How To Remove Trim or Molding Without Breaking It

Plaster Cornice Moulding
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In so many home remodeling projects, the first step is to remove your trim. Sanding your wood floors?  Start by removing baseboards. Taking down an interior wall? Pull out that door trim first.

By the nature of the product, it is difficult to remove trim (molding, casing, and baseboards) without splintering and breaking it. Trim is thin and often made of MDF or softwoods. It was not made for the entire cycle of installation, removal, and re-installation.

What You'll Need

  • Prybar
  • Light hammer
  • Wood putty
  • Wood wedge
  • Needle nose pliers
  • Lineman's pliers

Option 1: Trash the Trim, Pull the Nails

Summary:  In the end, your time may be better spent trashing old trim and installing new trim.

Even though this quick guide is all about salvaging and reusing trim, a strong case can be made for bypassing salvage operations altogether for medium density fiberboard (MDF).

The reason is because MDF is so brittle that pulling it outwards to gain leverage will easily snap the trim. To dispose, simply break it by hand into foot-long pieces for your household garbage bin. New MDF door trim can be purchased for less than $15.

Unless the existing trim is distinctive, antique, expensive, and thus worth keeping, you might be better off sending it to landfill.  While hardly a green idea, this can save you some anguish. As a rule of thumb, you stand a better chance of removing the trim without damage if the trim is made of real wood.

Option 2: Remove the Trim By Pulling Straight Outward

Summary:  Finish nails allow you to pull the trim off without first removing the nails.

Nails have heads.  Pull out the lumber and you pull out the nail, too. But trim is different -- it's attached with finish nails or brads, both of which are thin and have such small heads that they are almost non-existent.

For all materials except MDF, gain traction on the trim with a thin prybar, then pull back.  The trim will pull through the nails or brads, leaving fasteners still attached to the wall. One potential complication: sometimes DIY installers use wood or construction glue to make trim stick better. If so, you will end up ripping away drywall paper.

Caulk is sometimes applied to the tops of baseboards, outer edges of window and door trim, or along the bottom edge of crown molding. The reason for this is to cover gaps and create a smoother appearance.

The Process

  1. Score the Paint: In older houses, the trim is connected to the wall by multiple layers of paint. So it is helpful to first score the seam between trim and wall with a utility knife to simplify removal.
  2. Protect the Wall: Lay down a wood wedge 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. Screwdrivers tend to dig holes into the trim, so they may not be useful. But pry bars are great because they are wider, and thus you stand less of a chance of gouging the trim work.
  1. Start At an End: Begin prying from either end of the trim.  Do not begin in the center.
  2. Pull Outward: Carefully pry outward, letting the finish nails slide through the holes in the trim. 
  3. Remove or Pound In Nails: Once you have the trim work off, it is a simple matter to remove the protruding finish nails with a hammer or lineman’s pliers. Or take the opposite tack and pound those finish nails flat into the wall.
  4. Remove Nails From Trim: If you decide to save the trim and the nails are still sticking out of the trim, lay the trim on a sawhorse so that the fastener is sticking with the pointed end up. Knock the fastener down with a light hammer. There is no need to completely hammer the fastener out. Instead, turn the trim over and complete the removal with your pliers.