How to Paint Trim

Empty room with painted trim
Spiderstock / Getty Images
Project Overview
  • Working Time: 4 - 8 hrs
  • Total Time: 1 - 2 days
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Estimated Cost: $40 to $50

Second only to the floors, the trim in your home likely takes the most abuse of any surface. Between pets and children and general wear and tear, trim regularly takes hard hits that can do a number on its beautiful finish. Once the finish is damaged, worn-out trim will give your home's interior a dated, dingy look.

Giving your home's trim a fresh coat of paint is a cost-effective way to freshen up its overall aesthetic without breaking the bank. This project may seem overwhelming, but we've broken it up into steps to help you along. With the right tools and know-how, painting everything from window trim and door trim to baseboards, crown molding, and any other trim in your home can be a relatively quick and painless process.

Preparation

Before you break open a can of paint, take time to prepare everything. This will make the process of painting the trim much smoother. We recommend designating one room to start with and sticking to it before moving onto another area in the house. Move all furniture away from the trim and, if you wish, cover the furniture with inexpensive, reusable plastic drop cloths. To protect your floor, lay out drop cloths or roll out floor protection paper. If the room is carpeted, consider carpet shields or self-adhesive film.

Tip

An easy hack for protecting your carpet while painting is to guard it with a wide drywall knife. Simply press the edge of the knife into the crevice between the trim and the carpet and move it along as you paint.

Inspect the Trim

Look for sections of trim that are pulling away from the wall. These will need to be secured before painting. If there are any holes or noticeable dents and dings, you should plan on filling these areas with spackle if you wish to achieve a professional-grade finish.

Safety Considerations

If your trim was last painted before 1978, there's a good chance the paint that was used contains lead. Even if the trim has been painted since, if the home was constructed before 1978, there could be layers of lead paint beneath the surface.

Always wear a mask rated for fumes and wear gloves when dealing with lead paint. If you have good reason to believe that you're dealing with lead paint, you can purchase a lead test kit before moving forward. See more ways to safely deal with lead paint here.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Utility knife
  • Putty knife
  • Drop cloths
  • Shop vac
  • Brush-end vacuum attachment (optional)
  • Paint scraper
  • Angled paintbrush
  • Hammer
  • Nail set
  • Paint tray or cup
  • Proper protective equipment
  • Drill
  • Drill bits

Materials

  • Painter's tape
  • Sanding pads
  • Painter's rags
  • Spackling compound
  • Semi-gloss latex trim paint
  • Primer
  • Paintable caulk
  • Finish nails

Instructions

Whether you're painting the trim around windows or door casings, baseboards, crown molding, or any other trim in your home, the key to a professional finish and seamless process is proper preparation. Follow along with these steps and modify them for your specific trim.

  1. Secure Any Loose Trim

    If there are any major gaps or loose trim pieces, use finish nails to secure them. To avoid splitting wood trim, use a drill bit that is slightly smaller than your finish nails to pre-drill holes. If there is old caulk preventing the gap from closing tightly as it should, carefully remove it with a utility knife before fastening the trim in place.

  2. Set Nail Heads

    Nail heads protruding from the surface of the trim will only be highlighted once painted over. To avoid this, use a nail set to drive the nail heads beneath the surface of the trim.

  3. Fill Holes With Spackle

    Fill all holes and imperfections with spackle.

  4. Sand Trim

    Sand the entire surface of the trim to create a smooth surface for painting. Focus on the areas that have been filled with spackle to ensure the spackle is smooth.

  5. Remove All Dust

    Once you're finished sanding, use a vacuum to remove all dust from the trim and the areas surrounding it. Use a brush-end attachment on your vacuum to remove dust from deep details in the trim work.

  6. Fill Cracks With Caulk

    Use paintable latex caulk to fill any remaining gaps, cracks, and crevices. To do so, apply a small bead of caulk to the area, then use a wet rag to smooth the caulk line.

    Tip

    Oftentimes, caulking trim lines can prove difficult, especially if you are new to caulking. If a particular area is giving you trouble, it can sometimes be best to let the caulk line dry and come back later to add more.

  7. Mask off the Trim

    Unless you are a very experienced painter with a knack for cutting clean paint lines, you will likely benefit from masking the area around your trim before painting. To ensure the tape sticks and creates crisp paint lines, make sure there is no remaining dust on the surfaces surrounding the trim by wiping everything down with a damp rag. Once dry, tape off everything around the trim that you don't wish to paint.

  8. Prime the Trim

    If the existing paint on your trim is oil-based or you are uncertain whether it is, you should plan on priming your trim before applying latex paint. Additionally, any unfinished areas, knotty areas, or areas filled with spackle should be primed. Use a high-quality primer that is made for covering oil-based paint and an angled paintbrush around 1 1/2 to 2 inches wide.

    Warning

    If you apply latex paint directly to oil-based paint, it will not adhere long term. The finish may look great once applied, but you can count on the new paint chipping away and revealing the old paint before long.

  9. Remove Tape and Sand Primer

    Most primers require light sanding with 220-grit sandpaper before you paint over them. You may be tempted to leave your masking tape in place, but resist the urge. Leaving masking tape on between coats will often result in damage to both the new paint and the old paint on the walls. Once sanded, remove all dust once more and retape the area.

    Tip

    The jury is out on whether you should pull tape when the paint is wet or dry. We've found that pulling the tape right after the paint is dry to the touch yields the best results.

  10. Paint the Trim

    Using the same size paintbrush as you used to prime, paint your trim. When painting, only dip the first inch of your brush into the paint and wipe away any excess paint. Use short strokes to cover the trim, then follow up with longer strokes to blend the brush strokes.

  11. Remove Tape

    Once the paint has dried to the touch, carefully remove your masking tape by pulling it away at a 45-degree angle. For ultra clean lines, lightly cut the edge of the tape with a utility knife, being careful not to damage your floors or walls. This will keep paint from sticking to the tape and pulling from your trim.

Choosing Your Paint

Many sources have different opinions on which type of paint is best for trim. At one point, only enamel paint was good enough and durable enough to be used on trim, but most painters have stopped using it. These days, the two most popular options are oil-based and latex paint. Undoubtedly, oil-based paint is the more durable option, but modern latex paint, especially in a semi-gloss or high-gloss sheen, is a close rival. Additionally, latex paint has many attractive qualities that make it a popular option.

Oil-Based Trim Paint
  • Long-lasting, durable finish

  • More involved application

  • Releases intense fumes

  • Longer dry times

  • Prone to yellowing

Latex Trim Paint
  • Not as durable

  • Easier application

  • Minimal fumes

  • Quick dry times

  • Not as likely to yellow


When to Call a Professional

In general, there's no need to call a professional when painting your trim. Most DIY enthusiasts are fully capable of getting the job done with great results. However, if you're dealing with lead paint and aren't fully confident about safely handling it, it may be a good idea to contact a professional that has all of the tools and know-how necessary to safely deal with the existing lead paint.