How to Paint Baseboards

Taping Wall Before Painting Baseboards

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Painting interior trim such as window or door casing and crown molding nearly always guarantees that your room will look fresher and neater. The same idea holds true for baseboards. Painting your baseboards is one of the best remodeling projects you can do for a room and it only takes a day or two. Painted baseboards will help the space sparkle like nothing else.

Tools and Supplies You Will Need

  • Latex paint
  • Primer
  • Painter's tape
  • Masking film
  • Quality paintbrush (an angled sash brush, 1 to 2 inches wide, is best)
  • Drop cloth
  • Trisodium phosphate (TSP)
  • Bucket with water
  • Sponge
  • Utility knife

While you can use either latex or oil-based paint for baseboards, latex (water-based) paints are much easier to clean up. You can choose from several different gloss levels for either latex or oil-based paints, but paint with a slightly glossy finish is generally recommended for baseboards since it is more resistant to scuffing and is more washable than a flat paint finish. A semi-gloss or high-gloss paint is usually the best choice for baseboards.

Instructions

Decide Whether to Remove the Baseboards

Painting baseboards in place, while they are still attached to the walls, comes with a number of related tasks: taping, masking, application of a drop cloth, and very careful painting to avoid getting paint on the wall. Most people paint baseboards with them in place on the walls, but in some instances, it is easier just to remove the baseboards so that you can paint them in a separate location.

  • With new homes or homes that have not been extensively remodeled over the years, removal can be as easy as prying the baseboards off with a thin pry bar and your fingers. In fact, companies that sand wood flooring usually will remove and replace baseboards as a matter of course. In many cases, it's an easy job to do and leads to a much better looking end result.
  • If the baseboards have not yet been installed, you should always paint the baseboards before installation. Minor damage will occur during installation, but this is expected. With most of the painting already done, you'll only need to do a small amount of touch-up after installing the baseboards.

However, with older homes that have many layers of paint covering the wall-to-baseboard joint, removing the baseboards may cause damage to the wall that is difficult to repair. The baseboard paint will rip upward, taking with it wall paint and gypsum or plaster. If you do choose to remove old baseboards, scoring along the seams with a utility knife can reduce damage as you pry the baseboards free.

For our purposes, we'll assume that you are painting the baseboards in place, without removing them.

Clean Previously Painted Baseboards

Nowhere is it more critical to clean the surface prior to painting than with previously painted baseboards (open-pore wood baseboards should not be cleaned with water). Dirt and grime collect at the bottom of walls, making this one of the dirtiest parts of the home. If you are averse to cleaning before painting, baseboards are one area where you should make an exception.

Mix the TSP according to product instructions, then wipe down the baseboards with the sponge. TSP is a non-toxic powder that produces a mild but effective cleaning solution when mixed with water. Be sure to clean the top of the baseboards in particular, as dust naturally collects on horizontal surfaces.

Mask the Walls and Floor

Use low-stick painter's tape to mask the lower edge of the wall, right above the baseboards, as well as the junction between the floor and the baseboards. Even though masking is time-consuming, it will result in a faster and cleaner paint job. Masking does not guarantee perfect results, though; you still need to be careful when applying the paint, because excessive slop on the flooring-side masking tape will make it difficult to remove the tape after the paint dries.

For added protection in that baseboard-to-wall area, you can use masking film to ensure that the baseboard paint does not splatter on the wall. Run the masking tape edge of the film along the wall-to-baseboards junction, then spread the film upward. The film will stick to the wall on its own due to static electricity. If you are a careful painter, a simple line of painter's tape covering the wall along the baseboard may offer all the protection you need.

  • Some painters prefer to "freehand" when painting baseboards—painting without the benefit of masking. The cut-in painting technique (painting without masking off surfaces) is difficult enough on accessible door and window trim, but far more difficult on baseboards because of their location. It is very easy to mask off baseboards because of that flat horizontal wall surface.

Patch Gouges and Nail Depressions

Before you pull out the paint, patch and fill those big dings and holes that developed over time, using wood filler. Large nail depressions should be filled, while tiny, pinpoint depressions can be left unfilled. If a brad nailer was used and the sink depth was perfectly calibrated, you may find it easier just to paint over those tiny holes. But if the baseboards are nailed by hand with finish nails, you should fill those holes with wood filler.

Prime the Baseboards

Baseboards that do not have factory-applied primer and have a raw wood surface should be primed. Previously primed or painted baseboards can also benefit from a primer coat, but this is not always necessary if the cleaned surface is in good condition. Mix the primer thoroughly. Load the brush with paint, and apply to the baseboards with horizontal strokes. Avoid overloading the brush, as this can create drips and runs.

The best painting technique is to hold the brush between thumb and forefinger, as you would a pen, and draw the brush horizontally with the tips of the bristles slightly depressed against the baseboard. Load the brush with paint to about one-third of the bristle length. Long, slow strokes of the brushwork best. As you progress along the baseboard, try to "keep a wet edge"—painting back over the edges of previously painted areas before the paint dries. This helps prevent lap marks.

Paint the Baseboards

If your can of paint has been sitting for more than a few days, you may want to take it to the paint store to have it freshly shaken. Or, stir it thoroughly after opening the can. Set the can lid well away from the work area.

As with priming, be very economical about loading the brush with paint—dip the brush to no more than one-third the length of the bristles. For the first coat, use less paint than you think you may need. Draw the paintbrush in long strokes along the length of the baseboards. As you overlap the strokes, try to "keep a wet edge" to prevent lap marks.

After the first coat, let the baseboards dry for at least one full day. After the paint has cured, apply a second coat. With high-gloss paints, some painters like to lightly scuff the painted surface with fine sandpaper before applying the second coat. This gives the glossy surface some "tooth" that helps the second coat adhere.

Wait for the paint to dry before removing the painter's tape.

Clean-Up Tools

Use soap and water to thoroughly clean your brush. A quality brush can last for years with proper care.