How to Install Picture Frame Molding and Chair Rails

Hi friends – I hope your week is going well! I promised all of you a guide on how to install picture frame molding and chair rails since we just finished tackling this project as part of our recent dining room refresh. With some good advanced planning and the right tools, it’s a project that I believe any of you could tackle!  

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Project Tools & Materials

  • Painters tape
  • Laser level
  • PVC or wood molding (including chair rail if adding)
  • Paint
  • Paint brush
  • Miter saw (less expensive alternatives also linked below)
  • Coping hand saw
  • Gorilla or Wood glue (only if you feel adventurous and want to try the return cut on the chair rail that I mention in the guide )
  • Brad nailer (or electric air compressor nailer combo like we used)
  • Protective eyewear
  • Wood putty
  • 120-grit sandpaper
  • Caulk 
  • Caulking gun

Pre-Planning Process

I can confidently say that the time we spent pre-planning really ensured a smooth install process. So definitely take your time with these upfront steps to ensure you end up happy with the final result.

  1. Pinterest – search Pinterest to find examples of wall molding that you like, and to find rooms that are similar to the room you’re adding molding to. You can start with my “Wall Molding” board which I created when I was looking for ideas. We have baseboard heat so I found it helpful to see how others handled molding on walls with baseboard heaters. So finding inspirational photos may help with any design challenges you might have in your home.

  2. Determine your layout and exact dimensions – I’m not fancy so I literally created a sketch on a piece of paper with each of my wall measurements to plan out the placement of my molding. I do have a friend that uses Pages though – it’s just a matter of what you’re comfortable with! During your planning, determine how large you want each of the frames. Also think about how many you want on each wall – then make adjustments from there.

    For example, the largest wall in our dining room area is 83” long and I wanted two wide panels. I decided I wanted about 3” between and on both sides of the two panels so I subtracted 9” out of the total wall width of 83”. This left me with 74”. From here I simply divided 74” by two since that was the number of panels I wanted, which gave me 37” for each panel.   

    Also, make sure to take the center point of your wall into consideration and ensure that you have an equal number of panels and space on each side.

  3. Lay your design out on your walls – once you have all of your measurements, use painters tape to create an initial layout on your walls. Painters tape is great because it peels right off and is easy to re-stick if you need to make adjustments. This step will help you determine the exact amount of molding you need to buy once you’re visually happy with your layout.

  4. Select your molding – there are so many choices when it comes to molding that it can feel overwhelming. Just remember – there’s no “right” molding to use. It really comes down to personal preference. We ended up going with this 11/16” x 1-⅛” PVC cap molding and this ¾” x 1-¾” hardwood molding for the chair rail. We initially planned on using solid wood for both, however we couldn’t find any wood cap molding that we liked.

  5. Preview the molding on your wall – after you select your molding, I recommend taping a piece of it to your wall and standing back. This may sound silly but after I selected our molding I brought it home, taped it to the wall and stood back about 8-10 feet. It was at this point that I realized that from afar it was flatter and thinner than I was envisioning. So I ended up going back to Home Depot for slightly thicker molding with more definition. 

    Once you’ve completed these steps, you’re ready to start the fun part!

How to Install the Chair Rail

  1. Paint the molding and chair rail – while some may prefer to paint the molding once it’s in place on the wall, I found it easier to get primer and a good coat of paint on the molding before cutting and nailing it to the walls (note: the PVC molding didn’t require primer since it was already white – just the untreated hardwood). That way I wasn’t having to crawl around on the floor to get under the lower pieces.

    I simply placed them all on sawhorses and spread the paint across the entire length of molding. Ultimately, as a last step, you will need to put a coat of paint on the molding once it’s in place on your wall. This will cover the wood putty and any scratches that may occur during the cutting process. I just prefer doing the bulk of the painting on saw horses.
  1. Paint the walls – after you paint the molding, remove any painter’s tape that’s still up from the pre-planning phase. Now paint the walls below where the chair rail will be placed. I used the exact same color as the molding (Benjamin Moore Chantilly Lace).
  1. Re-tape your walls – once your wall paint has dried, reapply the painters tape based on your EXACT measurements. It’s incredibly important to ensure that your tape lines are completely straight as you’re going to install the chair rail and molding along these tape lines. This Bosch laser level and tripod proved incredibly helpful to us throughout the project. We simply set the laser on the wall and then followed the green laser lines as we taped.
  1. Install your chair rail – As a next step, cut your chair rail to fit each of your walls and then test fit them over the painter’s tape.

