Painting trim is among the most common painting tasks that homeowners undertake, right along with walls and cabinets.
Painting your trim can completely change the look and feel of a room, it can brighten the space or make it more elegant.
I’ve painted a lot of trim over my 15-year painting career. I’ve brushed out trim in homes, I’ve sprayed trim and I’ve painted the trim in countless new construction homes. I have a lot of advice that will not only make your trim look amazing when completed, but will speed up your painting process and give you a finished product that will last for decades.
How To Paint Trim
There are a few different ways to paint trim. You can brush it after installation, you can spray it after installation or your can pre-finish the trim before installation (which I only recommend in very few certain circumstances).
Brushing Vs Spraying Trim
In theory, spraying your trim is always going to leave you with a better finish. It will be smoother and leave a fantastic looking finish. In new construction, I always spray the trim, no questions asked.
In the reality of an existing home, spraying your trim will cause you a ton of extra work while delivering results that while better than brushing, are not significant enough to justify the extra work for 95% of the people out there, the possibility of overspray getting on areas you don’t want it or the extra smell that will be in your home.
Also, let’s be honest, nobody is going to get down on their hands and knees and look so close at your baseboard that they will be able to tell that it has brush strokes in it. And even if you can see them in the trim around your doors and windows, personally, I like the look of brush strokes, it adds character.
Even in my own home, I chose to brush all of our trim when I painted it. It looks great and I am completely happy with it. To me, the difference between spraying and brushing was not worth the extra work.
Because of all this, I am not going to be going into detail on spraying in this article. Though most of the info is interchangeable for spraying and brushing, I’ll just be dropping a few random spraying tips here and there.
Painting Your Trim Index
- Paints and Tools I Recommend
- Time Needed To Paint Your Trim
- Painting Trim Or Walls First
- Step 1: Prepping The Room
- Step 2: Cleaning The Trim
- Step 3: Filling Nail Holes
- Step 4: Sanding The Trim
- Step 5: Priming The Trim
- Step 6: Caulking The Gaps
- Step 7: Painting The Trim’s First Top Coat
- Step 8: Painting The Final Coat
- Step 9: Cleanup
Paints and Tools I Recommend
Painting trim requires only a few basic tools and materials.
- Painter’s Tape – For taping off floors and windows.
- 5-in-1 Painter’s Tool – Perfect for pressing tape, cutting tape, filling holes and other random tasks.
- Drop Cloths
- 2.5″ Paint Brush – Want to learn everything there is about paint brushes? Check out my posts All About Paint Brushes and How To Clean Your Paintbrush.
- Medium, Fine, and Extra Fine Grit Sanding Sponges – Each for different stages of the trim painting process.
- Caulk and Caulk Gun – For caulking gaps and cracks.
- Spackling Paste – For filling nail holes in your trim.
Time Needed To Paint Your Trim
Painting trim can actually be quite a time-consuming project, especially if you are doing window and door trim. Floor trim (baseboards) tends to be significantly faster than window and door trim due to the fact the window casing and door casing involve many surfaces, lots of caulking and more nail holes to fill.
A typical 15×15 bedroom with 1 main door trim, closet door trim, base trim and two sets of window trim should take roughly 1 hour to prep, 1 hour to prime and 2-4 hours to top coat.
A typical 15×15 bedroom should then take you anywhere between 4-6 hours. Once you are experienced, 2-3 bedrooms worth of trim can easily be painted in a day.
Curious how long it takes to paint a room? Check out my article on How Long It Takes To Paint A Room.
Estimating the Time For Your Entire Trim Painting Project
To estimate your entire trim painting project, I typically plan on 1.5 hours per set of window trim, though different size windows and different casings require more or less time with some of the more complicated larger windows requiring 2+ hours.
For door casing and trim, assuming you are painting both sides, I recommend budgeting 1.5 hours per door trim set.
Finally, for base trim, I recommend budgeting 1 hour per 25 feet of trim.
Painting Trim or Walls First
This is a question I often get from friends, family, and visitors: “Should I paint the walls before I paint the trim?”.
The answer is to always paint the trim first.
By painting the trim first, you are saving extra prep time later on and creating a surface that will be easier to tape a perfectly straight line on later.
The reason for this is that if you paint the walls last, then when you are painting the trim you can caulk the trim to the walls (which vastly improves the look) and allow the trim paint to flow from the trim, over the caulk, and onto the wall.
Finally, trim paint (enamel) dries extra hard and this makes it so you can tape off your trim and get a nice clean tape line when painting your walls later on.
If you paint your walls first, taping the walls to paint the trim is extremely difficult and the paint is usually not nearly as hard drying as trim paint, so the paint can easily pull off when you pull the tape. Also, pulling the tape can lift not only the paint but also the top layer of paper from your drywall and that is a disaster!
