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DIY panelling, how to get seamless flat joins.

Updated: Dec 16, 2020

I'm always checking out pictures online for inspiration. Goolge 'feature wall panelling' and you will see a lot of DIY projects using the open back style where MDF is stuck straight to a bare wall. The quality of workmanship varies wildly. You'll see lots of gaps and components sitting at different levels, casting shadows.

For wall panelling to look great, ideally the gaps between panel components should be as close to invisible as possible. This is to give the impression the square recesses are cut into the wall and the panelling is not stuck on. If this was super easy or simple then every picture would show a perfect job even in poor lighting. They don't and honestly even professionals sometimes struggle to get panelling absolutely perfect. I do but I am always learning and improving my technique. Paint finishes can also play a part here, so paint choice is important but more of that in a bit.

Of course, most DIYers, particularly those cutting their own MDF up lack the knowledge or tools to do a professional job, that doesn't mean though it isn't possible with basic skills and tools to get a great looking wall.

If you want to achieve a seamless finish fit for a magazine shoot then follow these easy steps when installing one of our open back kits or your own panelling.

  • Measure up accurately, at least three points vertically and horizontally across your wall. Floors, walls, ceiling are never 100% level, ever, no matter how they look to the eye. Before even considering cutting up or ordering MDF make sure you know your measurements!

  • Plot out the design and make a drawing with all the measurements you've taken, trickier than it sounds and needs a bit of maths for your design to look in proportion. Ideally get a professionally prepped kit which will be sized properly for your wall, hint.

  • Using your drawing as a guide make sure your components are all cut 'square' and to size! Sounds simple but it isn't, especially if you are trying to 'rip' down a 2.44m long panel of MDF to cut a 7mm wide strip which is not something you could do with a jig saw or handsaw. Which is why I'd recommend buying a kit from a professional supplier who will have the necessary (and expensive) tools for the job. They will cut the sections as close as possible to square and to size giving you the maximum chance of getting a good finish in the end. This isn't the same as asking the chap at B&Q to cut your MDF up for you either!

  • Paint choice. I find that matt emulsion is more than up to the job or eggshell if you are looking at dark colours. Try to avoid satin or gloss finishes as these highlight imperfections. A plain matt surface works best for MDF panelling.

  • If you need to, gently remove skirting first. Any damage that occurs to plaster can be repaired later or covered up by the panelling. Most skirting just pops off using a crow bar or similar tool. Don't us a claw hammer there is not enough leverage and with the small claw you will inevitably do more damage than is necessary.

  • Preparation, I'll say it again- PREPARATION! Make sure your wall is flat and smooth and do not start panelling if it isn't! If you have wallpaper, strip it using a steam stripper. Don't panel over wallpaper unless you are using back boards. Fill and sand any imperfections or cracks in your plaster, pay attention to areas that are not flat- although you cannot do much about very large areas when fitting you can account for it to a degree. Leave 24hrs for filler to harden before sanding back with progressively high grit rated sand paper (the higher the number the smoother the finish).

  • Run your hands over the wall and repairs to check it is smooth enough. Nothing should be noticeable. Don't cut corners here, I know it's hard, you've just received your panelling kit or cut up your MDF and you want to get stuck in. Don't. Be patient and prepare properly, this will make for a much better job in the end. If the wall plaster is in bad condition or the wall is bare brick, bare block work or covered in woodchip wallpaper that you cannot remove then consider back panels and stop now, open backed panelling won't work!

  • Paint the wall in your final colour. Yes, I said paint-the-wall, this is not crazy. I've recently started doing this and boy does it make a difference to the speed of painting your panelling after installation. If necessary, a couple of coats of undercoat and a coat of your final colour on the wall will suffice. Seriously, this will make painting the panelling so much easier! Trust me! Also, consider doing the same with your panelling components for the same reason, getting the base colour in place first before you install means you will get a smoother finish after. Always use a roller or mini roller as a rule when painting the wall and panelling components prior to install, avoid paintbrushes at this stage!

  • Once the wall and everything is smooth and dry (especially if you have pre-painted) start the panelling process- so time to finally to break open your kit or get the panel components you have cut already.

