How to Paint Trim

Person painting window trim white

As the years go by, our homes bear silent witness to countless memories and laughter, but also wear and tear. Trim often endures much of that abuse, so knowing how to paint trim can breathe new life into your living spaces, reviving the elegance and charm they once possessed.

Enthusiastic pets, playful children, or simply time itself can leave our trim, whether it’s baseboards, crown molding, or around doors and windows, in need of a refresh. A fresh layer of paint can work wonders, transforming old, worn-out trim into pieces of subtle beauty elevating the overall aesthetics of your home without causing financial strain.


Drop cloth on floor with paint supplies
Photo Credit: Steve Cukrov / Adobe Stock / License

As with any painting task, preparation is half the battle. Choose one room to start, moving furniture away from the walls and securing it with plastic drop cloths if needed. You can use drop cloths to protect your floors, especially when painting in carpeted rooms.

Inspection Time: Before you dive into the painting process, take a moment to inspect the trim thoroughly. Look for areas where the trim has separated from the wall. For an impeccable finish, address any holes or dents by filling them with spackle.

Safety First: Homes built before 1978 might have trim painted with lead-based paint. If yours falls into that category, take precautions. Always wear a mask suited for fumes and gloves when handling potential lead paint. If in doubt, a lead test kit can be a useful investment. Read our guide on how to test for lead paint for more details.

What you’ll need:

Angled paint brushFinish nails
Brush-end vacuum attachmentPaintable caulk
Drill and bitsPainter’s rags
Drop clothsPainter’s tape
Hammer & nail setPrimer
Paint scraperSanding pads
Paint tray or cupSemi-gloss latex trim paint
Protective equipmentSpackle
Putty knife
Shop vac
Utility knife

Steps To Achieve Perfectly Painted Trim

Painting trim can be an enjoyable and rewarding task with careful attention and the right approach. Let’s dive into the steps:

1. Secure Loose Trim Pieces

Spot any gaps or loose trim pieces? Secure them with finish nails. To avoid splitting, pre-drill holes using a drill bit slightly smaller than your finish nails. A utility knife will be handy for removing old caulk that might hinder a tight closure of the gap.

Tip: Pre-drill holes using a slightly smaller drill bit than your finish nails to avoid splitting the wood trim.

2. Fill, Sand, and Perfect

Spackle is your friend for filling holes and imperfections. After applying it, focus on sanding, ensuring a smooth, flawless surface. Start with coarser 80-grit sandpaper for rough areas, graduating to finer grits for a final smooth finish. Remember, the smoother the surface, the smoother the paint application.

Tip: A shop vac with a brush-end attachment is perfect for removing sanding dust from trim nooks and crannies.

3. Apply Caulk

Caulk is a game-changer for achieving a professional finish. After initial preparation or priming, apply paintable latex caulk to fill any remaining gaps, cracks, or crevices, smoothing it out with a wet rag for a seamless look. This not only provides a polished look but also aids in moisture prevention.

You can also caulk as a finishing step after painting if you can hide the caulk line with trim. However, if you are caulking beforehand, ensure you use paintable caulk.

Tip: Struggling with a stubborn caulk line? Let it dry first, then return to perfect it.

4. Mask, Prime, and Prep Again

Before the exciting painting step, take time to mask off areas around the trim. You should prime the trim if dealing with oil-based paint or bare wood, and remember to remove the masking tape between coats, reapplying fresh tape before the final paint.

A high-quality angled brush around 1½ to 2 inches wide is ideal for prime application. Once the spot-primed areas have dried, use 120-grit sandpaper to smooth them for a perfect finish and remove all dust.

Tip: To ensure sharp paint lines, remove masking tape when the paint is dry to the touch.

Warning: Latex paint over untreated oil-based paint? Bad idea. Chipping will occur sooner than you think.

5. Time to Paint

Now, the exciting part begins: painting. Use an angled brush of the same size as you used for priming. Dip the first inch of the brush into the paint, wiping away excess paint for clean strokes. Start with short, careful strokes, blending with longer ones for a seamless finish.

