Beadboard Wall & Ceiling Styles

For the past four centuries, beadboard has graced the walls of old houses worldwide.

 Beaded board, or beadboard, is a variation on a centuries-old, tongue-and-groove panel construction. (The bead refers to a round profile created along the length of the board, accompanying a groove or “quirk” cut into the board.) Some of the earliest houses in Colonial America had paneled walls: wide boards with beveled and beaded edges, laid vertically, called shadow-edge paneling. The boards and their decorative edges were planed by hand, and the beads were often quite large—a half-inch wide or more. By sometime in the 19th century, it was more common to see narrow beads from 1 ½” to 3″ apart on boards sold by the linear foot.

A new “boot room” in a Massachusetts house is clad, to picture-rail height, in painted beadboard. Photo: Eric Roth for Hickox Williams Architects

By this time, power saws were in general use, so finer cuts could be made easily and the material had become common.

Machine-produced beadboard was associated with the less formal spaces of buildings: kitchens, hallways, and even stables. (In various parts of the country, old-timers may refer to beadboard as “porch-ceiling lumber,” “train-car siding,” or just plain “wainscot.”) Much of this utilitarian beadboard was clear-finished with shellac or varnish. That way, swelling and shrinking between boards would go unnoticed. Paint, on the other hand, tends to crack along the t&g edges with seasonal movement. In attics and pantries, the beadboard wainscot or wall cladding may have been whitewashed or painted in white enamel for cleanliness and to reflect light.

The low beadboard wainscot with an unpainted top rail is patterned after an original upstairs bathroom in this Arts & Crafts cottage. Photo: Gross & Daley

As the Victorian period progressed, so did the ornamental use of even machined woodwork. Boards were produced in 3/8″, ½”, and 5/8″ thicknesses and widths of 2 ½”, 3 ¼”, 4 ¼”, and 5 ¼”. Wider boards were also produced with multiple quirks and beads (milled into the surface, but not at a t&g connection).

Beaded boards, in different widths and with multiple beads, appeared in public rooms and grander houses. The boards were laid up either horizontally or vertically, or both ways on the same wall. Laying boards on the diagonal and including special battens and mouldings was popular in so-called Eastlake interiors of the Aesthetic Movement period. Beadboard was favored for the interiors of “summer cottages” and Shingle Style houses in resort areas of the Northeast—houses designed to be deliberately informal. 

An old carriage house was rebuilt with a family game room and guest suite above the garage bays.
The new interior is fully clad in beadboard. Photo: Randy O’Rourke for Frank Shirley Architects

Painted beadboard, especially in white paint, is not new. Many an old bathroom or hallway wainscot long ago was painted to freshen or modernize it. Such greens as hunter and teal were common in the Northeast, too, and brighter colors are not unheard-of. If your beadboard is Douglas fir or oak, consider a clear finish. Pine may look better primed and painted.  

A tub enclosure and wainscot gain elegance with battens separating beadboard panels. Photo courtesy Connor Homes

Today, beadboard may be purchased as single boards in the traditional way, or as wider boards with multiple milled beads, as well as in pre-assembled panels and kits. Beadboard is sold in various widths and wood species, and as pretreated hardwood for exterior use. Look-alike products are made in MDF, composites, vinyl, and even as peel-and-stick wallpaper. Several companies are making high-end ceramic wall tile that mimics the look of beaded-board wainscot with a base and chair rail. A revival of the use of real, unpainted beadboard means it is being custom-milled in Douglas fir and even mahogany.

Related Resources

Re-issues of Stickley furniture incl. settle

Multiple materials, board widths, kits, wainscot & ceiling panels, yellow pine with matching trim, all at Lowe’s and Home Depot.

Synthetic, historically accurate T&G beaded ceiling

American Beadboard
MDF for kitchen, bath, basement;  8’ panels, prepackaged kits in different heights & for ceilings

Architectural Depot
MDF or vinyl, prefinished in 3 colors 

Baird Brothers
Poplar, red oak, maple, cherry, primed poplar; prefinished avail.; special order on other species

Elite Trimworks
PVC beadboard in white or brown 

Beadboad kits, unfinished or prefinished, paint-grade or red oak

New England Classic
Birch, pine, oak, maple, pecan

Vintage Woodworks
T&G grooved beadboard and V-groove board in wood, 19 species, milled one board at a time; also AZEK; cap moulding.

Whidbey Millhouse
Solid-wood ceiling & soffit, V-groove, shiplap

Windsor One
T&G boards in various widths; treated hardwood

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