Step 1: Prepping The Room
The first thing you need to do with any paint job is to start with proper prep work.
To prep a room for trim painting I start by first clearing out the room and prepping off the floors.
If You Have Carpet Floors
If you have carpeted floors, start by taking a roll of tape and ripping 1′ – 3′ strips of tape off the roll and tucking the inside edge under the trim but over the carpet. This is hard to do without ripping a 1-3′ piece of tape off the roll.
By tucking the tape under the trim but over the carpet, you are making sure there is a clean separation between the trim and carpet that you can paint up to.
After you’ve done this around the entire room, add a second row of 1.5″ tape around the room. After this second row of tape, it will be much easier to pull a drop cloth up to the tape where you are working.
If You Have Solid Floors (wood, linoleum, tile)
For solid floors, take your roll of painters tape and run a strip right where the floor meets the trim. Take your time as a perfect line here saves a lot of cleanup time later on.
After the first strip is laid down, I again like to run a second strip around the room to give me more working space next to the trim (2-3″).
Once I have taped off the floor, I will run a roll of 36″ rosin paper around the room instead of dragging around a drop cloth. This acts as a permanent drop cloth around the room and avoids the hassle of dragging around your drop and potentially smearing paint drips from your drop cloth onto the floor.
Prepping Windows and Doors
For windows, you’ll want to run a strip of tape where the trim/casing ends and either meets up with vinyl on the window, glass or whatever material is not to be painted.
You’ll also want to remove any window coverings and cranks.
For door trim, you have two options. You can completely remove the door and hinges, or place two strips of tape over the hinge, then outline the door hinge with a razor blade knife and cut off the excess tape so only the hinge has tape on it when completed.
Step 2: Cleaning The Trim
Any quality paint job has to involve cleaning of the surface that is to be painted and trim is no exception.
If the room is a relatively clean room, a vacuuming with a shop vac should be sufficient.
If the room is a kitchen, where grease has built up over the years, then a mix of warm soapy water should be used to hand wash all the trim. I’m not talking about an hour or two of scrubbing, just 10 minutes or so and wipe down all the surfaces that will be painted.
Make sure to go over the surfaces a quick second time to remove any soap residue.
Step 3: Filling Nail Holes
If you are painting your trim white (or really any other color), every hole, gap and crack is going to show after it has been painted. All holes will show as a contrasting black and be horribly noticeable.
I like to fill all my nail holes with spackling paste. It is easy to work with and sands really easily.
This step should take you no more than 5-10 minutes or so in a standard room.
Do not fill gaps between the wall and the trim with spackle or gaps between trim boards. These gaps require a flexible caulk or they will crack almost immediately after the job is completed. But hold off on caulking, for now, caulking is step 6 for a reason.
If you were painting kitchen cabinets, this is where I would talk about filling the grain of the wood to ensure the smoothest finish possible. But this is trim. Trust me, not worth the time and effort to fill the grain on your trim.
Step 4: Sanding The Trim
Sanding your trim before painting has multiple purposes.
First, it will smooth out the nail holes that you filled with spackling paste.
Second, it smooths down the surface and helps the final product feel and look better.
Third, it breaks down any previous surfaces that may not be porous enough to allow the primer to bond as well as it should. Sanding scuffs the surface and allows the primer to bond properly with the trim that is being painted.
For my first round of sanding, I like to use medium grit 3M sanding sponges. The sponge foam forms nicely to the trim as I am sanding, keeps my hand away and prevents slivers, and is rough enough to quickly and effectively prepare my surface for painting.
After you have sanded all of your trim, you’ll need to once again shop vac everything. A great paint job requires a flawlessly clean work area to prevent dust and debris from getting in your finish, so don’t just vacuum off the trim, but vacuum the room.
Step 5: Priming The Trim
After all the work of getting your trim ready for paint, you finally get to bust our your paintbrush!
There are lots of different primers that will work great for priming your trim. I’m not going to tell you what you should or shouldn’t use here, but rather give you a few tips.
Note On Oil vs Water-Based Paints For Trim
If you are going to use an oil-based top coat, you should use an oil based primer. If you are going to use a water based top coat, then you should use a water based primer (though you can opt to use an oil-based primer to help lock in stains better so they do not bleed through into the water-based top coat).
Typically in a residential home, I am going to always recommend water-based paint. Oils tend to release too many VOCs and stink up your home. Oils are also harder to clean up since they require paint thinner and you must properly dispose of that thinner. Water based paint can be cleaned up in your laundry sink.
The difference in look from water to oil-based paints is becoming smaller and smaller every year as water-based finishes get better and better.
When you start brushing on your primer, try to use long even strokes that go with the length of the trim. Try to come down gently on the trim and lift off gently on each stroke.
