What’s the Difference? Shiplap vs. Tongue and Groove

Understand the differences between these two similar—and currently popular—paneling styles so you can choose what’s right for your home, inside and out.
Shiplap vs. Tongue and Groove: Which Wall Paneling is Right for Your Project?
Photo: istockphoto.com

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If you’re a fan of modern farmhouse style, or simply watch a lot of decorating shows on TV, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the comeback of wall paneling. Unlike the dark and dreary look of the 1960s and ‘70s—big sheets of plywood with a laminate surface—today’s twist is often painted white and typically real wood or at least a wood veneer for far more realistic appeal. What’s more, the current take is usually oriented horizontally, instead of the floor-to-ceiling vertical paneling so ubiquitous way back when.

Despite a tendency to refer to all wood paneling as shiplap, there’s actually a host of paneling styles, including beadboard, board and batten, wainscoting, and tongue and groove in addition to shiplap. The latter two varieties are fairly popular right now, and while they share many similarities, each has distinct characteristics. So read on to learn what separates shiplap from tongue and groove to help you pick the paneling that’s perfect for your home.

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Shiplap vs. Tongue and Groove: Which Wall Paneling is Right for Your Project?
Photos: homedepot.com; design: bobvila.com

The main difference between shiplap and tongue and groove is in the profile.

Once installed, shiplap and tongue and groove look very similar. But before installation, check out the edges of planks cut for each style of paneling, and you’ll spot the biggest difference between them right away.

Each side of a shiplap plank has a small L-shaped notch running down its full length. The notch on one side of the plank will be on the upper edge, while the other side of the plank is notched on the lower edge. During installation, these notches fit together like little steps, so the shiplap planks very slightly overlap, in what is called a rabbet joint. Often, shiplap planks also have a gentle bevel along the lengthwise edges, which gives the appearance of a slight valley between planks in the finished paneling.

Tongue and groove planks, however, have a small projection sticking out of the center of one side’s edge, while the other side has a corresponding small indentation. During installation, the tongue of one plank fits into the groove of its neighbor. Although tongue and groove planks are sometimes beveled along the lengthwise edge like shiplap, more often these planks are unbeveled, giving the finished results a somewhat tighter appearance than with shiplap.

Shiplap is easier for DIY installation than tongue and groove.

As a general rule, it’s a little easier to install shiplap paneling than tongue and groove paneling, because you needn’t fit the planks together. Instead, you simply match the notches on neighboring boards and then pound a nail straight through the overlap. Installing tongue and groove requires more precise nailing, as you’ll need to hammer the nail right through the planks’ “tongues” for secure results.

Both types of paneling come in a variety of materials.

Most shiplap and tongue and groove planks are wood. If you plan on painting the finished paneling, as is most common in today’s decorating styles, you’ll save money by using inexpensive pine planks. If you’re really on a tight budget, you can even use plywood. But if you plan on leaving the paneling unpainted, you may be happier with a more attractive type of wood, such as cedar.

You’ll find shiplap and tongue and groove planks made from fiber cement, vinyl, and even metal, although all of these are most often used for exterior siding, rather than for decorative indoor use.

Shiplap vs. Tongue and Groove on a Home Exterior
Photo: istockphoto.com

Consider climate if installing paneling on your home’s exterior.

While you can use either shiplap or tongue and groove on the exterior of your house, backyard shed, or garage, a few climate conditions to take into account before selecting one for the outdoors. As a general rule, shiplap is the better choice for a very rainy climate, as its overlapping planks shed water quite well. Tongue and groove, on the other hand, can deteriorate in wet climates due to trapped water inside the interlocking connections.

Shiplap is also the superior choice if you live in a high-heat, low-humidity climate, where the dry air tends to encourage slight shrinkage of wood. This can lead to gaps in the tongue and groove fitting but isn’t likely to show in shiplap’s overlapping connections. But if cold weather is an issue where you live, note that tongue and groove has slightly better insulating ability than shiplap.

Shiplap vs. Tongue and Groove on Your Interiors
Photo: istockphoto.com

There are several interior decorating uses for both types of wood paneling.

When it comes to interiors, both types of paneling are currently trending decorative accents, especially in modern farmhouse, cottage, coastal, and rustic schemes. The most common use for both tongue and groove and shiplap is to panel entire walls, particularly in the kitchen or bathroom. But you can also use both styles to create just one accent wall, or even as a backsplash or fireplace surround. Another option is paneling only the lower portion of the wall, as with wainscoting. If you really love the modern farmhouse or coastal decorating styles, you might even choose to use shiplap or tongue and groove on the ceiling.

Shiplap planks are less expensive than tongue and groove planks.

The cost of installing either shiplap or tongue and groove varies greatly depending on the material, room size, the area you live in, and whether or not you plan on doing the job yourself. Even so, you can typically expect to pay more for tongue and groove paneling than for shiplap. As a rough estimate, DIY shiplap in a 200 sq. ft. room will cost between $500 and $1,200, and from $1,000 to $1,700 if you have it professionally installed. For tongue and groove, expect to pay up to 50 percent more.