Sheet paneling needs a solid, plumb backing. Typically, this is a stud wall covered with 1/2-inch drywall. On the inside of exterior and below-grade walls, sandwich insulation and a vapor barrier between the studs and the drywall to protect panels from moisture. As you estimate materials, keep in mind that panel seams must hit studs. Lay out the job to avoid thin strips of paneling. It’s better to cut 14 inches off the first panel on a wall than end up with a piece 2 inches wide at the end of the wall. Stand the panels up for 48 hours in the room in which they’ll be installed to condition them.
Choosing Paneling - Sheet paneling is inexpensive and easy to install, but it is also thin and flexible. If your walls are at all wavy, the paneling will accentuate the curves rather than hide them. If you have problem walls, consider tongue-and-groove planks. They are more expensive and take longer to install, but they’ll straighten the walls. Planking requires furring strips and shims every 16 vertical inches for backing. Be sure to inspect sheet paneling for variations in color, flaws, and splinters.
1. Mark the seams. Mark the location of the studs where the panel edges will meet. Cut the first sheet so its edge falls on the middle of a stud. Set the first piece in place without attaching it. Panels should have a 1/16-inch gap between them to allow for expansion and contraction. To disguise the gap, run a felt marker along the seam.
2. Apply adhesive. Using a caulking gun, apply a 1/2-inch bead of panel adhesive on the wall in a wavy pattern so there is no gap larger than 8 inches between adhesive beads. (A large caulking gun that holds quart tubes may be a worthwhile investment.) Press the panel back in place and elevate it above the floor about 1/2 inch.
3. Tack the sheet in place. Align the panel so it is plumb and drive three or more finish or color-matched paneling nails halfway in along the top edge of the panel. With the panel dangling, compress the adhesive behind it by hammering on the surface with a block of wood wrapped in cloth.
4. Let adhesive set, attach panel. Pull out the bottom of the panel and insert a spacer to keep it away from the wall while the adhesive sets up. After the time specified for the adhesive (typically, 3 minutes), press the panel against the wall and drive in nails every 8 inches along the edges and every 12 inches into intermediate studs.
5. Panel around an opening. To panel around a door or window, measure over from the last panel installed. Measure up from the floor or down from the ceiling to find the height of the opening. Measure in the A, B, C, D sequence shown. If possible, lay out panels so their seams fall over the center of openings. Remember to allow a 1/16-inch gap between the panels.
6. Fit the last panel on a wall. For the last piece, you’ll need to precision-cut a panel to fit neatly against the inside edge of the wall. Most likely, the corner will not be plumb, so measure from the previous panel to the corner at several points along the panel edge and draw a line with a straightedge. Cut with a circular saw or a sabersaw if the curves are pronounced. When cutting with either of these tools, flip the panel over so the finish side is down.
7. Fine-tune the edge. It may take several attempts before you get a piece to fit against an irregular corner. Be conservative in your cutting; you can always cut more, but you can’t make the sheet bigger. Use a block plane or surface-forming tool to shave off small amounts of material. Hold the tool at an angle so the bulk of the material is cut from the back of the panel, leaving a thin, easily trimmed edge at the surface for final fitting.
8. Make cutouts. To cut openings for electrical outlets, measure the distance between the last panel installed and the right and left edges of the outlet. Then measure the distance from the floor to the outlet top and bottom, subtracting the height the panel will be off the floor. Transfer your measurements to the paneling and cut out the hole with a keyhole saw.
9. Cut around complex obstructions. To cut around such structures as a fireplace and mantel, measure the distance from the last installed sheet to the farthest point along the structure. Measure the height of the structure, allowing for the gap along the floor. Transfer your measurements to the paneling, connect the cut lines with a straightedge, and saw out the bulk of the waste area. Temporarily nail up the sheet so it is plumb and alongside the structure at the proper elevation. Set a compass to the width the sheet needs to move to meet the last one installed, and scribe the contours onto the sheet. Make the cut using a sabersaw with a fine-tooth blade or a coping saw. Fit the panel and make fine adjustments with a utility knife. Secure the panel in place.