Timber Wall Panelling:

Concealed Defects

Timber wall panelling in a property usually arouses suspicion with surveyors.  What’s lurking behind the panels? Were the panels erected to hide a defect?  It is very possible that the timber framework is in contact with a damp wall.  With no provision for ventilation behind the panelling localised decay can form.  In today’s litigious society most surveyors are understandably wary of a receiving a claim for missing a defect such as this or of not making the client aware of the potential for problem.  They therefore tend to reach for a standard paragraph that will mitigate their liability.  Perhaps something along the lines of:

“In older buildings, walls were sometimes lined with timber panelling in order to hide dampness. The timber panelling prevented an inspection of the wall surfaces. Without carrying out exposure works I am unable to provide further comment. If the supporting timbers are not adequately protected, and the intervening space not ventilated, serious forms of decay can develop.”

This is all very true and prudent; however, a deeper understanding of timber wall panelling and its history reveals that there is also a less sinister side to this internal cladding.

Hidden History

The original purpose of timber wall panelling was to provide a degree of thermal insulation to the home.  Then, and as with most things that start out with a utilitarian role; craftsmen started adding decorative elements. Initially, these were simple framed panels but gradually progressed to more elaborate designs such as linenfold. Linenfold is a type of carving applied to the panels which resembles folded linen and was popular in the 15th century.

An example of Oak linenfold Wall Panelling

linenfold paneling

Priest Holes

I recently conducted a Building Survey of a property constructed in 1706 (during the reign of Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart monarchs). The original full height Oak timber panelling was still in place within some of the principal rooms.  As was the fashion at the time, the panelling was made up of relatively small rectangular panels. When this particular property was built many ‘priest holes’ were also secretly created behind the timber wall panels of the grander houses. Priest holes are hiding places where the Catholic clergy, who were being persecuted by the authorities, could evade capture.

A priest hole concealed behind timber wall panelling

Priest Hole

Regrettably, and despite my best attempts at searching, I was unable to find a priest hole during this particular inspection.

Classically Proportioned Wall Panelling

In the late 18th century when the Stuart era had moved into the reign of the Georgian monarchs, timber wall panelling become larger. The arrangement of the panelling also changed and was influenced by the classical proportions found in Greek and Roman architecture.


Later in the Georgian era, full height panelling started to become undesirable. It was thought to give an oppressive feel to a room. A compromise was to therefore clad just the lower half of the wall in timber panelling. The upper portion of the wall had a plastered finished with a profiled cornice at the junction within the ceiling. This new type of low-level panelling was called wainscotting – named after the slow grown Oak trees that were imported from Germany or Russia.

A horizontal moulded rail was incorporated along the top of the wainscotting. This was known as a chair rail. So-called because it prevented chairs (which were generally placed around the edges of a room rather than today’s arrangement of under the table) from damaging the panels.

The Commonplace Descendant of Timber Wall Panelling

In our modern era of standardised developer-built properties we still have some traces of the grandiose panelling from 16th and 17th centuries. Unfortunately, however, it is on a much on a smaller scale and takes the form of simple MDF skirting boards. A far cry from the elaborate linenfold designs or wainscoting, and certainly not a good hiding place for priests!

David Cosby Estate Agents & Chartered Surveyors offer a professional and friendly service in the Northampton, Towcester, Daventry, and Rugby areas.  For any enquiries please call us on 01327 361664 or contact us here.

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