Shiplap vs. Nickel Gap: Making Your Budget Work For You

This is going to sound weird, but I’m just going to come out and say it; one of my favorite renovation projects so far was the powder room in our Charleston house. Really? A bathroom? And not even like a master bathroom with a waterfall shower and a huge tub? Yeah, really, just a powder room. And I can sum up why in one word: “shiplap.”

Actually it’s really two words: “Nickel Gap”. So what’s the difference, and why does it matter? Well, technically shiplap is a type of board with a rabbet joint which allows the boards to overlap. The bathroom above did not use real shiplap, but it essentially looks like it. Instead we used a method called “Nickel Gap” which is simply spacing the boards the width of a nickel. This method is more time consuming, but can be done for significantly cheaper and yields a similar result.

For the boards, we used 5mm plywood, which is about as thin as plywood comes. At about $13.50 for a 4’x8′ sheet, you can really make a room interesting for cheap.  We bought 5 sheets at Lowes and had them cut in-store to 6″ wide strips lengthwise. I think the guy who did the cutting probably still breaks out into a cold sweat when he hears “Customer assistance needed in the board cutting area… bing bong… board cutting area.” I don’t know if they have rules about a number of cuts they’ll make per board, but he did seven cuts for us. He cut all five of the boards stacked, which definitely saved time, though. I could have cut the strips with my table saw, but I never would have been able to cut them as straight and even as in the store.

We brought the boards home and I sanded the edges well. Even with an electric sander, this sucked. While I was doing that, Carolyn was removing wallpaper (which, admittedly, sucked a lot more) and then priming the walls with white. With nickel-gap you’re going to see the wall between the boards, so you definitely need to prep the wall for it. Looking back, we felt kind of dumb though for wasting time removing the wallpaper when we could have just painted over it in this case. You wouldn’t have been able to tell through the nickel-sized gaps.

This wallpaper just kept ripping

Walls are primed and ready

We started with the longest wall with no plumbing or electrical and cut each board to length. Then we started installing from the top. We chose to start from the top for two reasons: 1. We were going to install crown molding, and wanted to make sure we didn’t end up with a gap close to where the crown would start and 2. If the board started to get off level, it would be easier to notice against the crown than the base molding.

Starting the first wall

We leveled the top board and then used nickels to space each board apart. It’s hard to see in the picture, but we marked chalk lines down the entire wall where the studs were so we could nail the boards into the studs. We did a high and low nail on each stud for every strip. The plywood is so thin and flexible that we wanted to be sure it wasn’t going anywhere.  When we got to the next wall, we used the first wall to line up the side of the board so the seams would be even all the way around.

We couldn’t wait to paint over that orangey wood color

We did the final two walls, which were more difficult and involved more cutting due to the window, door, plumbing, and electrical. We removed the vanity and toilet to complete the nickel gap. We could have worked around the toilet, but we were replacing the flooring anyway. Then the final touch of the woodwork was the corner molding to go vertically at the joining of each wall. It kept us from having to be super exact with our length cuts which would have been hard, because walls are never straight. Finally it was time to paint. I let Carolyn handle that task. I thought rolling the paint was going to be a bad idea with paint collecting in the gaps, but she did a great job with it.

Now I know you just want me to gloss over the rest of the room here since the room (flooring, base, shoe, and crown molding, vanity and toilet install, fixtures, and electrical), and get to those sweet, sweet after pictures. So here they are.

We think the nickel gap really gave the room great character. Besides our kitchen, the walls in the powder room got the most attention from friends, family, and potential buyers when we listed the house. We did a lot of other work in the room, but the nickel gap made the biggest impression.

Fast forward a year-and-a-half when we were working on Connor’s nursery. We wanted to do another plank wall, but decided this time to use tongue and groove boards. We were looking for real shiplap but couldn’t come up with anything from our local stores. We found some 1″ x 6″ pine tongue and groove board at our lumber yard that was textured on one side and flat on the other, but they only sold it in 16′ lengths. The wall we were installing it on was just under 12′ long, so we would be wasting a lot of smaller pieces or making a lot of seems if we used them.  We decided to check out Lowe’s and Home Depot, and found a great, cheap option at home depot for the same thing, except it was sold in 12′ lengths, so we would have very little waste and no need to make seems.

