A Guide to the Cutting-in Technique for Painting

Man Painting wall in new home
Looks Like Green Painter's Tape...But Actually It's Cut-In Paint Done Freehand. Alyson Aliano/Taxi/Getty Images

Do you hate painting prep?  Does putting down floor cloths and removing light switch covers and receptacle covers feel like wasted time?  Is your worst fear applying masking tape alongside window and door trim, above baseboards, and below crown molding?

A painting technique often associated with professional painters and less so with DIYers promises to eliminate all of those prep tasks.  It uses no gimmicky paint edgers, either.

 Involving only a steady hand and a brush, this technique is called cutting in.

According to Sherwin-Williams' annual DIY Pulse report, nearly 43% of homeowners wish that they could master this challenging but time-saving painting technique. 

What It Is

Cutting-in is the practice of manually drawing straight lines of paint alongside elements that do not get painted, eliminating the need for masking tape or painter's masking film.

Example

One scenario:  you want white trim around your windows and darker colored walls. First you paint the trim. Then, when you paint the walls, you need to bring the paint line right up to the edge of the trim. You can mask off the trim with tape.

As an alternative, if you have a steady hand, you can "draw" the line of colored paint freestyle.--you cut it in.

"Cutting in" does not just involve trim, but this is the most common place where you will do this.

Benefits

  • The opportunity to get to painting immediately--minimal preparations.
  • Instant gratification--you see the colors right away and can make adjustments, if necessary.
  • Reducing cost because you are not buying expensive painter's tape.
  • No time spent waiting on the paint to dry before you can remove the tape.

Negatives

  • One errant move can slop colored paint on white trim, which can be hard to cover up.

How to Cut In

  1. Assemble Your Tools:  Start with 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 lip. The lip allows for paint to accumulate, giving you more paint than you want on the brush. Even a plastic bucket will work: just any sturdy bucket with straight sides.
  2. Practice:  Find a wall surface that will be painted, create a practice line with a length of masking tape, and practice cutting in toward that line.
  3. Fill Bucket:  Fill the cut bucket no more than an inch or two. You will need clear sides of the bucket to wipe paint off. Dab the brush about half an inch into the paint and drag it dry against the lip. Make certain it is very dry. It does not take much paint to cover trim.
  4. Hold Brush:  Grip the brush loosely near the bristles, as you would hold a pencil. The brush handle is largely extraneous as far as cutting in is concerned.
  5. Placement:  Place the bristle on the surface, forming a wedge shape. Use the sharp end of the wedge to start the paint line.
  6. Move Brush:  Draw the bristles along the line you want to paint. As you begin moving the bristles, try to let them form a fan shape. The outermost bristles are actually drawing the line, not the entire bristle surface.
  1. The Crescent Method:  You will first want to draw very flat crescents. These crescents will start on the line, 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 several of these flat crescents.
  2. Straighter and Flatter:  As you get more experienced, you will find the crescents getting fewer and flatter, until you can draw quite a long line.

Cutting in is very difficult to master.  If you think the only thing you will ever paint in your life is one or two rooms, then by all means use masking tape. Even if you plan on painting your entire interior, you may not master the technique until you reach the last room.