Shiplap vs Tongue and Groove Interior Paneling: Know the Difference

October 29, 2020
by The Finished Space

Modern farmhouse style has taken the interior design world by storm, and you’ll find white wood paneling, often referred to as shiplap, gracing the covers of home improvement magazines everywhere.

This wall cladding, shiplap, is designed to look like the overlapping boards used throughout history to build the hull of ships. 

So what is shiplap, and what are some of the other interior wall paneling options on the market that can achieve a similar, rustic look?

An Overview of Interior Wall Paneling

Shiplap

Shiplap paneling can be made from wood, engineered wood, fiber cement, metal, and other materials, and has an L-shaped lip on both sides of the paneling, allowing the paneling to overlap at the seams. The L-shaped lip is what sets shiplap apart from other types of wall cladding.

Nickel Gap

The edges on traditional shiplap planks are touching, but nickel gap installation creates gapped spacing just large enough for a nickel to fit into. This type of installation needs to be manually spaced and often reveals the nail holes as you have to nail through the front of the planks.

Tongue and Groove

Tongue and groove paneling can also be made from a variety of materials and joins together like a puzzle. On either side of the paneling, there is a protrusion (the tongue) and an indentation (the groove). The tongue and groove interlock to join the planks. 

Types of Materials

MDF

Medium-density fiberboard (MDF) is an engineered wood made from hard or soft wood fibers bound together with a wax and resin binder. 

MDF is more dense than plywood but can be used in similar applications. Particleboard is also an engineered wood product, but MDF is stronger and more dense than particleboard.

Using MDF for a shiplap or tongue and groove paneled wall will give your space a smooth, modern look, as there are no natural knots or imperfections — MDF planks are smooth from the factory. 

Wood

Wood is a good option for your shiplap or tongue and groove paneling project if you want a natural wood look. Solid wood may include knots and imperfections, which can add character to your home. Wood planks can be painted or stained. 

Wood planks have the potential to warp over time, depending on the type of wood you choose and the location of your paneled wall. 

Plywood

Plywood is a common, cost-effective material that many DIYers use to achieve the shiplap look. There are some plywood paneling options available, but many people buy sheets of plywood and cut it into narrow planks. These planks are then nailed to the wall with a small space between each plank before being painted. 

This is a cheap alternative to higher quality wall paneling materials and may have a rougher surface and edges than authentic shiplap or tongue and groove paneling that is made of wood or MDF. 

Installation

Shiplap Installation

Shiplap installation is simple:

  1. Start by finding the studs in your wall and marking them with a vertical line from floor to ceiling. This will help you easily identify the studs throughout the installation process. 
  2. Carefully remove the existing baseboards so that you can start installing the shiplap boards from the bottom up. 
  3. Measure the height of your wall and determine how many shiplap planks you need to panel the wall. You will likely need to cut down one of the shiplap planks, as the height of your wall likely won’t be covered by an exact number of shiplap planks—we suggest cutting down the bottom plank so the others are the same height. 
  4. Start from the bottom, nailing each board through the L-shaped lip onto the stud, making sure that each plank is level. 
  5. Repeat until the shiplap reaches the ceiling or the bottom of your crown molding. 

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Nickel Gap Shiplap Installation

When installing shiplap with nickel gap spacing, you can follow all of the steps listed above, except for a few notable alternatives:

1. Create manual spacing by inserting one-eighth-inch spacers in between boards. Some installers prefer to use actual nickels for this.

2.  Nail each plank onto the stud through the face of the board, leaving visible nail holes on the finished installation.

Tongue and Groove Installation

Tongue and Groove installation is similar to shiplap installation.

The biggest difference in installation is that tongue and groove paneling actually fits together like puzzle pieces instead of overlapping. Nails are also driven through the tongue of each plank into the stud at a 45-degree angle. Make sure each plank’s tongue is secured into the groove of the piece below it before nailing it to the wall. 

Connecting the Panels

Shiplap panels overlap, while tongue and groove panels interlock. 

Due to the way shiplap panels connect, they are a better option for high-heat, low-humidity climates. Wood often shrinks in dry climates, and shrinkage is less likely to show with shiplap because it overlaps instead of interlocks. 

Tongue and groove panels may be a better option for very cold climates because they insulate slightly better than shiplap. 

What’s the Best for DIY?

Shiplap is an easier option than tongue and groove paneling for DIYers because of how the panels connect and how they are attached to the wall. 

Tongue and groove paneling needs to be fitted together and secured through the tongue, which can be tricky if you are not experienced with it. Shiplap, on the other hand, just needs to be secured on the overlap and doesn’t need to fit together perfectly. Just make sure each plank is level before nailing it to the wall.

Cost Differences

Cost differences are more about the panel material than the way the panels connect. Solid wood is always going to be the most expensive option, though the price varies depending on the type of wood you choose. For example, pine planks are an inexpensive softwood option, while cedar planks are more expensive because it is a less common, more durable hardwood.

MDF is less expensive than solid wood but more expensive than plywood. This is a good option if you are looking for a smooth, modern design, since there are no knots or imperfections in MDF.

Plywood is one of the least expensive options available for wall paneling. 

Applications

Shiplap and tongue and groove paneling is primarily used inside, but certain materials can be used on a home’s exterior, depending on the material you choose for your paneling. It is popular in bedrooms and kitchens, and can be used on both walls and ceilings.

This type of paneling is most often associated with the modern farmhouse style of interior design, but it can be used to add texture and visual interest in a variety of settings. You can purchase unfinished panels or painted panels that are ready for installation. 

Learn more about shiplap options from North America’s largest supplier and manufacturer of solid wood and composite molding in North America, Metrie, here