Think of your painted trim as the equivalent of jewelry in your wardrobe; just as your clothing is the main attraction while jewelry serves to add that "little something special," so too do your walls serve as the main attraction while the trim adds a little hint of extra color, shine, or finish.
Even though interior trim doesn't cover much space compared to walls or ceilings, it's a small thing that calls big attention to itself. Since trim is normally at least somewhat decorative, stands out from the wall surface, and stretches all the way around the room, it adds more impact than you might expect. Additionally, trim serves to protect the lower portion of the wall from scrapes and scratches, as well as conceal the junction of wall and floor, window, or door.
Painting trim, whether around windows, doors, or baseboards, is a project well within the capabilities of most DIYers. But that doesn't mean merely grabbing a paint brush and a can of semi-gloss white. Here are helpful guidelines to choosing trim paint colors, trim paint finishes, and trim paint brands, as well as painting trim.
Trim paint is a category of interior paint that is formulated specifically for use on trim. It has a satin, semi-gloss, gloss, or high gloss sheen. Trim paint usually comes pretinted in bright white and in base colors that can be custom-tinted. It dries to a very hard finish that has some resistance to moisture, and it usually has ingredients that resist yellowing or sagging.
Watch Now: The Best Trim Paint for Windows, Doors, and Baseboards
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Trim Paint's Main Features
While technically you can use regular wall paint to paint your trim, you'll usually have better results by choosing paint specifically formulated for trim. These paints have certain qualities that make them better suited to stand up to the wear-and-tear often suffered by trim surfaces, such as baseboards and windowsills.
Nobody likes seeing brush marks on their trim. By its very nature, oil-based paint helps to level out brush strokes, as its longer drying times help the paint settle.
Acrylic-latex paints do show brush marks. So, additives to acrylic-latex paint formulated for use on trim help to smooth it out, leaving a smooth, perfect finish.
Trim paint is most often semi-gloss, meaning it has some shine, but not the intense shine of a gloss or high-gloss. There are a few reasons for using a glossy paint on trim, rather than eggshell or matte:
- The glossier the finish, the easier it is to wipe clean. Baseboards and window trim tend to get scuffed and grungy, so it's helpful to use a paint you'll be able to clean easily.
- Glossier paint highlights decorative touches in trim, such as angles, curves, and lines.
- While it's true that the glossier the paint, the less it is able to conceal imperfections in the painted surface, semi-gloss strikes a nice balance between the concealing benefits of flatter paints and the light-reflecting qualities of high-gloss paint.
But although semi-gloss is the most commonly used paint finish for trim, you can opt instead for gloss, high-gloss, or satin if you prefer.
Thanks to gravity's pull, wet paint can "sag" downwards as it dries, leaving an uneven or blotchy finish. Trim paint is generally somewhat thicker than regular wall paint to help prevent this.
Most trim gets painted white. Window trim, in particular, gets blasted by the sun on a daily basis, and UV rays can quickly yellow the paint.
That's why some paint companies advertise non-yellowing properties with their pre-tinted white paint. Without this feature, different window trims will yellow at different rates. Even different sections within the same window will yellow differently.
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Types of Trim Paint
Trim paint comes in two main varieties, oil-based and acrylic-latex:
Oil-based paint is the classic trim paint. If you have a house that is at least a few decades old, chances are good that the trim was painted with oil-based paint.
Oil-based trim paint results in superior, glass-like finishes with minimal to zero brush marks. But this does come at the cost of slow drying times, fumes, and solvent-based clean-up requirements.
Because of its thick consistency, oil-based paint is good at filling in minor holes. However, oil-based paints are less environmentally friendly than latex paints, and so many localities now ban oil-based paints in sizes above quarts. Only use a paintbrush with natural bristles, as the oil formula will affect synthetic bristles.
If you do choose an oil-based paint for your trim, a natural-bristle paintbrush will provide the best results. Be aware that you must use mineral spirits or paint thinner to clean up your brushes after painting with oil-based paint.
Acrylic Latex or Enamel
Water-based paint can produce a good finish and minimal brush marks, but not quite as good as oil-based paint's properties. Brush marks are likelier to be visible. The surface will not have the rock-hard shell texture of oil-based paints. Still, for many people, the benefits outweigh these costs.
Water-based trim paints afford easy clean-up with soap and water. Fumes are minimal or non-existent. You can buy these paints in gallon sizes if needed, and you'll find a wider range of choices at the paint store.
Synthetic-bristled brushes are recommended for latex paint.
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Trim paint is most often white, but can be tinted to any color you choose.
You can't go wrong with white trim. Of course, there are many variations on white—some are visually cooler than others—but whatever the color of your walls, white trim sets a traditional, non-obtrusive tone.
