of the rails on the stiles. Cut the rails and nail them to the studs.

Start by locating the studs. Look for drywall screws or baseboard nail holes as a clue to stud locations. Or use an electronic stud finder. Stick pieces of masking tape to the floor to mark the locations. Cut MDF rails (horizontal strips) to fit along the floor and ceiling and nail them to the studs with 2-in. brads (Photo 5). Next cut stiles (vertical strips) to fit between the rails at the corners and along the sides of windows and doors and nail them to the wall (Photos 6 and 7). Position the stiles 1/4 in. from the inside edge of door and window jambs to leave 1/4 in. of the jamb exposed.

Determine the positions of the remaining stiles by dividing the space evenly according to your original layout. Hook your tape measure on the left side of the farthest left stile and measure to the left side of the farthest right stile. Divide this measurement by the number of spaces you want. The result is the distance from the left edge of any one stile to the left edge of the next stile. Mark the locations on the bottom and top rails. Then cut the remaining stiles to length. Apply two beads of construction adhesive to the back of the strips before tacking them to the wall with 2-in. brads (Photo 7).

With the top and bottom rails and all the stiles in place, it’s time to fill in the rest of the rails. Start by stretching a mason’s line tightly across the top of the windows or doors, making sure to leave a 1/4-in. reveal on the jamb. Make a pencil mark where the string intersects each stile (Photo 8). Then cut rails to fit between the stiles, align them with the marks and nail them to the wall. If you have a window, align another set of rails with the bottom of the window. Then divide the remaining space and mark the rail locations on the stiles (Photo 9). Complete the paneled wall by cutting rails to fit between the stiles at each mark and nailing them to the wall.

Fill and sand for a perfect paint job

Photo 10: Fill and sand

Fill nail holes with spackling compound and let it dry. Sand any uneven areas for a smooth, flush surface.

Fill the nail holes and other imperfections with spackling compound. Let it dry and sand it smooth. Nail holes may require two coats of spackling. Where they intersect, sand the MDF strips flush with an orbital sander (Photo 10). Caulk the cracks where the MDF meets the side walls and ceiling. When you’re done filling, sanding and caulking, roll or brush a coat of stain-blocking primer (again, make sure you’re using a solvent-based type, not water-based) onto the face of the MDF strips. Finish the job by painting the face of the MDF strips and touching up the wall paint.

Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

  • Air compressor
  • Air hose
  • Brad nail gun
  • Caulk gun
  • Circular saw
  • Clamps
  • Cordless drill
  • Dust mask
  • Level
  • Miter saw
  • Orbital sander
  • Paint roller
  • Paint tray
  • Paintbrush
  • Putty knife
  • Safety glasses
  • Shop vacuum
  • Stud finder
  • Utility knife

Required Materials for this Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here’s a list.

  • 2-in. brad nails
  • 4-in. masking paper
  • 4x8 x 1/2-in. MDF
  • Paint
  • Panel adhesive
  • Sandpaper
  • Spackling compound
  • Stain-blocking primer
  • String
  • Wood glue