How to Paint Trim

How to Paint Trim
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Every home interior – except for the most ultra-modern – has trim, the general name for window and door casings, and baseboards. For homes with a fireplace, the mantel is also considered trim. You probably don’t think much about the trim in your home – until it’s time to paint it! Then, questions arise on how to do the job neatly and efficiently while keeping your patience, and perhaps your sanity. While interior walls are challenging enough to paint, trim poses its own set of issues. We offer this guide to help you achieve results like a pro, should you decide to do it yourself. If not, you know who to call!

Do You Paint the Walls or Paint the Trim First?

If you’re giving a room – or every room – a fresh look, which do you paint first? Of course, your project may only involve painting the baseboards, window and door casings, either because they’re showing signs of wear or you want to use a bolder color to call attention to architectural features or brighten up the space. Or, you may be happy with the trim just as it is, but want to change the wall color. Our blog post – “Today’s Paint Color Trends – Are You Bold?” – offers ideas from leading interior design experts that may inspire you! However, when both walls and trim are on the list, here’s how the experts recommend proceeding.

According to Rich O’Neil, president of Masterworks Painting, many homeowners paint the walls first, then move on to the trim while they wait for the first coat to dry. However, the correct order is to paint all of the woodwork first—the first and second coats—then move on to the walls.

“If you toggle back and forth, your cutlines won’t be as sharp,” O’Neil says. “When you do the woodwork first, you can ride the trim paint onto the walls a little, then cut over it in one go.”

Also, when you paint the trim first, you can cut down on prep time, as it’s easier to tape a straight line (using painter’s tape). If you paint the walls after painting the trim, you can caulk the trim to the walls and let the paint flow from the trim to the caulk and on to the wall. In addition, trim paint – which is typically gloss enamel – dries harder, so you can tape your trim easily and paint your walls without any issue. This is preferable to doing the opposite – that is, taping the walls then painting the trim. Wall paint isn’t as durable as trim paint, and may come off with the tape.

Perfect Prep Work is the Key to Perfect Results

The prep work for trim starts with clearing out the room and prepping the floors. The following instructions are courtesy of DIY Painting Tips.

Carpeted floors – Remove 1′ and 3′ strips of painter’s tape off the roll and tuck the inside edge under the trim but over the carpet. By doing so, you’re making sure there is a clean separation between the trim and carpet that you can paint up to. After you tape the entire room, add a second row of 1.5” tape around the room. Adding a second row of tape allows you to conveniently pull a drop cloth up to the tape (your working area).

Solid floors – Run a strip of painter’s tape where the floor meets the trim; run a second strip around the room to give yourself more working space next to the trim. Instead of using a drop cloth, run a roll of 36″ rosin paper around the room. This prevents the hassle of dragging around a heavy drop cloth and the risk of smearing paint drips from the drop cloth on to the floor.

Windows and doors – For windows, run a strip of tape where the trim/casing ends and meets with whatever material is not to be painted. For door trim, you can 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.

After you’ve completed the taping, proceed to other prep tasks. Family Handyman recommends the following.

Sand the surface carefully Smooth all rough spots with sandpaper. If you have smooth woodwork, you can use 120-grit sandpaper and sand once. But if it is rough, start with 80-grit sandpaper and switch to 100-grit sandpaper for smoothing and blending. You can finally use 120-grit sandpaper to smooth the surface. Buy sandpaper labeled ‘no load,’ which is better for sanding painted surfaces.  

Fill all holes Use a flexible putty knife to fill holes with spackling compound. If the holes are deep, you will need a second fill as well. You can use hardening-type two-part wood filler to patch large gouges on edges that are prone to abuse. Fill smaller holes with spackling compound. You may need to apply a second or even a third coat because spackling compound dries as it shrinks. Sand the surface once you finish the filling.

Caulk the cracks Make sure you caulk every gap and crack. Regardless of the size of the crack, it is crucial to caulk all the gaps. Use a latex caulk or a paintable latex/silicone blend.

Spot-prime to prevent blotches It is vital to prime bare wood and filled areas. Brush a stain-blocking primer on these spots to prevent spotting. Spot-prime all those areas you have filled or patched, and any spots where you have sanded down to bare wood.

Using the Right Tools and the Right Technique

You don’t require too many tools to paint your trim. But it is crucial to use the right tools and the right technique. Here is a list of tools you need to paint your trim:

  • 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.
  • Medium, fine and extra fine grit sanding sponges – Each for different stages of the trim painting process.
  • Shop vacuum.
  • Caulk and caulk gun – For caulking gaps and cracks.
  • Spackling paste – For filling nail holes in your trim.


With the work area prepped and paint and tools ready, it’s time to start painting! Let’s begin! Family Handyman provides the following tips and techniques.

Add a conditioner to latex paint A conditioner helps make the paint flow better, decreases brush marks and slows down the drying time, leading to a better finish.

Use a separate pail – This allows you to load the bristles of the brush conveniently.

Slap the brush To avoid drips while brushing, slap the loaded brush against the sides of the paint can.

Cut-in edges before filling in the center – Brush close to the edge of the trim first, then right along the edge with a second smooth stroke. The Family Handyman article explains this technique in detail.

Unload your brush quickly – Load your brush, then quickly unload on the surface with a few back-and-forth brushstrokes. This is called “laying on” the paint. Repeat until you’ve covered a few feet of trim with paint. Next, without reloading the brush, drag the tips of the bristles over the wet paint in one long stroke to “lay off” the paint. Start in the unpainted area and drag into the previously painted trim. Sweep your brush up off the surface at the end of each stroke. The Family Handyman article explains this technique in greater detail.

Start your brushstroke in an unpainted area Your loaded brush should lay on paint in an unpainted area and then move to the already-coated area.

Avoid brushing across an edge – Brush toward edges or along them. If you get a paint build-up or drip, wipe it away immediately.

Here are additional tips that can help you paint trim more effectively:

  • To get a straight line while painting, hold your breath when you cut along the trim.
  • If using a ladder, stand squarely on it while painting – don’t overreach and paint.
  • To paint uneven surfaces, vibrate your hand a little when cutting in on textured walls or ceilings.
  • Switch hands when cutting in to avoid fatigue.
  • Never run your brush dry.


The Take-Home Message

As you now know, taking on the project of painting trim is rather formidable, even with the insider tips we’ve provided for making the job easier. If you’re still eager to DIY, we hope we’ve given you all the information you need to get beautiful results! Of course, if you’d rather leave it to the pros, call our team at The Paint Manager.

We’ve been proudly serving Central Florida homeowners for 20 years with experienced, dedicated and professional services that include exterior and interior house painting, roof repair and cleaning,  drywall repair, popcorn ceiling texture removal, cabinet refinishing and so much more!

Plus, become a member of The Paint Manager to receive a 15% year-‘round member’s discount. Contact us to learn more about our services and membership discount offer. We look forward to meeting you!

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