How to Master Cutting-In Painting

Woman cutting in paint while painting a wall

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Overview
  • Working Time: 2 hrs
  • Total Time: 12 hrs
  • Yield: 1 small room
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Estimated Cost: $15 to $25

If you're like most people, you probably hate painting prep. Putting down floor cloths and removing wall switch and outlet covers can feel like wasted time, but these are unavoidable steps if you want to prevent messy accidents and achieve clean results. On the other hand, applying painter's tape alongside window and door trim, above baseboards, and below crown molding is considered optional prep work, and you may be better off skipping this masking work altogether.

A painting technique often associated with professional painters and less so with DIYers promises to eliminate masking. It uses no gimmicky paint edgers, either. Involving only a steady hand and a brush, this technique is called cutting in. The practice involves using your paintbrush to manually applying straight lines of paint alongside elements that do not get painted, eliminating the need for masking tape or painter's masking film.

When and Why to Cut In

Imagine that you want white trim around your windows, surrounded by darker colored walls. First, you paint the trim. Then, when you paint the walls you're faced with the challenge of bringing the darker paint right up to the edge of the trim. You could mask off the trim with tape, but if you have a steady hand, you can simply "draw" the line of colored paint, freestyle. This is the technique of cutting in.

Window trim is just one example. You can cut in along baseboards and other types of trim, as well as the corners where walls meet ceilings or where they meet walls of a different color. The benefits of cutting in include:

  • The opportunity to begin painting immediately with minimal preparations
  • The instant gratification of seeing the colors right away, allowing you to make adjustments, if necessary
  • Reducing your cost because you are not buying expensive painter's tape
  • No time spent waiting for the paint to dry before you remove the tape

The only specialty supplies you need for cutting in are a 2-inch brush and a "cut bucket." Pros recommend an angled brush, often called a sash brush. A cut bucket is simply a paint bucket that has no inner lip to collect excess paint. There are small commercial buckets you can buy, usually equipped with a small handle for convenience, but any plastic bucket will work, provided it has straight sides.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • High-quality, 2-inch sash brush
  • Cut bucket

Materials

  • Paint
  • Clean white rag

Instructions

  1. Fill the Bucket

    Fill a cut bucket with no more about 1/2 inch of paint. Too much paint in the bucket makes it harder to avoid overloading the brush. Keep the sides of the bucket clear for wiping off excess paint from your brush.

  2. Load the Brush

    Dab the tip of the brush into the paint, and drag the bristles against the edge of the bucket to remove excess paint. The brush should be relatively dry, since it does not take much paint to cover trim.

  3. Apply Paint to the Line

    Grip the brush loosely near the bristles, similarly to the way you grip a pencil. Place the bristles on the surface, forming a wedge shape with the bristles. Use the sharp end of the wedge to start the paint line. Draw the bristles along the line you want to paint. As you begin moving the brush, let the bristles press into a fan shape. The outermost bristles are actually drawing the line, not the entire bristle surface.

    As you learn the cutting in technique, start by drawing flat crescent shapes with the paint. These crescents will start slightly away from the line, move over and track along the line for a few inches, then gradually pull away from the "danger zone" (glass, trim, or whatever that is not getting painted) and toward yourself. You can cobble together a long straight line by applying several of these flat crescents.

    As you get more experienced, you will find the crescents getting fewer and flatter until you can draw quite a long line with a single linear brush motion.

  4. Broaden the Paint Line

    If you'll be painting the flat of the wall with a roller, you'll need to broaden the paint line to give you a safety margin when you roll the walls. After painting a fine edge up to the line, follow this by widening the line to 2 inches or so, applying paint with the full width of the brush. Some people like to use a straight brush rather than the angled sash brush for this application.

  5. Wipe up Mistakes

    Use a clean, white rag slightly dampened with water to wipe off paint that gets onto unintended surfaces or to clean up a messy line. If you wipe the paint as soon as it's applied, it will come off with no trouble. Waiting just a few minutes can make it harder to remove. For this reason, it's a good idea to keep a damp rag handy at all times (because some errors are inevitable, at least while you're learning).