In many home remodeling projects, one of the first steps is removing your trim. However, trim can be difficult to remove without splintering or breaking it. That can be a bit of a problem, as you may not want to get rid of the old trim; it can be hard to find a perfect match at a lumberyard or home center. Most trims are thin and made of engineered wood, plastic, or softwoods—they're not made for the entire cycle of installation, removal, and re-installation. Luckily, there's a carpenter's trick to trim removal that works almost every time, thanks to the small heads on the finish nails trim is typically installed with.
Most interior trim is attached using finish nails or brads, both of which are thin and have small, round heads. Trim fastened with these nails can be easily pulled off without removing the nails—sometimes the nails will stay in the wall, while other times they'll come off with the trim. If that's the case, you can simply pull any nails remaining on the trim through the backside of the material, leaving just a small hole on the face of the trim. For those that stay in the wall, you can pull them or hammer 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 (also known as MDF).
The reason: MDF is so brittle that pulling it outward to gain leverage for removal 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. Additionally, replacing it is not terribly expensive. 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 though if you want to stain the trim you'll need a more expensive solid wood.
Equipment / Tools
- Utility knife
- Wood wedge or scrap block
- Pry bar
- Finish hammer
- Linesman's pliers or tongue-and-groove pliers
- Garbage bags
Score the Paint
Trim is often caulked or painted to the wall. To remove it with minimal wall damage or peeling paint, score the seam between the trim and the wall with a utility knife.
Protect the Wall
Place a wood wedge, scrap block, or another kind of protective material against the wall where the leverage point for the pry bar will be. This will prevent the wall from getting dented from the pressure of the pry bar. Thin pry bars are helpful when removing trim—the thinner the bar, the better.
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.
Work Your Way Down
Once the end is loosened and partially pulled from the wall, move down the wall 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.
If the trim is damaged during removal or if you don't have plans to reuse or replace it, dispose of it properly in the garbage bag.
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.
Remove or Pound in the Nails
Once you have the trim piece removed, you can pull out any protruding finish nails with a hammer or linesman’s pliers. Alternatively, you can take the opposite tack and pound the finish nails flush to the wall with a hammer.
Remove All Nails From the Trim
If there are any nails still sticking out of the trim pieces, remove the nails by pulling them out through the backside of the trim. To do so, 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 backside is the safer and easier bet.