A chair rail adds interest and polish to any room, bringing instant character and definition. The term may have originated from the Shakers who used rails with pegs to hang chairs so floors could be easily swept. Many people think they are intended to protect the wall from backs of chairs that were pushed up against it and they do sometimes serve that function. However as far back as the Romans, wood pieces have been most frequently used to divide walls for design and architectural interest.
But how do you know where to place the chair rail on the wall? Is one place better than another? I am so glad you asked!!!! Because there are answers.
Ancient Greeks searched for mathematical formulas to determine the perfect number, perfect chord, and points of perfect balance in their work. Renaissance architects and artists build on the Greek search for perfection. They decided that the relationship of five to eight created this perfect balance. This translates very easily when working with an eight foot high wall in the average house.
To determine chair rail placement according to the classic principles, it works this way mathematically:
8×12 (number of inches in a foot) = 96 inches
96 inches divided by 5 (the pleasing ratio) = 19.2 inches
No dining chair is that short so a chair rail installed at that height is pointless
But — two units are 38.5 inches.
Measure that distance up from the floor.
That’s where the chair rail belongs. You can make 38.5 inches the top or bottom or middle of your chair rail. You can see that measurement falls just above the high point of the chair rail in our dining room. As long as you keep the rail close to that ideal distance, it will be most pleasing to the eye. In turn, you also create a more pleasant room.
This is called the golden ratio or the divine proportion. It was used in the construction of the Pyramids, the Parthenon, and Notre Dame Cathedral. Artists use this principle in their work. A notable example is DaVinci’s painting of the Last Supper where the table top height horizontally and the amount of space taken up by Christ in the center of the painting vertically both fit into the golden mean. (That art history class finally paid off! Hurray!!!!)
If for some reason a chair rail at that height will not work in your space, here’s an alternative that is also used by photographers and artists on the fly because it is easier and faster than figuring the golden ratio. Many builders also use it as a default measurement for installing chair rails. It is the rule of thirds. A space divided into thirds is also pleasing.
An eight foot wall divided into thirds would be: 96 inches high divided by three equals 32 inches. The top of the chair rail would also be pleasing at 32 inches if you need to go shorter than the golden ratio measurement. Alternatively, if the style of your house will handle it, a chair rail installed at 64 inches from the floor would also be within the rule of thirds. A chair rail this high often has a plate rail installed at its top. Not coincidentally that is the perfect location for artwork on an eight foot wall.
We chose the Golden Ratio in deciding where to place the chair molding in our dining room make over. You can read about the faux tray ceiling here and wallpaper removal here. Coming next is how we installed the chair rail and, in part 2, how we installed the picture frame moulding below the chair rail.
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