How to Remove Door Trim and Other Molding Without Breaking It

Plaster Cornice Moulding
Getty Images/aydinmutlu
Overview
  • Skill Level: Beginner

In so many home remodeling projects, the first step is to remove your trim. And often, you don't want to get rid of the old trim because it can be hard to find a perfect match at the lumberyard or home center. However, trim can be difficult to remove without splintering and breaking it. Trim is thin and often made of engineered wood, plastic, or softwoods. It was not made for the entire cycle of installation, removal, and re-installation. But there's a carpenter's trick that works almost every time, thanks to the small heads on the finish nails trim is typically installed with.

Most interior trim is attached with finish nails or brads, both of which are thin and have small, round heads. Trim fastened with these nails can be pulled off without removing the nails. Some nails will stay in the wall, while others will come off with the trim. You can then you can pull any nails remaining on the trim through the backside of the material, leaving just a small hole on the face of the trim. With the nails that stay in the wall, you can pull them or simply pound them back in.

Is Your Trim Worth Saving?

In some cases, your time may be better spent trashing old trim and installing new trim. A strong case can be made for bypassing salvage operations altogether, particularly when the old trim is made of medium-density fiberboard, or MDF.

The reason is that MDF is so brittle that pulling it outwards to gain leverage will easily snap the trim. If you decide to dispose of your trim instead of saving it, you can simply break it by hand into foot-long pieces for your household garbage bin. New MDF door trim, for example, can be purchased for less than $15, or you can opt for equally inexpensive finger-jointed softwood molding. Both are suitable for projects that will be painted. If you want to stain the trim, you'll need a more expensive solid wood.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Utility knife
  • Wood wedge or scrap block
  • Pry bar
  • Finish hammer
  • Linesman's pliers or tongue-and-groove pliers

Instructions

  1. Score the Paint

    Trim is usually caulked or painted to the wall. Score the seam between the trim and the wall with a utility knife. This also helps to prevent peeling of the paint when the trim is pulled away.

  2. Protect the Wall

    Place a wood wedge, scrap block, or other kind of protective material against the wall where the leverage point for the pry bar will be resting. This will prevent the wall from getting dented. Thin pry bars are helpful when removing trim. The thinner the pry bar, the better.

  3. Start at an End

    Begin prying from either end of the trim, slipping the edge of the pry bar under the trim and prying against the wood wedge or block. Carefully pry outward, letting the finish nails slide through the holes in the trim or out of the wall support, as applicable.

  4. Work Your Way Down

    Once the end is loosened and partially pulled from the wall, move down a bit and continue prying. Repeat the same process all the way down the trim board. The goal is to gradually loosen the entire piece without bending it too much, which can break it. If necessary, loosen the trim all the way, then go back to your starting point and pry further to remove each section entirely free of the nails.

    Switch to a thicker wedge or wood block as the trim comes away from the wall so you can continue to pry with the bar.

  5. Remove or Pound in the Wall Nails

    Once you have the trim piece removed, you can pull out protruding finish nails with a hammer or linesman’s pliers. You can also use a small pry bar or tongue-and-groove pliers, levering the tool against a wedge or block to protect the wall surface (it's also a good idea to use a block with a hammer). Alternatively, you can take the opposite tack and pound the finish nails flush to the wall with a hammer.

  6. Remove All Nails From the Trim 

    If there are any nails still sticking out of the trim, because they pulled out of the wall, remove the nails by pulling them out through the backside of the trim. Place the trim face-down on a work surface, and hold it down it firmly with one hand. Grab the nail with a pair of linesman's pliers or tongue-and-groove pliers and pull it through the backside of the wood.

    Sometimes it's possible to carefully hammer the nail back out through the front side, but often this ends up chipping the wood; pulling through the back side is safer.