Wood panelling: everything you need to know

We asked the experts, from interior designers to specialist suppliers, to share their tips on how to work this big decorating trend

pierre jovanovitch chateau de fabregues wood panelling
Jean-Francois Jaussaud

Traditionally associated with castles, cabins and country houses as a centuries-old way of hiding less-than-perfect walls and keeping rooms warm, wood panelling is now having a rebirth. Whatever the size of your space or your preferred interior style, there’s a type of panelling to suit. Here’s how to bring this most timeless of materials into a contemporary interior, with a little help form the experts in the know…

Why is wood panelling a good choice for modern homes?

Panelling can hide pipes and wires and act as insulation in older buildings, explains Jon Madeley from The English Panelling Company. ‘Just 25mm of foam insulation board between battens can make an enormous difference to how quickly the space heats up,’ he says. ‘This may be critical where thicker insulation is not an option due to the size of the room.’

Another benefit is improved acoustics – vital as working from home is now the norm for many. WoodUpp’s Gregg Wright says, ‘Most homes aren’t built to be offices, too, so you may find that sound is echoey or distorted. Our handcrafted panels are designed to improve acoustics within a room.’

nicolas schuybroek wood panelling
Sleek aged oak panelling used to create calm in a home in Bruges
Abroise Tezenas

Then there are the aesthetic benefits. ‘Panelling will break a wall into decorating zones,’ explains The Wall Panelling Company’s Paul Gamble, ‘which can be useful for properties with high ceilings, or on a staircase where most hallways have a full drop from the first to the ground floor.’ Sophie Scott and Georgina Key of Studio Skey use it as a way of adding textural interest to neutral, pared-back schemes.

‘We’ve found a great manufacturer who supplies prefabricated panels, bespoke to our requirements, which we’ve ordered in different veneers, sizes and styles. We prefer the ribbed style.’ The New Design Project’s Fanny Abbes says panelling adds drama while protecting walls. ‘I use it in lobbies and penthouses to create a more bespoke look by adding a highly crafted product,’ she says.

pierre jovanovitch chateau de fabregues wood panelling
Bold chevrons of wood panelling in the Madame Rêve Hotel, Paris
Jerome Galland

What are the best types of wooden panelling?

Sustainable hardwoods, such as oak and ash, have been wall-panelling favourites for many years thanks to their attractive grain patterns, says Your FoRest’s Yulia Korelska. ‘Oak panels are artworks. They benefit from restoration and gain some retro charm after time,’ she adds. Walnut is growing in popularity. ‘Its unique grain and warm shades make the panels live and rich. Alderwood is often used for small-sized decor pieces, as it is good for milling and its grain tends to be uniform.’

Retrouvius’ Nicholas Hughes says hardwoods like iroko are good for kitchen worktops. ‘They tend to be oily, so do better in damp environments. Be aware: if you have timber from a storage space, it’ll be cold and damp and, when put in a heated home, there will be huge shrinkage, particularly on softwoods. You must acclimatise it. Newer woods will change more than older woods, which tend to be more stable.’

hannes peer wood panelling
Designer Hannes Peer uses vertical slats of stained poplar in this Milanese apartment
Helenio Barbetta

How is wooden panelling fitted?

If damp is an issue, a building surveyor or architect will assess whether any preliminary treatment is needed before the panels can be fitted. Installation comes at the end of a project, after the dirty, dusty jobs are complete. Gamble says, ‘In many cases, the panel mouldings will befitted directly onto the walls; this is the best method for fixing and space saving.’ Where pipework needs to be hidden, like in bathrooms, a batten may be needed.

The wall should be smooth and strong enough to carry the weight of the panel; the softer the surface, the more fixing points needed. Prefabricated acoustic panels are quick and easy to install – cut them to the right size using a handsaw and glue, or screw them to the wall. Panels can be oiled or varnished after staining to make them water-resistant, which is most practical for bathrooms.

nils van der celen wood panelling
Oak veneer panelling in a Belgian home by Nils Van Der Celen

Hughes says, ‘Try not to use glues that last forever, because the only way to then remove the wood is to splinter it off. If you get some simple, nice screws, they can also look good if they punctuate the timber.’

Who can fit panelling for you?

Installing traditional wood panelling usually requires the expertise of a skilled carpenter. Madeley says many of The English Panelling Company’s customers fit their MDF panels themselves, but those less confident in DIY will typically use a builder or handyman, as a fully skilled carpenter is not essential in the vast majority of cases.

retrouvius reclaimed wood panelling
Retrouvius used salvaged oak herringbone flooring to clad this cocktail cabinet for a home in London

Can smaller rooms be wood panelled?

Studio Skey are fans of cladding desks, vanity units and even drawer fronts in timber panels with a slimmer, ribbed design to add detail to a pared-back scheme. They often paint the panels the same colour as the walls to prevent the ribbing from becoming too dominant. With traditional panelling, keep it lower and wider to improve the feel of a more compact space, or only panel halfway up the wall.

justine bell and jonas djernes
Simple but effective panelling in a Copenhagen home by Djernes & Bell
Mikkel Tjellesen

What about MDF panelling – is that a good option?

A durable, composite material, MDF (medium-density fibreboard) is cheaper than wood and easy to work with. The English Panelling Company’s Madeley says, ‘MDF panelling will react far less (if at all) to changes in temperature and humidity, which is important in an old building with less-than-dry walls or in a new build with fluctuating conditions.’

He advises choosing high quality, moisture-resistant MDF. ‘It is only slightly more expensive, but will result in a far-superior finish when painted. It also means it can be used in high humidity areas such as bathrooms, kitchens and conservatories.’

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