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How to fit picture rails

First you need to decide on the height for the picture rail. When replacing an existing picture rail, you have a good indication and it is probably best to refit at the same height. Where no existing picture rail exists, picture rails are usually positioned between 30cm and 50cm (12 and 20 inches) below the ceiling - as a general rule, the higher the room, the greater the distance of the rail down from the ceiling.

Before deciding on the position, check the proposed height with door or window frames - unless there is more than about 15cm (6 inches) between the top of the frame and the picture rail, it is a good idea to consider dropping the picture rail to line up with the top of the frame.

Marking the walls

Once you've established the height for the picture rails, first mark the distance down from the ceiling on the walls at each corner. Mark the line for the picture rail along the walls around the room by:

  • Starting from the mark in one corner, use a long straight edge and position a spirit level on the top side to get a horizontal then mark the line using pencil (when you reach the far corner, you will find out how accurate you have been or how level the ceilings are).
    OR
  • Stretch a chalked line between the corner marks and snap the chalked line to the wall.
    OR
  • Position a laser level in the centre of the room and use the corner marks to establish the line along the walls - this will be the most accurate and easiest method - you can hire a laser leveling kits from a most good tool hire centres.

Where a picture rail is to go up a stairway or slope, measure the required height for the picture rail at the points that the skirting board changes direction for the stairway, and use a chalked line between these marks to set the line for the rail.

Cutting the picture rail moulding

Start by cutting the picture rail for the longest length of continuous wall, try to use just one length of rail; although for really long walls, 2 (or more !!) pieces may be required. If a wall is longer than a single piece of picture rail, then they should be overlapped by using opposite mitre cuts where they join along the wall run and both pieces of picture rail fixed about 30cm (1ft) from the joint and a couple of short lost head nails used to lock the joint.

Internal and external picture rail mitresCut the mitre on the ends of the first picture rail using a saw and mitre box, but note that if the wall finishes with an external mitre, the piece of rails needs to be longer than the flat wall, it's always best to cut external mitres before cutting the rail to length.

Two styles of mitres may be needed - internal and external, (see right) - to suit alcoves, chimney breasts etc. It is easy to get confused and cut the wrong type of mitre for a particular end - just remember that the wall length is always the measurement on the back of the picture rail.

Fixing for picture rails

You have a choice of ways to fix the picture rail to the walls, the three methods shown below are suitable for screw fixing into masonry walls. Where the walls are other than masonry (for example, stud partition or dry-lining), other methods will be required, options include screwing into the vertical studs or hollow wall plugs (for stud partitioning) or using a grip adhesive (for dry-lined walls).

Screw picture rail

Drill and countersink the rail, drill the wall and fit a wall plug - then screw the rail to the wall - finish off by covering the screw head with filler or plaster

Screw and plug picture fixings Drill and counter bore the rail, drill the wall and fit a wall plug - then screw the rail to the wall and finish off by fitting a dowel plug to cover the screw head.
Gives a better finish if the picture rails are to be stained or varnished.
Nailable picture rail fixing Drill and countersink the rail, drill the wall and fit a nailable plug fixing through the rail and into the wall - hammer the fixing home - finish off by covering the screw head with filler or plaster

Fixings for picture rails should be placed about 30cm (1ft) from each corner and then at no more than 1m (3 ft) spacings. Drill the rail AFTER the ends have been mitred - then use the drilled rail as a template for drilling the wall.

Position the cut and drilled picture rail against the wall with the top edge lined up with wall mark. Mark the positions for the screw holes through the rail, onto the wall.

Remove the rail and drill the fixing holes in the wall as marked and to suit the method of fixing to be used.

Fix the picture rail in place along the longest, straight run wall and then work around the room; measuring the wall, cutting with appropriate mitres, then drilling and fixing the each piece of picture rail in turn.

Once all the picture rail has been fixed, cover the screw heads using a suitable filler or dowel plugs (fit with glue).

Once any filler or glue has cured, sand off the surface and then paint, stain or varnish as appropriate.