Introducing timber to your interiors is the ideal way to add warmth and a sense of homeliness, whether your overall aim is to create classic, traditional style or a more contemporary look. While timber floors have become something of a mainstay in many homes, for many, wood panelling remains something thought of as an original feature — you are either lucky enough to have it already, or you’re not.

“Traditional wood panelling has been used in the UK for hundreds of years,” explains Jon Madeley, founder of The English Panelling Company. “Initially it was for wholly practical reasons — wood was the cheapest raw material around and it provided a strong wall covering with naturally inherent insulation properties. However, over the centuries, certain styles developed and fashion became the main driving force behind its continued use in domestic interiors. This practice continued to develop until World War I and II — when Britain saw an end to the cheap and plentiful supply of timber.”

The great news for those looking to use timber panelling is that it is simple to install and to retrofit, is cost-effective and can be fitted on a DIY basis too. It is also easily adaptable — painted, stained, white-washed or left in its natural state.

There is not just one type of wood panelling: it actually comes in many different forms and can be bought off-the-shelf or custom made.

Painted wall panelling in the lounge of a renovated period house

Painted wall panelling here adds warmth and a period feel to this renovation

The Evolution of Timber Panelling

Over the years, the ways in which timber panelling is made has changed due to timber supply, demand for certain products and new technology.

“The simplest form of wood panelling and one of the first to be used on a large scale was ‘butt and bead’ jointed boards,” explains Jon Madeley from The English Panelling Company. “The design of the joint helped mask the movement of the timber as the tongue of one edge was free to slide in and out of the groove along its neighbouring board. Movement was not a big problem when materials like elm and oak were used, but in more recent times, the use of cheap knotty pine has meant that this type of boarding is prone to pronounced shrinkage.”

In the 1980s, when MDF became more widely used, things changed for timber panelling, as it could now be made from thin sheets of MDF and was not subject to the issues of shrinkage or warping. There are no knots to deal with, it is easy to cut and install, and relatively inexpensive.

High-quality moisture resistant (MR) grades are now available making it suitable for use in kitchens and bathrooms. MR grade boards are also much easier to get a good paint finish on than standard MDF and it only costs a little bit more.

Painted Georgian-style panelling in a bathroom

This Georgian panelling is from The English Panelling Company and costs £16.50 per panel

Tongue-and-Groove

Perhaps the most commonly seen type of wood panelling, tongue-and-groove, is usually sold in packs and is designed to be fitted on a DIY basis, costing from £6/m2. It is usually made of softwood planks.

There are also lots of tongue-and-groove look-a-like products on the market made from either timber or MDF. These have the appearance of panels that have been clicked together but actually come as continuous sheets, making them quicker and less fiddly to fit. They come ready to be primed and painted.

Period Style

There are various styles of wood panelling out there, from those labelled ‘Georgian’ and ‘Victorian’ to sleeker, more modern designs. Most can be found in either MDF, MDF with a real wood veneer, or as solid timber.

When it comes to determining a style to suit your home, Paul Gamble of The Wall Panelling Company says: “Try to be true to the property and you will be OK. Arts and Craft-style homes will be more in line with a plain Shaker-style panel, and a Victorian property will be more in keeping with something like our Heritage range. Listed buildings will usually require oak panelling. Panelling can also be very effective in contemporary homes, giving a touch of old meets new, or by using plain wood veneers.”

  • MDF panelling is designed to be painted.
  • Hardwood panelling such as oak can be varnished or left as it is for a more natural look. 
  • If you are considering softwood, it will need to be treated with a primer and painted if you don’t want issues with movement — particularly in bathrooms and kitchens.

There is also the option for ‘open-backed’ panelling. This produces a square or rectangular panel design using sheets of MDF with the squares cut out — these panels are then glued directly to any flat surface and painted. This creates a traditionally panelled look at a fraction of the cost of timber, and it can be done easily on a DIY basis.

Timber cladding in a contemporary home designed by Hall & Bednarczyk Architects

This scheme from Hall + Bednarczyk Architects shows that contemporary homes also suit timber panelling

A Contemporary Twist

Of course it is not just traditional-style homes that can benefit from the character and warmth that wood panelling brings — there are some very modern takes on this look worth considering too.

  • Laser-cut wood panels look particularly striking and can be customised to whatever pattern you have in mind, before being glued to the wall and either stained or painted.
  • Using pre-cut, stained square panels arranged to sit together over one entire wall in either real, veneer or look-a-like walnut, maple or cherry also looks stunning.
  • Try uniform planks stacked horizontally either over an entire wall or cladding a breakfast bar, bath or staircase.

Fitting

If you already have smooth, dry walls, then some panelling (particularly that made from MDF) can be glued directly to the wall using an adhesive such as No More Nails from UniBond, or similar.

If, on the other hand, your walls are in a dire state of repair (and perhaps the very reason you are considering wood panelling in the first place) then a different approach will be required. Fix battens to the walls and then either fix your panels directly to these or fit plasterboard and then fix to this.

If you are aiming to conceal pipework or wiring behind your panelling then you will need to go down the battening route, creating studwork using timber measuring at least 50x50mm and ensuring that all the edges of the panels are fully supported. Remember that if you are concealing services behind the panelling, an access panel will be required, so rather than using adhesive, use screws over one section.

Skirting or dado rails are best added once the panelling has been fitted, although some skirting has a flat edge on top that the panelling can sit on. However, in most cases the skirting should be fitted afterwards, over the panelling. If you are only using panelling halfway up the wall then a dado rail will not only finish it off nicely (as above), but will also be useful in visually straightening up any uneven sections, before gaps are filled. In the case of tongue-and-groove boards, they are usually nailed (a nail gun comes in useful here) into place.

Hallways and stair panelling should be one-metre high from the finished floor so that the dado falls in line with (or just above) the handrail.

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