How to Paint Trim

Learning how to paint trim is easy to do once you’ve mastered a few basic steps.

You’ve done the hard part – trim installation – and you’re ready to do what I personally think is the fun part. If you can simply follow some basic instructions (sprinkled in with a dose of patience) in regard to the total prep and painting process, you’ll have the professional-looking result you want.

But first things first. As far as the tools and materials you will need, they are:

painting trim picture

Putty Knife
You will be using this tool to apply and smooth out putty over cracks and nail holes

# 220 Grit Sand Paper
This is to sand the dried putty


picture of caulk gun with tube of caulk

Painter’s Caulk
I like to use a latex caulk that’s both moisture and mold resistant, with easy water clean-up capabilities. To allow for a seamless finish when the paint goes on, you will be filling cracks and splits as a result of installation, or simply being worn over time, such as you might see in older homes.


Tip
When deciding on which caulk to use, you can go with an ordinary latex painter’s caulk, which will work just fine.

The problem (if this is indeed a ‘real’ problem – sort of how you view it from a personal standpoint) I see, is that ordinary painter’s caulk can be affected by moisture rather easily, which can damage the fine work you did on the original wood trim installation. Surface mold is another issue too that can develop and spread quickly on this type of caulk.

The problem is not the caulk, but where you put it. In the case of a laundry room, for example, I would apply a latex/silicone mixture that can address these particular issues effectively, especially in a warm, and sometimes damp, environment.

A little more expensive per tube ($3.50 for the better caulk versus $1.50 for the ordinary stuff), but I think well worth the expense. Certainly location of the trim (bathroom vs. bedroom) will play a major role in what type of caulk to use.

Please see my page referencing everything about caulk for more details.

Also, please see my page on painting preparation if you’ve got a few more questions answered regarding prep work.


sanding trim

Latex Multi-purpose Primer
If you are painting on new wood trim, or bare woodwork as a result of stripping off old paint, or even simply the original finish being worn off from years of abuse, you will need to apply primer before coating with finish paint.

This seals the wood to help protect it, and in turn provides a solid base on which to apply your finish coat. If you were to paint directly onto the bare wood surface, the result would be an absorption of paint, giving it a dull look.

Primer also provides excellent adhesion capabilities so the finish paint can “grip” the wood trim really well, and thereby allowing for a professional-looking finish.

It should be noted, however, that many home-improvement stores carry pre-primed trim. This is a big time-saving aspect that eliminates any priming on your part. I highly recommend using this type of trim-work if possible.

Finish Paint
Use either latex, or oil-based coatings to apply over the woodwork. For a really durable finish, especially in the kitchen and bathroom areas, consider using an oil-based paint.

Painting Preparation

Fill Nail Holes
If you’re trim newly installed, you’re going to have a lot of nail holes to fill. With you’re putty knife, fill in the holes. If you don’t want to use the putty knife, you can use your fingers (which some people prefer to do), which works just as well. Let completely dry (check manufacturer’s suggestions) for a time, and then sand.

Tip

Wipe down (lightly) with a wet rag the area immediately after applying the caulk with your finger.

I’ve seen it happen so many times, that someone will simply smear the caulk around with their fingers and let it dry, which will then leave unmistakable ridges and swirls looking like you left your 6 year-old daughter in charge of the prep work. When it’s painted over, the roughness sticks out like a sore thumb, all the way up and down. Very noticeable!

caulking trim

Caulk All Cracks and Splits
As stated earlier, many cracks, splits, and open seams are a result of new installation, or just a function of wear and tear over time. With effective caulking technique,these types of things can easily be overcome. Simply run your caulk bead (slowly) over the area, and, with a wet finger, smooth out the bead along the line of separation.

This will easily fill in the area, leaving a seamless transition when you begin to paint. Always have clean, wet rag handy to lightly wipe down the trim after caulking. You will ensure a smooth surface, instead a rough caulk application.

Tip

Wipe down (lightly) with a wet rag the area immediately after applying the caulk with your finger.

I’ve seen it happen so many times, that someone will simply smear the caulk around with their fingers and let it dry, which will then leave unmistakable ridges and swirls looking like you left your 6 year-old daughter in charge of the prep work. When it’s painted over, the roughness sticks out like a sore thumb, all the way up and down. Very noticeable!

masking tape on trim

Add Tape
Apply masking tape to the area you do not want any paint on. Areas such as your new floor, in particular. Even though you may think you have an extremely steady hand (like me), the reality is that you will, in all probability, get some paint on the floor (or walls,etc.) while painting. I know I always do, even though I think I’m the greatest painter on earth. Put the tape down and save yourself some frustration.

Apply Primer
After all the putty has been sanded, the caulk has been applied (and dried), and the protective tape put down, you’re ready to prime the surface (if using bare wood). This will seal it completely.

Apply Finish Coat
Let the primer completely dry, and then add finish coats of paint. Usually one to two coats will be sufficient.

Remember

When painting trim, always brush your strokes with the grain of the wood, to maintain the integrity of the finish. If the trim is flat (as in ‘manufactured’ trim such as Masonite), simply brush on the paint with the lay of the trim. For example, if you are painting the baseboard and shoe mold along the floor (lying horizontally), you should brush with the lay of the trim – horizontally. Same applies for door trim, if it’s vertical, for example, brush up and down – not side-to-side.

And try not to cross-brush where trim pieces join together perpendicular to each other. Like when a horizontal piece joins a perpendicular piece. Brush with the lay of the piece (or grain). Up and down for vertical, side-to-side for horizontal.

Again, this type of result looks very amateurish, especially if using something like a semi-gloss oil. When it dries, you can really see the wild brush-stroke effect of what I’m talking about here.

Well, that about does it for the basics on how to paint trim. If you would like more information, please see my painting page for further details.