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All About Picture Rail

picture rail

If you’ve ever lived in an old house you may have noticed a small little piece of trim running horizontally somewhere in the top 12” of your wall. There is a good chance that small piece of molding is an incredibly unique, and functional, molding called picture rail.

Picture rail molding, is a type of wall trim used to hang pictures without damaging walls. They were usually made of wood, and styles ranged from simple, straight-edged designs to more elaborate, decorative moldings.

History of Picture Rail

Picture rail dates back to the early 19th century, with its origins tied to the Victorian era, which spanned from 1837 to 1901, but its popularity stretched into the early 20th century homes as late as the 1930s.

  • Victorian Era (1837-1901): Picture rails were a staple in Victorian homes, often found in parlors and dining rooms where decorative items were prominently displayed.
  • Edwardian Era (1901-1910): Their use continued into the Edwardian period, with simpler designs compared to the more ornate Victorian styles.
  • Early 20th Century: Picture rails remained common in homes built up until the 1920s and 1930s. They were a standard feature in many Colonial Revival, Craftsman, and Bungalow-style homes.

It was designed to allow homeowners to hang artwork, photographs, and other decorative items without putting nails directly into the plaster walls or wallpaper that was popular and expensive at the time.

The artwork would then be hung using braided cord, chain, or wire attached to the back. which would hang on a hook designed to latch onto the wood molding.

This ingenious design also allowed the artwork to be easily moved anywhere in the room by repositioning the hook along the picture rail. The artwork could also be raised or lowered by lengthening or shortening the wire. With picture rail you could change the layout of all the artwork everyday if you wanted to without ever having to repair your plaster walls.

Decline in Use

The use of picture rails began to decline sharply after World War II for several reasons.

  • Drywall: The introduction of drywall made wall surfaces easier to patch and hang things on, reducing the need for picture rails
  • Modern Aesthetics: Mid-century modern design favored cleaner, more minimalist lines without the extra trim work and wallpaper styles of earlier times
  • Cost and Labor: As construction methods focused more on speed and cutting costs with the boom in the suburbs the cost and labor associated with installing picture rail became less justifiable

Design & Styles

Historically, there were not a lot of varieties in the design of picture rail. Below are some of the most common styles in historic homes from the 19th and early 20th century. These are easy to find from suppliers online and have changed little over the years.

Today there are more modern options available to suite a lot of different styles and I have included a small sample of some that are available.

The defining characteristic of picture rail molding is that is has either a hollow back at the top of the molding or a slot cut into it that will accept a picture rail hook. Speaking of hooks let’s take a peek at some of the styles available.

Picture Rail Hooks

Unlike molding styles there are an absolutely wealth of options for picture hooks that will suite almost anyone’s tastes. Below is a just a small sample of the options available at House of Antique Hardware which has the largest selection I have found.

Some sources for pictures hooks that I will use when I’m in need are listed below for your convenience.

How To Install Picture Rail

Picture rail is actually stunningly simple to install and is a great option whether you have drywall or plaster walls.

The only real determination you need to make is how high to hang your picture rail. Typically, it was installed a foot or so below the ceiling. Picture rails were often positioned to align with the tops of door frames or windows, creating a visual line around the room.

Picture rail installed near the ceiling in a 1930s home.

It can also be incorporated into crown molding to have the picture rail blend into the existing moldings in some cases.

My preferences tend to follow the historic patterns which varied by ceiling height. Here’s a good guide to a historically accurate and visual pleasing installation:

  • Ceiling Height 8’ or less – Install 1/2” below ceiling
  • Ceiling Height 9’ or more – Install 4-6” below ceiling
  • Ceiling Height 10’ or more – Install 8-12” below ceiling

As ceiling heights dropped in the 1930s picture rail was often found positioned less than an inch from the ceiling leading many people to believe it was a some minuscule version of crown molding. Many painters unknowingly caulked these tight installations between the picture rail and ceiling rendering it useless for hanging things on without restoration.

Step 1 Mark your Line

Once you have a determined the height you plan to install your picture rail then it’s time to go through and mark a level line across the entire room where you will be installing. You can use a laser level or measure and mark manually with a pencil.

leveling picture rail

Step 2 Find the Studs

To make sure you get a secure installation I have always advised nailing directly into the studs on the wall. Finding studs on a plaster wall can be difficult, but I recommend a simple inexpensive tool to make the job much easier call a StudPop.

Places a hash mark just below your level line at each stud so you can find them when nailing.

Step 3 Cut to Length

Picture rail is best installed by cutting mitered joints at the corners. Coping doesn’t really work as well for this type of molding since it sits proud on the wall at the top.

Any lengths of wall that are beyond 8 feet should have scarf joints cut to join the two pieces of molding together rather than a butt joint which can separate over time.

cut picture rail molding

Step 4 Nail in Place

Nail in one place and level the picture rail before continuing down the length of the molding. You’ll want to ensure you nail through the portion that is flush with the wall into every stud. Also, be sure to place a nail through each scarf joint to tie the joints together. You can add a dab of wood glue to the joints as well for more security.

I recommend using 2” or 2 1/2” long 15 ga. nail. 18 ga. nails are not strong enough to support heavy artwork though they can be used for the scarf joints to avoid splitting.

When installed properly most picture rail can support 40 lbs/yd with 16 O.C. studs.

vintage picture rail
106-year old picture rail installed on my house.

Now you know what it is an how to use it will you start using the existing picture rail in your house or maybe install it in some new rooms?

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