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How To Use a Dado Rail in Your Room

What is a Dado Rail?

Dado rail is one of those architectural features whose original usage has fallen by the wayside, but has found a new lease of life by adapting to modern interior design schemes.

Originally, the dado area of a wall was intended to complement the column or ‘die’ of a statue’s base and the rail was used as finishing touch. This usage, understandably, is no longer as popular as it used to be.

The Dado itself could be any height as that really depended on the size of the room and how high the ceilings were. If the room held a bust on a plinth then the rail would have been in line with the top of the die. If the statue was grander then it would be higher again.

This is demonstrated in a fantastic diagram below. The image is from an American website so it notes the dado rail as ‘Chair Rail’ and skirting board as ‘Baseboard’ instead, but otherwise you can see the origins quite clearly.

Diagram of classical mouldings, their functions and positioning.
Image Credit: This is Carpentry

From those ancient times it evolved along with architectural styles and started to be used with wall panelling, also known as wainscoting, which is where we become familiar with it in homes during the current day.

Now the height has grown and it has become a more functional feature where it is viewed as a way to protect walls from modern living and the adoption of the name chair rail in some places.

There was a revival of dado usage in interior design in the late 20th century which led to it being used in a more decorative fashion again, but the rise of minimalist interiors led to a fall in its popularity more recently.

Are Dado Rails Still Fashionable?

Whether you think dado rails are fashionable or not is a matter of personal preference. You know how you want your room to look and whilst the functionality of a dado rail may not be to your taste, there is no doubt that there are some designers and DIYers who have gotten creative with dado rails and the dado area.

Dado Rail being used to create a panelling effect

The design below turns the normal dado proportions on its head to make it the dominant feature of the room.

Creative Use of Dado Rail at three quarter height in Nursery
Image Credit: Beebout Design

You’re only limited by what you intend to use your room for and whether you like it!

As mentioned already, Dado rails have had a long, functional history but more people are now finding ways to use it in their interior design.


Wooden or MDF Dado Rail?

The choice between whether you use an MDF or wooden dado rail is influenced by a number of reasons including your environment, how you decorate it and what your budget is.

To begin with, is your room likely to be affected by environmental factors? This means things like damp, condensation or whether it will be in direct sunlight for prolonged periods. These factors can affect the moisture content of the wood and cause it to swell or shrink creating a number of unwanted effects like twisting, bowing and splitting.

The MDF used by Skirtings R Us is high density and moisture resistant which means it’s not porous and will not warp, remaining unaffected in conditions which could ruin a wooden rail.

Next, are you going to paint the rail or use stain or varnish to bring out the natural look of the wood? If it’s the latter then wood would be the natural choice, however if you’re going to paint over it then there’s no real advantage to having a wooden dado rail.

Due to High Density MDF being much denser than most wood, the finished paint is much more evenly distributed and not absorbed, whereas wood often leaves a patchier finish. This also means you will need less coats of paint, saving you money!

Lastly, there is the cost. There are vast differences in the kind of wooden dado rails available. The economy ones, made from something like pine, are the ones which suffer most in an unfavourable environment, however there are hardwoods which offer similar qualities to High Density MDF.

The catch here though is that they are usually much more expensive. So, for the price of some cheap wooden dado rail, MDF offers the quality of a high-end hardwood.


Victorian or Modern Dado Rail?

This question arises because when people think of dado rail they generally tend to think of some vague remembrance of a classic Victorian style they probably grew up with. However, as interior design has evolved, modern styles offer many more options.

These generally involve sharp lines and grooves rather than the curves and beading of old. Featuring stepped, square or bullnose designs these styles work well with similar skirting board profiles to give your room a contemporary feel.

The curved designs are still the most popular however, which is why you still see them everywhere.

Another alternative is to use architrave to create a bolder delineation. If you choose the smallest thickness and the smallest height (typically around 15mm x 50mm) then you can open up a wider range of styles to work with. A number of our customers have taken this approach and we think it's a great idea!

Hallway with architrave used as dado rail.

Should I Use Paint or Wallpaper?

The first thing you tend think of when talking about using dado rail is it being used, along with picture rail, to create boundaries along a wall where the area above the dado is painted and below it wallpaper is hung to create a contrast of colours and design.

You have to remember that this was an innovation its time, but became so popular that trendsetters moved away from it and onto something new. Now it is still a viable option among others. If you find a way to do it that you like, then you’re winning!

Dado used as a highlight in grey living room

One of those other options is using the dado rail to separate two different colours. This adds depth to a room making it seem larger.

If you don’t want to overload the room with a dominant wallpaper you could also just go with a mix of the two options and paint the wall above the picture rail and below the dado rail one colour and the area between another, then use the picture rail for its original purpose and hang some bold artwork from it.

Dado Rail Colour Schemes

When it comes to deciding on a colour scheme for your room the primary consideration should be your central theme. Whether this is based on colours, a feature, or something unique to your home or a specific preference, the dado rail is an accompaniment that should serve your greater idea.

Your choice for painting dado rail is whether you paint it the same colour as the wall so that it blends in or pick out a colour from something like the skirting board to accentuate the border between colours.

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