For a clean, modern style, consider painting your trim the same color as the walls, whether that's gray, a pastel, a vibrant bright, or a shade of white. This is especially good if your ceilings are low, as it visually stretches the walls.
For an unexpected touch of modern style, paint trim black to contrast with white or light-colored walls. This is a bold look that adds drama to a space, but isn't overwhelming.
There's no law that says trim must be subdued. You can add a big splash of color and personality to a room by painting trim a bright color that plays off white or light walls. This is especially fun in a child's bedroom, but can work equally well in a grownup space that doesn't take itself too seriously.
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Tips for Painting Trim
Painting trim isn't difficult, but as with all DIY painting projects, the key to good results is taking the time to prep first.
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- Sand away any rough spots, flaking paint, or other imperfections.
- Fill large holes, cracks, or gouges with spackle or a similar filler.
- Brush a stain-sealing primer over any areas that you've sanded or filled, as well as any bare wood, stains, or other imperfections. If that's a sizable portion of your trim, then go ahead and prime all of it. Otherwise, you are fine just priming areas that need a little extra cover.
- Use painters tape to cover the edge of the wall or floor that lies against the trim. This protects those surfaces from unwanted drips of paint. Run a paint scraper or credit card along the edge of the tape to ensure a good seal. That will prevent any paint from seeping beneath the tape.
- Choose a 2-inch trim brush with a slanted edge. These brushes make it easy to paint trim without slopping paint onto the walls or floors.
- Dip your paint brush into the container of paint, covering no more than 1/3 the length of the bristles, and lightly slap the bristles against the inside of the can to remove excess paint.
- Start painting along the trim with your brush around 1/4-inch away from the wall, floor, or ceiling next to the trim. With your next brushstroke, move the brush a little closer to the edge of the trim. Finally, brush along the trim edge. Continue to work in this manner until you've painted the entire edge of the trim.
- Paint in the rest of the trim, using quick movements of your brush to apply a thick layer of paint, and then going back over the paint to smooth it out.
- Don't brush wet paint over paint that's already been smoothed, as this will leave brush marks.
- Brush towards the edges of the trim, but don't run your paintbrush right over any edges, as this can create a heavier area of paint that will drip, ruining your perfect finish.
- Let paint dry until it's tacky, but not fully dry, before removing the painters tape. Otherwise, you can lift some of the fresh paint along with the tape.
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Trim Paint Brands
While there are many brands of trim paint available, the following companies are commonly found in home improvement centers and paint stores. All are good quality paints that should provide excellent results.
- Behr: Ultra Interior Semi-Gloss Enamel; soap and water clean-up
- Benjamin Moore: Regal Classic Premium Interior Paint, Semi-Gloss Finish; 100-percent acrylic resin; soap and water clean-up
- Dutch Boy: DuraClean Cabinet, Door & Trim Interior/Exterior Paint + Primer; gloss enamel finish
- Glidden: Trim, Door & Furniture paint in high-gloss; oil-based; solvent clean-up
- Olympic: Interior/Exterior Paint + Primer in high-gloss; soap and water clean-up
- Sherwin-Williams: ProClassic Waterborne Interior Acrylic Enamel; soap and water clean-up
- Valspar: Ultra Interior Paint + Primer; soap and water clean-up
Do you need to prime trim before painting it?
It's not always absolutely necessary to prime trim before painting it, but for the best results, you should at least prime any areas that are stained, bare, or that required sanding to remove rough edges or imperfections. For the absolute best results, however, prime all of your trim before painting it.
How much trim paint should you buy?
While it depends on whether you're painting just a room's worth of trim or the whole house, it's likely less than you think. Most people buy just a quart or a gallon of trim paint, rather than the multiple gallons required when painting room walls. One quart will cover two doors, 150 linear feet of long/narrow trim such as crown molding or baseboards, or 50 feet of stair railings.
What is the best paint finish for trim?
Many homeowners are averse to the idea of glossy items in their homes, and understandably so. Glossy paint on walls and ceilings highlights flaws and produces uncomfortable reflected light. Yet trim is one area where you might want to compromise and instead go with semi-gloss trim paint. At the least, use satin gloss on trim.
Can you use flat or matte paint on trim?
Because flat sheen paints have far fewer resins than the glossy types, they are not as good at resisting dirt and stains. Along with this, they are hard to clean. Dust and dirt tend to stick to flat paints. Not just that but flat or matte trim paint chips more readily than glossier paint. If you do decide to paint trim flat, know its limitations and be ready to deal with them. For example, rather than trying to clean flat trim paint you may want to have a spare can ready so that you can touch up scuffs.
Detailed Fact Sheet: Architectural Coating Rule for Volatile Organic Compounds. Environmental Protection Agency.