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This house was built in the 1950s. The wood is tongue and groove (thank you @Ecnerwal) and appears to be the only wall material--there is no drywall under it. I can tell because some of the knots of the wood have fallen out and I can see inside to the space where the electric and plumbing travel through the house.

It currently looks worn and I want to know if there is a way to repair it. Or if I cover it up, is there a way to do it with minimal damage, so some future house owner can restore the original walls?

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  • One man's meat is another man's poison. I've seen teams of carpenters armed with chain flails, lead shot & lump hammers, artificially distressing that type of finish. Admittedly they didn't have to deal with varnish too. If you replace the varnish with oil or wax, then the damage will start to look like part of it, nicely 'aged'. Re-waxing any new dings then becomes a 5-minute job.
    – Tetsujin
    Jun 17 at 14:56

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Sand it and put a fresh coat of finish on it, if looking to restore it. Some of the sanding will be fiddly, but there are some recent-era power tools made to help with fiddly sanding, or you just do it the old-fashioned way and it takes longer. You can plug up the knotholes where knots have fallen right out with a dark-tinted epoxy putty.

That's tongue and groove (likely pine) boards (with fancy molded edges) and while similar to some older styles of paneling, you want to be clear in describing it, as "paneling" tends to be interpreted as 1/8" thick 4x8 sheets of fake wood print or possibly real veneer over a cheap backing, which is very different than what you have.

Opinion: What you have is nice, and probably worth restoring, rather than covering over.

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    I've got that stuff all thru. my house. You'll have to sand and refinish the damaged areas for sure, but the rest of it can be rejuvenated with some oil soap (Like Murphy's) to clean and shine it up a little bit.
    – gnicko
    Jun 16 at 18:46
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Refinishing old and damaged wood is more work than it's worth in my experience. Paint is probably a better option. Gouges and holes are easily filled in to be painted over.

I'm pretty sure wood paneling with no drywall behind it violates modern fire codes. Covering it with drywall would help. 1/4 inch drywall would be cheapest but least fire resistant.

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