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Should you paint the wall or wainscoting first?

When taking on a painting project in a room with wainscoting, one of the key decisions is determining which surface to paint first – the walls or the wainscoting. Both approaches have their merits, so it’s helpful to understand the pros and cons of each to decide which will work best for your particular situation.

Painting the Walls First

Many experts recommend painting the walls before painting the wainscoting. Here are some of the benefits of this approach:

  • It allows you to use the wainscoting as a guide while cutting in the walls. The edge of the wainscoting provides a nice straight line to follow with your paint brush for crisp, clean lines.
  • You don’t have to worry about getting wall paint on the wainscoting. When cutting in the walls, it’s easy to accidentally get a little paint on the wainscoting. If the wainscoting is already painted, you’ll have to be very careful. But if it’s not painted yet, you can be less precise knowing you’ll cover any small drips or splatters later.
  • It’s easier to match existing paint on the walls. If you are just repainting part of a wall, painting the walls first will make it easier to blend the new paint into the existing painted surfaces.
  • The wainscoting will hide any imperfections on the walls. Things like uneven drywall seams or nail holes will largely disappear behind the wainscoting, so you don’t have to worry about making the walls perfectly smooth.

On the downside, painting the walls first creates a minor inconvenience when it comes time to paint the wainscoting. You’ll have to tape off the freshly painted walls to avoid getting wainscoting paint on them. But if you use painter’s tape and are careful along the edges, this usually isn’t much of an issue.

Painting the Wainscoting First

Painting the wainscoting before the walls is the other option. Here are some potential benefits of this method:

  • You avoid having to tape off freshly painted walls when painting the wainscoting. With the walls still bare, you don’t have to worry about being tidy with the wainscoting paint.
  • It provides a nice finished edge at the top of the wainscoting. With the crisp paint line between the wainscoting and raw drywall, you have a clear boundary to follow when cutting in the walls.
  • Any splatters on the walls from the wainscoting paint won’t matter. Since you’ll be painting the walls afterward anyway, a few drips won’t be a problem.
  • For dark wainscoting colors, painting it first prevents shadows on the walls. Darker colors applied after painting walls can sometimes leave shadows or hints of the underlying wall color.

On the negative side, not having the finished wall color as a guide can make cutting in the wainscoting more difficult. It requires a steadier hand and eye to cut a straight line along the top edge of the wainscoting.

Key Considerations

When deciding which surface to paint first, keep these key factors in mind:

  • Color contrast – If there is a big difference between the wall and wainscoting colors, painting the walls first usually works best. The color disparity makes taping easier and minimizes shadows.
  • Sheen differences – For very glossy wainscoting, painting it first helps avoid kitting issues from repainting walls. Satin or flat wall paint doesn’t always adhere well to glossy surfaces.
  • Coverage needs – For surfaces needing extra coverage, like covering dark colors or heavily textured walls, paint them first before the wainscoting.
  • Edge clarity – When a super sharp edge is needed between surfaces, paint the area getting the edge second. The painted edge provides a guide to follow.

Prep Work

Regardless of which surface you paint first, proper prep work is essential for success. Here are some key steps to take before starting painting:

  • Remove switch plates, outlet covers, and vent covers. Also take down sconces, curtains, or other wall-mounted items.
  • Clean the walls and wainscoting with a degreasing cleaner. TSP or other liquid deglossers work well to remove grime and oils.
  • Fill any holes or cracks with spackle compound and sand smooth when dry.
  • Lightly sand glossy wainscoting to dull the shine so paint adheres better.
  • Remove any loose paint by scraping or sanding. Spot prime bare surfaces.
  • Use painter’s tape to mask off baseboards, crown molding, and ceilings. Drop cloths will protect floors.
  • On wainscoting, remove any hardware like cap rails. Fill the screw holes with wood filler.

Proper prep gets the surfaces into ideal condition before painting ever begins. It leads to better adhesion and smoother, more attractive final results.

Application Tips

These tips will help the painting process go smoothly, regardless of which surface you paint first:

  • Use high quality brushes and mini rollers designed for trim and wall painting.
  • Maintain a wet edge when painting. Work in sections and avoid lap marks.
  • Work top to bottom when painting walls. For wainscoting, work bottom to top.
  • Allow sufficient dry time between coats based on manufacturer’s recommendations.
  • Apply finish coats slowly and gently using minimal pressure.
  • Use an angled trim brush to cut in edges neatly and cleanly.
  • Backbrush while painting to help smooth out brush strokes.

Taking your time leads to a professional looking, streak-free paint job. Remember that preparation is key and the painting itself is often the easiest part of the project.

Cost Comparison

In terms of cost, painting the walls before the wainscoting is the more affordable option in most cases. Here’s a look at how the costs typically compare between the two approaches:

Painting Task Painting Walls First Painting Wainscoting First
Prep materials $50 $50
Painter’s tape $10 $5
Paint $100 $120
Brushes & rollers $20 $20
Total $180 $195

Painting the wainscoting first requires more paint due to needing touch ups on the walls. It also requires less tape when done second. So the material costs end up slightly higher overall.


When planning your painting project, think through the pros and cons of painting the walls versus wainscoting first. Consider factors like color contrast, prep work needs, brushing challenges, and your budget. If simplifying cutting in and requiring less paint are priorities, starting with the walls is likely the best bet.

But if neatly defined edges and avoiding taping freshly painted surfaces are most important, beginning with the wainscoting may be preferable. Proper prep work, patience, and attention to detail during painting will lead to great results, regardless of which surface you choose to paint first.

With some careful planning up front, you can determine the ideal order of operations for your particular wainscoting painting project. Just be systematic in your approach, do proper prep work, and take your time painting for walls and wainscoting that look freshly painted.