What Is Shiplap? A Guide to the Popular Building Material

This favorite design element is more than just a passing trend. Here's everything you need to know about shiplap, including installation considerations and whether to go faux.

Call it the farmhouse effect, but just about everyone seems to have jumped on the shiplap trend over the past few years. Its unrelenting popularity likely relates to the fact that it's a timeless interior design element, says Toronto-based designer Ashley Montgomery. "It brings texture, depth, and interest to a space and is an easy way to dress up large walls," she says. Beyond the basics, there's a lot to learn about these charming rustic planks. Before you decide to board the SS Shiplap, here's everything you need to know about the beloved building material, including what is shiplap and how it differentiates from similar applications.

bright shabby chic farmhouse bedroom shiplap
Anthony Masterson

What Is Shiplap?

Shiplap might be relatively new on the scene as an interior design element, but the more practical use of shiplap has been around far longer. Shiplap originally referred to the horizontal boards or planks used to construct boats. They employed a tight groove system that kept water out and, thus, boats afloat. Shiplap was eventually used for a similar function (aside from the floating part) on the exterior of homes, but today has morphed into an aesthetic element. It is most often used in the interior of homes to bring texture and character to drywall or even help differentiate spaces within an open floor plan.

The Difference Between Shiplap, Nickel Gap, and Tongue and Groove

There are a variety of wall applications that look similar to shiplap, namely nickel gap and tongue and groove. You'll want to know the difference and determine which best suits your preferences before you hit the hardware store or loop in your contractor. "They all look very similar to the untrained eye," Montgomery says. "However, each of them brings a unique texture to a space."

The planks of shiplap, nickel gap, and tongue and groove each connect in a different way, which is what results in three different looks but with a similar effect. "Shiplap leaves a small gap between each board while tongue and groove leaves a flatter surface with boards more tightly joined together. Nickel gap has more of a square gap," explains Montgomery. To help visualize, do an online search for images in each of the three categories and nail down which appeals most to you and your space.

Faux Shiplap vs. Real Shiplap

When it comes to the question of whether to go for faux shiplap or the real thing, Montgomery says it comes down to budget and working with what you've got. For those needing a more economical solution, faux shiplap styles or even DIY versions can be a smart choice. From peel-and-stick shiplap wallpaper to finished shiplap panels that you can find in many home improvement stores, the faux route comes with plenty of options to suit your skill level and intended investment.

neutral bathroom with clawfoot tub and shiplap walls
David Tsay

Shiplap Installation Considerations

Before installing shiplap, there are a few things to keep in mind. Montgomery says shiplap should always be painted after it's installed. This way you'll hide any nail holes and avoid scuffing, dirty fingerprints, and other install-related blunders. While it's certainly traditional to hang shiplap horizontally, consider swapping to a vertical orientation if your space allows. "Each one offers a unique look, but it depends on the space or area," she says. "Ask yourself: Do you want to heighten your space or lengthen it?"

It's important to note that as long as shiplap is properly installed, it is safe for use in high moisture areas like baths, patios, and more. Calling on professional installation for these tricky areas will likely be the best route.

Fresh Ways to Use Shiplap

Shiplap is an interior design element that's both trendy and steeped in tradition. Montgomery says which characteristic you decide to play up is entirely dependent on application and finishes but using shiplap in unexpected places adds an additional level of interest. Here are a few of her favorite ways to use shiplap:

  • Cover Drywall: "Drywall is boring, so I love to incorporate shiplap as it brings personality into a space without making it feel too busy."
  • Dress Up Ceilings: "Using shiplap on ceilings can effortlessly elevate your space and make it feel more luxurious."
  • Ease Transitions: "It's a great product to use in spaces where you have weird gaps and transitions, for example, between beams."
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