The smoother your brush strokes are, the smoother your finish will look when completed.
Your goal should be to use enough primer where you are applying it thick but not thick enough to cause runs. Try to find that sweet spot.
After the primer has had ample time to dry 100%, you’ll want to sand all of the trim again. You’ll notice that quality paint jobs require many different rounds of sanding!
For sanding the primer, I recommend using 3M fine grit sanding sponges. These sponges are a little bit finer than the medium grit I recommend using before priming and they get the primer feeling extra smooth and ready for the next step.
After you sanding is complete, make sure to shop vac all of the trim and the room to completely eliminate any dust in the environment.
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Step 6: Caulking The Gaps
Caulking the gaps in your trim vastly improves the final look of your painted trim. Gaps show up as a black contrast to your white paint and the caulk makes the installation look perfect. It also allows for a razor sharp tape lines when you go to paint your walls.
Many painters will tell you to caulk the gaps in your trim before you prime, but I like doing it after priming for a handful of reasons.
First, once all of your trim is primed, the gaps stand out like a sore thumb and you can see exactly where the caulk is needed. This saves you time from having to caulk areas where caulk is not needed.
Second, at this point the trim has been sanded twice and primed, your chance for slivers has reduces dramatically.
Third, the priming and sanding has made the trim very smooth and thus allows you to lay a very fine smooth bead of caulk.
Fourth, the caulk is non-porus and paintable, it does not need to be primed, so you can top coat right over it without sacrificing durability, quality or look.
How To Caulk Your Trim
I recommend using a dripless caulk gun, a wet cloth and a tube of flexible, indoor, white paintable caulk.
Cut a very small piece off the tip of the tube of caulk and make sure to cut it at an angle so you can lay the tip of the caulk neatly into the gap as you squeeze out the caulk.
I like to run a bead of roughly 5′-10′ before stopping and going over the bead with my wet rag to smooth it out. By running the rag over the caulk, it forces the caulk into the gap and leaves it looking perfectly smooth.
Make sure to rinse out your rag often and keep it very wet.
Always start your caulking in corners as they are the most difficult to get looking nice and clean.
You should use just enough caulk to fill the gaps, try not to have any caulk coming out or over the gaps. It is fine to have the caulk run up the wall just a little bit as well.
There is no sanding or anything else needed after caulking. Give your caulk ample time to dry and them move on to top coating your trim.
Step 7: Painting The Trim’s First Top Coat
Now that all your prep, hole filling, priming, and caulking are completed, it’s time to start brushing on the first top coat of paint onto your trim.
There is no magic or amazing tips here, just brush on your top coat using long even smooth strokes. Try to again find that sweet spot where you are applying plenty of top coat, but not so much that you have any runs. Avoid runs at all costs.
There are many different top coats that you can use for your trim that will work just fine. Window and door trim will require something a little more durable that baseboard trim though.
Both of these products are easy to apply, come in water-based versions and dry to a beautiful and durable finish!
Sand and Vacuum Your Top Coat
Once your first top coat has had time to thoroughly dry, then it is time for your final round of sanding.
For this round of sanding I recommend using 3M Extra Fine sanding sponges.
I’ve found that using their fine (or medium) sanding sponges can leave tiny scratches that can show in the final coat. However, the Extra Fine sponges will sand off any dust in the finish, give it a perfectly smooth finish and the scratches left in the finish are easily covered with the final top coat.
After sanding, make sure to shop vac the trim and the entire room so you are ready for the final top coat.
Step 8: Painting The Final Coat
The final step in painting your trim is also the easiest and quickest. You’ve prepped, primed, caulked, first coated and now it’s time for the final coat.
Nothing new here, make sure you use even strokes and that no dust or debris lands in the finish.
You should find that you need less paint and that it spreads easier as well. This is due to the fact that the trim has a great barrier already on it and this top coat isn’t being sucked up into the previous coats as much.
Take your time, pay attention to detail and you will have a great looking finished product.
Step 9: Cleanup
After all of your painting is completed, cleanup is your last step. All you need to know about cleanup is to wait until the paint has dried, but not cured.
If the paint is dry, you won’t make a mess while pulling tape, paper and drop cloths.
But if you wait too long (days) and have allowed the paint to cure, any drips you find that made their way onto the floor will be drastically harder to remove. Runs in the finish will also be harder to fix.
Painting Trim In Conclusion
Painting your trim, whether base trim, window trim or door trim, does require a good amount of time. But with patience and attention to detail, it is a project that any homeowner can easily do and have great results.
Got some of your trim paint on the floor or carpet? Check out my article on How To Remove Paint From Nearly Any Surface.
Have any questions or comments? Leave them below, I always make sure to answer every question!