    Once confirming the correct fit, install your chair rail along your painters tape. We used our air compressor nailer combo to attach both the chair rail and molding to the walls. Another great and less expensive option is this Craftsman cordless brad nailer. As a precaution, you should always wear protective eyewear anytime you’re working with a nail gun.

    Tips for installing the chair rail:
    – If your chair rail sticks out beyond the window trim, you can bevel the edge at a 45-degree angle. This will make the transition more seamless.

– You have two options when it comes to the chair rail where two walls meet. The first option (if you’re feeling adventurous!) is to cut a 45-degree angle on one piece of chair rail. The other will be a 90-degree and butted to the corner. You can outline the painted edge in pencil for better visibility. Then use a hand coping saw to make a coping cut on the end of one of the pieces. This “How to cope joints” article by Family Handy Man provides some great visuals and tips on making coping cuts if you’re not familiar. Option two, for a slightly less perfect joint, miter a 45-degree angle on both chair rail pieces and then use caulk to fill in any small gaps.

We used a coping cut to ensure a seamless fit with the two intersecting chair rail pieces

– If your chair rail ends on a wall that leads to a hallway or another room that does not have wall molding, miter the edge at a 45-degree angle (exact miter hand saw that we own linked here). Then cut the 45-degree angle off, flip it around and then glue it using gorilla or wood glue. Our dining area is open to our kitchen and living room area and we don’t have immediate plans to carry the molding through this entire area. So this “return” cut essentially provides more of a smooth transition vs. just having the chair rail end with a straight blunt cut. This “How to install chair rail” article by Family Handy Man provides additional detail on “return” cuts.

Example of a” return” cut that we used to end our chair rail
Prior to paint touch ups! 🙂 Rather than a straight blunt edge we added a bit of detail using a return cut.

Now that your chair rail is in place, this guide will walk you through the step-by-step process of how to install picture frame molding.

How to Install Picture Frame Molding

The below steps detail how to install the picture frame molding. This part of the process is more straightforward than the chair rail.

  1. Re-tape your walls – using your laser level, you’ll want to re-tape the walls where each of the panels is going to go. Plan to keep the tape in place as you install your molding so that you have a perfectly straight line to follow.
  1. Cut the molding – using a miter saw, cut all of your molding to length. Then make 45-degree angle cuts on all of the molding pieces. If using PVC and you don’t have a miter saw, save yourself the expense and pick up either this ultra thin saw or the mitre box with back saw. Both will work just as well!
  1. Nail the molding to the wall – using your air compressor nailer or brad nail gun, go clockwise or counter-clockwise as you’re installing each piece. So install the top piece, one side, bottom and then the second side. This will ensure that each piece seamlessly meets.
Nailing this panel’s last piece of molding to the wall
  1. Time to putty – use wood putty to fill in all of the nail holes in both the molding and chair rail. I apply the putty using my finger tip and then use another finger to wipe the excess. I like to keep a wet sponge on hand to wipe off the build-up of putty on my fingers. Give the putty a few hours to dry and then apply more if needed. The putty will shrink down as it dries so you’ll likely need a second coat.
  1. Sand – once fully dry, gently sand down the wood putty using 120-grit sandpaper until you achieve a flat surface. Vacuum or use a microfiber rag to remove all of the dust from the molding.
  1. Caulk all of the edges – using a caulking gun, caulk around the top, bottom and side edges of your chair rail and molding. Don’t skip this step – it makes a huge difference!
  1. Apply a final coat of paint – this will cover up the wood putty, plus any scratches that may have occurred while cutting the chair rail and molding. You’re now done!! 

I hope you found this guide on how to install picture frame molding and chair rail helpful. Once you finish your molding project, I’d love to see how it turned out!

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2 Comments

  1. Alyssa
    October 30, 2020 / 8:39 am

    I love the way you explain how to do this project! You’re very descriptive and easy to follow! Thanks for sharing your project!

    • October 30, 2020 / 4:27 pm

      I’m so glad all of the steps are clear! Always happy to answer any questions too! Thanks for taking the time to read the post Alyssa!

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