The Senate House of the University of Cambridge, 1721-30, James Gibbs, architect. Joinery by James Essex. Photo: Historic England Archive.

Joinery, is an Art Manual, whereby several pieces of wood are so fitted and join’d together by Straight-line, squares, miters or any bevel, that they shall seem one intire piece.

Joseph Moxon, Mechanick Exercises,  1703.

Joiners were highly skilled craftsmen who were responsible for the fitting out of interiors from the panelling of ships’ cabins, town house parlours and country house closets to the reredos and sounding board of church and court room. While enrichment was the province of the carver, the painstaking assembly of wainscoting, columns, pilasters and entablatures was the work of the joiner. From 1680 to about 1740 the most common interior finish was timber wainscoting or panelling which warmed the room and protected it from damp. Early eighteenth-century sources tell us that joiners put charcoal or wool behind the timber panelling to prevent the sweating of stone and brick walls and consequent deterioration of the jointing glue used in the wainscot. Others preferred to prime the back of the joints with oil paint. A further precaution was the use of hard timber blocks at angles or projections in the panelling in order to prevent vermin running up behind it.  Joiners also worked in conjunction with carpenters and carvers on the construction of elaborate staircases in native and imported woods.

Virtuoso joinery in the staircase of Tyrone House in Dublin, built c.1740 to designs of Richard Castle. The stair carriage has been concealed by an elegant scrolling underside which emulates stone staircases of the period. Photo: ©CRAFTVALUE


Wainscoting was executed in a range of materials, most commonly in oak or fir, though other woods were employed, as at Chippenham Hall near Newmarket described by Celia Fiennes as ‘wainscoated with walnut tree, the panels and Rims round with Mulberry tree yt is a Lemon Coulleur and ye moldings beyond it round are of a sweet outlandish wood not much differing from Cedar, but of a finer grain’. The panels were hung on a structure of stiles and rails fixed to the wall and were fashioned in relief with rims framing raised ‘tables’ or what is now known as fielded panelling. Applied ornament ranged from simple bead mouldings to robust bolection mouldings to full stylar wainscot, namely employing the classical orders, usually in pilaster or flattened form. In Ireland, a distinctive rusticated wainscot was used in the Dublin Parliament House and in the Provost’s House of Trinity College. A full Ionic order achieved in oak with a pulvinated to convex frieze was employed as wainscoting in the bar section of the Irish House of Lords.  

Palladian taste, protection from fire and de-forestation were factors in the demise of wainscoting as an interior finish. Isaac Ware in 1756 preferred stucco to wainscot, but considered wainscot warmer and lighter than stucco and still the optimum treatment for parlours. Though later covered or replaced by silk hangings or wallpaper, many buildings in Britain and Ireland retain wainscoted interiors.

In these interiors below by Richard Castle at Newman House (c. 1738) and Bellinter House (c. 1750) the wainscoting is carried to the top of the door frame and arranged in tall single raised and fielded panels crowned by a cornice. 


Joseph Moxon, Mechanick Exercises, 1703, plate 7.

A The Stiles 
B The Base
C The Lower Rail 
D The Sur-Base 
E The Middle Rail or Rails
F The Frieze Rail
G The Upper Rail
H The Cornice
I The Lying Pannel
K The Large Panel
L The Frieze Pannel

Further reading

James Ayres, Building the Georgian city, New Haven and London, 1998

Geoffrey Beard, Craftsmen and interior decoration in England 1660-1820, London, 1981

John Cornforth, Early Georgian interiors, New Haven and London, 2004

Joseph Moxon, Mechanick exercises, London, 1703

Isaac Ware, A compleat body of architecture, London, 1756

The builder’s dictionary or gentleman and architect’s companion. 2 vols, London, 1734

%d bloggers like this: