So, I recently went down a Google image search rabbit hole, and as I was browsing through deeper and deeper layers of “related images,” I was startled to see an image that I thought was housed only on my own cell phone. No, this isn’t some story of Russian hacking; when I clicked through to the site showing my photo, I remembered that I had uploaded them to a website back in 2010 as part of a project we submitted to ReadyMade Magazine (which is, sadly, now defunct). A website called picked it up and that’s how it ended up in my Google image feed. Because the full steps are no longer available from the ReadyMade website, I decided to write up how we did it and share it with you good folks.

Now, anyone who knows us will tell you that we take on DIY projects that seem crazy, but that’s only because we think everything will cost $40 and take 20 minutes. We have a moderate skill level but we frequently underestimate the difficulty and/or time involved in one of these hare-brained schemes. This wood wall covering was definitely one of those projects. It all started because we had seen people use wood flooring and similar materials on accent walls, and we really liked how it looked but we couldn’t really afford to spend that much. Then we hit on the idea of doing it with the cedar shims that are used to level and plumb doors, windows, etc. (like these from Home Depot–the price has gone up a little since we did it, but they’re still pretty cheap).

In typical Laura and Tiffany fashion, we chose a really big stretch of wall to do it on and also felt we needed to hide our AV cables and add in-wall speakers while we were at it. The AV stuff turned out to be easy–just open the wall behind where your entertainment center and TV will be, remove insulation, if needed, and run cables through the cavity between the studs. The shim project, on the other hand, turned out to be a little more than we bargained for. However, we learned a lot of lessons along the way, so I’m going to pass all of that on to you now so you can do this, too, but with a lot fewer headaches.

First, here are the materials and tools you need:

  • 1.25 in. x 8 in. cedar shims (you’ll have to do the math to see how many you need–we used a little over 1700 for our wall)
  • Hot glue and glue gun
  • Palm sander
  • Wood stain of your choice
  • Paint which has been color-matched to one of the stained shims (more on that later)
  • Laser level or long level

Second, here are the basic steps:

  • Use the palm sander to sand down a few shims (see tips below)
  • If you don’t know what stain color you want, test a few samples on these shims
  • Once you’ve picked a stain color, take it to the hardware store and have them color-match a spot on it (for a dark stain, a darker spot is best, and I would think the opposite would be true for a light-colored stain)
  • Paint the wall where you intend to place the shims–you do not need to do a great job here, you’re just preventing the original wall color from showing through between the shims
  • Sand and stain the rest of the shims (see tips below)
  • Decide what pattern you want to use to place the shims–we went with a classic subway pattern and laid the thicker ends of the shims so that they were all on the same end on one row and then reversed for the next row (see pics)
  • Dry fit the shims along the baseboard of the space you want to cover–this will all be much easier if you limit the area you want to cover to a size that fits your pattern (we stopped ours so that one row ended with half of a shim and the next row above started with the other half of that shim and ended on a full shim)
  • Use your level to make a ledger line about a foot above the base of your wall–this will be your guide in case the top or bottom of your wall area is not perfectly level, which they rarely are
  • Start at one end of your ledger line and use a little hot glue to secure the first shim to the wall; repeat until the wall is covered

All of the lessons we learned so you don’t have to:

  • Sanding
    • Pick the prettiest side of the shim and call that the front
    • Just sand the front and all of the edges to save yourself time
    • DO THIS OUTSIDE–the sanding creates SO. MUCH. DUST.
  • Staining
    • Open a bunch of packs of shims and mix them all up in a big container–the shims in one pack will almost always be from the same part of the tree, and thus, have a very similar grain pattern, so mixing them up ensures that you get a nice mix when you go to put them on the wall later
    • Use an assembly line if possible, where one person sands the shims and wipes them with a damp cloth to remove the dust and then hands them to another person (or more if you have a bunch of crazy friends) to stain
    • A little stain goes a long way, so you can just quickly dab it on with a sponge brush and then give it a quick wipe with a cloth to remove any excess–don’t let them dry with drips or streaks
    • Again, just stain the “front” and all edges to save yourself time
  • Placing the Shims
    • That thing about painting the wall was super important–we didn’t do it at first and you could see a lot of white showing through because it turns out shims are not 100% uniform in their size and shape
    • On that note, don’t assume that you can just lay the shims end to end and everything will look great by the time you get to the end of the row–instead, lay them in a way that suits your pattern (for us, this meant getting the first row spaced correctly so that it fit as expected at each end and then placing the first shim of the next row so that it sat halfway between the two below it in a classic subway pattern)
    • Hot glue dries relatively quickly, so you have to know where you intend to place it before you put the glue on each shim–however, hot glue is also very forgiving, so once it’s on the wall, you can move the shim around a bit to get it into place (you can also just pop it off an start over if you really screw up)
    • An assembly line can be helpful here, too, as can multiple glue guns–you can have someone putting glue on the shims and handing them to people who are placing them on the wall to make it go much faster

Final thoughts:

Don’t be afraid to bribe your friends with alcoholic beverages, because this is not difficult work at all, but it is quite time consuming, depending on the size of the wall you’re covering. Our friend Norm helped us do a lot of it, and he dubbed his part of the project “painting sticks,” and called it the worst summer camp ever. All in, we spent about $350 to cover a wall that was roughly 15 ft. by 9 ft. (we don’t live in that house anymore, so I can’t tell you the exact measurements). This is much cheaper than any floor coverings we could find that we thought looked good enough to be an accent piece. This took us about three months of working on weekends and the occasional week night. Sometimes we had help and sometimes it was just the two of us, and we were making a lot of mistakes along the way that you now know how to avoid. The biggest surprise of all was just how great these little pieces of cedar looked when they were sanded and stained; I mean, really, they have no right to look that good.

I’m not sure if the pictures do it justice, so I’m hoping our friends who have seen the wall in person will weigh in and share their thoughts on it. We hope this inspires you to do something fun with your own walls, and sometime in the not too distant future, we’ll tell you about the crazy project we did in our current house, exposing a brick wall.

Oh, and one last thing: if you do this project, you may find that while you’re cooking dinner, or getting ready for bed, or watching Stranger Things, or whatever, the room will be very quiet and then you’ll hear a little “plink”–occasionally, a shim will slip the subtle bonds of hot glue and take a dive for the floor. We call those “jumpers.” When that happens, you just throw some more glue on it and pop it back in place.