Tongue and groove pine boards

We snapped our chalk lines for the studs and got started.  With the tongue and groove, we started from the bottom and worked our way up, as it was easier to stack it up the wall this way. We nailed the bottom piece in straight and used enough nails to really hold it in place. Every row after that, we only needed to nail down at an angle into the tongue on each stud. Nailing into the tongue means the nails on each board are hidden by the board above it. Woohoo! Less wood putty!

Installation was very easy and quick with the exception of working around the outlet (which we couldn’t have had any more perfect placement with the height, by the way) and the window sill, which was just short of touching the drywall.

tongue and groove board partially installed

About 2/3 of the boards up

As you can see, there are plenty of knots in this wood. If we weren’t going to paint it, we probably would have sprung for something higher quality with less imperfections. Some of the boards were just a little warped, so we really had to hammer them down to get them straight on the others, but for the most part it was pretty simple.

Hammering a tongue and groove board

Hammering the board down

Once it was all up, it was time to paint again. I deferred to Carolyn on that again. The paint color was sooooooo much darker than we normally paint, but it looked great. We used all no VOC paint for the nursery, but Carolyn was super pregnant at the time so she still wore a mask and we cracked the windows.

Painting navy blue paint on tongue and groove boards installed on wall

Painting in all of the crevices

Rolling navy blue paint on tongue and groove boards installed on wall

Rolling the rest

After it was all painted, she still had to go in with a small brush to touch up some of the spots in the crevices that wood was still visible. Since wood expands and contracts, sometimes you can still see small wood patches if you look at the right angle. If we use this method again, we may paint the boards with a coat before installing them to prevent that.

Once again, there was a lot more to this room, some of which Carolyn has talked about here, here, and here. But this post is about shiplap and plank walls, so I’ll just cut to the finished product.

Nursery

All finished

So now that we have two of these projects under our belt, I’m pretty sure that makes us experts. And as an expert, I’ve decided to sum up our pros and cons for each method.

Pros Cons
Shiplap / Tongue & Groove
  • Can be painted, stained, or left “au naturale”
  • Knots and chips give character, if that’s what you’re into
  • You can hang heavy pictures/art anywhere; no need to find a stud
  • Knots suck to paint over, and if the wood isn’t fully dried the paint may not stick well
  • Harder to paint in the cracks. May want to pre-paint a coat
  • More expensive
  • Thicker wood makes cutting around obstacles more difficult
  • Because it is natural wood, you may end up with warped or bowed boards
Nickel Gap
  • Can be installed for about 1/3 of the cost of tongue & groove
  • Easy to cut around fixtures
  • No knots, dents, or chips in wood (This could also be a con if you’re looking for “Character”)
  • No possibility of warped/bowed wood
  • Can use existing outlet/light boxes without extenders
  • Somewhat time-consuming to install
  • Have to paint/prime the wall underneath for the gaps
  • More sanding
  • This type of plywood will never sand perfectly smooth, so you’ll see rough edges if you look closely
  • Have to fill in all of the nail holes
  • More cutting (if they won’t do it all in-store)
  • Still need to find a stud or use drywall anchors when hanging stuff
  • Staining not really an option, must be painted

What do you think? Do you love the shiplap like us? We really love the look of it, and how it gives the room so much character. Have I convinced you to make your own plank wall? Let us know in the comments!

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2 Comments

  1. Jody Moore

    Very informative and detailed. Both look great think I’m leaning to plywood since I now know they will cut strips at store for an accent wall.

    • David Hamilton

      Thanks for the comment, Jody. We’re glad you enjoyed the post and found it helpful! Depending on who you get at the hardware store, they might not be too happy about doing the strips, but they should do it nonetheless. Good luck with the project, and please let us know how it goes!

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