Wainscoting is a kind of wood wall paneling that is installed on the lower part of walls. First used by the Dutch as early as the 1300s, wainscoting was originally used to protect walls from day-to-day perils. Today it is more frequently used as room decor than it is used as room protection, but for many it serves a dual purpose. Wainscoting can provided cohesiveness and character as well as protection--which is important to a dining room, where walls are likely to take a beating from chairs and shoes--to a room, and has the added bonus of being quite easy to install. Although the wood used in wainscoting was traditionally cut by hand, it is now possible to buy wainscoting pre-assembled and ready to install. In fact, the most difficult part of installing wainscoting, for many individuals, is deciding on how to best incorporate wainscoting into the design of their room. Keep the following rules of thumb in mind when deciding on your wainscoting's look.
Wainscoting is installed to reach a height of around a third of the way up the wall--32 to 36 inches on average. However, your wainscoting can be as high as you want it to. Keep in mind of the height of your dining room when considering the height of your wainscoting: a room with a low ceiling may feel cramped with high wainscoting, and a room with a tall ceiling may need wainscoting that is taller than average. The height of your wainscoting is based entirely on your own needs and capabilities. If your dining room has a low ceiling, but you want a snug, busy feel, high wainscoting may very well be the correct choice for you.
Depending on the previous design choices you've made in your dining room, there are several different routes you could take with regards to material. If you wish to paint over your wainscoting with an opaque color, you can go for lower quality wood (such as pine), or even plywood. If you want the warmth of wood, go for a higher quality wood (such as walnut and cherry). There is a stark difference in price between plywood and walnut wainscoting, so keep your budget in mind when deciding what kind of wood you wish to utilize.
The kind of furniture you have in your dining room will work together with your wainscoting to create the overall atmosphere of the room. It's important that you don't choose a wainscoting that clashes with or doesn't flatter your furniture. For example, if your dining table is solid oak, installing painted plywood wainscoting would most likely diminish the elegance that the quality table lends to the room. On the other hand, if your furniture is more minimalist, plywood painted white might give the room a cleaner, more structured appearance.
All in all, wainscoting is a wonderfully versatile tool for drastically changing the appearance and atmosphere of a room. Although the tips mentioned above are certainly something to keep in mind, as with all "rules", they were made to eventually be broken. The kind of wainscoting you install will ultimately depend on your own personal aesthetic. Think through your decision carefully, of course, and do not go rushing into a project whose results you are not sure you will like, but feel free to get creative.