  • Lay out your components on the floor and lean up the tall sections against the wall. Then walk along the wall add in other components, leaning against the wall or held on by your hand. You are getting an idea for where the components will go and also you will be able to check that any need parts trimming as they obviously are not going to fit. It is not uncommon to find that the kit components will be accurately cut but they need a slight trim because the wall is smaller in places than expected! Small overcuts in size can be corrected with a sander. Tip- get the precise measurement of the length from the actual gap using a ruler and the component to be fitted. Then mark the new length accurately on the oversized component and progressively and carefully sand off just enough so the length is spot on. If a component looks badly undercut for size then you may need to order a replacement (we do this free of charge if it is our fault), or you need to cut yourself if you're not using a kit. An undercut of couple of millimetres is easily fixed though so the component will be OK to use.

  • Depending on your instructions or design start to glue the components to the wall. Normally I will do the footer first, this is to get a level base for all other components regardless of where you start from but this is a personal choice and it depends on the design. If the panelling is to be behind your skirting then support the footer panel with some offcuts of MDF, it should not touch the floor and there should be a gap. Get the top of the footer level along its length with a long spirit level and use a piece of skirting to check its height. Also check the height against your drawing in our instructions or measurements you made previously. You may want to start from the ceiling and work down to make sure your height adjustment is correct as it is much easier to trim height from the bottom (behind skirting) than from the top!

  • A note about glue. Resist the temptation to slather your component parts in tons of adhesive, they do not need it. MDF panelling is lightweight and something like No More Nails is more than adequate with a few spots and one or two lines along a component length up to 2.4m.

  • If you are working along a wall doing a row of horizontal components to complete a square check each component against the previous one using a long spirit level. It is even a good idea to mark in pencil the corner of the squares against each vertical as you do a row. As in this photo:

  • Glue components as you go along as it can take a bit longer than you think to get them on the wall and level. Don't do too much at once.

  • When you butt components up against each other press hard into the existing part to close the gap but don't press into the wall yet, just enough so the component is gripped by the adhesive. Then press gently along the edge of the new component into the wall until it is exactly the same height as the existing one, this is how far it sticks out from the wall. Keep ensuring the gap is as tight as possible.

  • Try not to push too hard so the new component is now lower than the existing one creating a lip, this is hard to correct and will require you to take it off, scrape of the glue, re-glue and try again.

  • Repeat the step for each component. The components should be as flush as possible like the example below. Taking time at this stage will make the end job much better

  • Once all your components are stuck in place following the guidance above then you need to consider filling any gaps - if there are any? For deep gaps use 'deep gap filler', Polycell do an excellent one. Follow the instructions.

  • You'll probably need to wait 24hrs at this point as most fillers need that time to properly harden.

  • Sand back the deep filler and run your hand over the gaps, if you can still feel it then use a fine surface filler or smoother like the one shown

  • Cut the business end of the tube of caulk so the hole is quite small (roughly the width of the gap to be caulked) and at a 45 degree angle. Keep an even and firm pressure on the trigger and work your way along. The tip of the caulking gun should remain in contact with the gap you are filling at all times. Push along fast enough so you get a good smooth fill. When you complete a length of caulking immediately release the trigger and the clip on the gun which releases pressure. If you leave the clip in place it will make the gun continue to spue out caulk even though you aren't pressing the trigger, making an unnecessary mess. Remember to re-engage the clip when you restart the next bit of caulking.

  • A good tip for caulking is to keep a glass of water with some washing up liquid squirted in it close to hand. As you smooth the caulk down (after using the gun) keep your finger or smoothing tool wet with the liquid and clean & free from a build-up of caulk. Take your time with caulk as it gets very messy, very quickly. Keep some damp rags to hand to wipe up and keep your hands clean.

  • As you may have painted your wall and components already (following advice) you should now use your roller to apply a good even coat over the panelling. Work by section and as you go along use a medium sized paintbrush (3cm?) to paint the edges of the recesses where your roller doesn't reach properly. Go back over these parts with the roller. Do not rely on a paint brush only to paint your final coats as this will leave brush marks and no matter how hard you try there will be patches which will show up in different lighting. Only use your paint brush for the bits the roller doesn't get to.

  • Add a few coats of paint if needed to completely blot out any underlying colours. Wait for it to dry and you are done! Stand back and bask in the glory of your DIY skills!

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