Painting Tips:

  • Mix the paint thoroughly before applying, and don’t overload the brush or it will drip; wipe excess paint against the inside rim of the can or paint pan.
  • Balance is key. For wider trim, three or four long strokes should suffice. For narrower trim, one or two should do the trick.
  • Struggling to keep paint off the carpet? A broad drywall knife can be handy. Slide it between the trim and the carpet, creating a barrier that prevents the paint from reaching the carpet. As you paint along the trim, slide the knife accordingly, ensuring it always protects the area you’re working on.

6. Detail Touch-Ups

Once the paint is touch-dry, carefully remove the masking tape at a 45-degree angle. If there are any imperfections or missed spots, this is the time for touch-ups. A small artist’s brush is handy for creating precise lines and fixing minor imperfections.

Tip: Keep a damp rag handy to quickly wipe away any mistakes or drips before they dry.

Best Paint Types for Trim

Person choosing paint can at store
Photo Credit: jchizhe / Adobe Stock / License

Different rooms and trim types might require distinct paint considerations. A bathroom, for instance, contends with high humidity, needing a paint type resilient to such conditions. Similarly, living room trim may be more prone to bumps and scuffs and will benefit from a more durable paint type.

Matching the right paint type to the job ensures longevity, ease of maintenance, and a beautiful end result. These are the best paints for trim and their pros and cons:

Paint TypeProsCons
Oil-Based paints✓ Durable
✓ Easy to clean
✗ Strong odor
✗ Longer drying time
Latex paints✓ Quick drying
✓ Low VOC
✗ Less durable in humid environments
Acrylic-Alkyd hybrid✓ Durable
✓ Low VOC
✓ Quick drying
✗ Won’t cure properly in cold temperatures

Oil-Based Paints

Oil-based paints are known for their durability and resilience. They resist chipping and fading and can be cleaned easily. In addition, they are preferable for areas with high traffic and moisture exposure, ensuring a long-lasting glossy finish. However, these paints have a longer drying time, emit a strong odor, and might yellow over time, requiring mineral spirits for cleanup.

Latex Paints

Latex paints are quick-drying and have low VOCs, making them an excellent choice for DIYers. They are convenient to clean with soap and water and offer a wide range of colors. However, they are less durable in humid environments and may have adhesion issues on some surfaces, resulting in potential chipping and fading.

Acrylic-Alkyd Hybrid Paints

These are the compromise between oil-based and latex paints, combining the quick-drying benefits of latex with the durable finish of oil-based paints. They are durable, resist chipping, and have low VOC. However, they are not ideal for cold temperatures.

How to Avoid Brush Marks

orange paint with brush marks
Photo Credit: DarkMoon / Adobe Stock / License

Achieving a flawless finish when painting trim is the ultimate goal. Brush strokes can be the bane of any painting project, but fear not; we have some tips and techniques to help you avoid those pesky brush strokes and achieve a smooth, professional-looking result.

1. Slap, Don’t Wipe

When loading your brush with paint, resist the temptation to wipe off excess paint on the rim of the paint bucket. Instead, gently slap your brush on the side of the bucket.

Keeping the bristles loaded with paint ensures consistent application to your trim without streaks from bare bristles.

2. Go with the Grain

Whether you paint baseboards, crown molding, or door trim, always follow the wood grain. Painting with the grain ensures a smoother finish and reduces the visibility of brush strokes.

3. Cut in First, Then Paint the Middle

Breaking the trim painting process into two steps can make a significant difference. Start by cutting in along the edges and top/bottom of the trim using an angled brush. Then, come back to fill in the middle in short two-foot increments rather than cutting in everywhere first and then tackling the middle portions.

4. Don’t Over-Brush

Applying too much pressure or repeatedly brushing over the same area can spread the paint too thinly and lead to visible brush strokes. Instead, let the paint do the work as it self-levels during the drying process. Avoid over-brushing, limiting each stroke to 2-3 passes at most.

5. Feather Out Start/Stop Points

When transitioning from one painted area to another or starting a new brush stroke, use an upward sweeping motion to feather out the start and stop points. This technique helps blend the paint seamlessly and minimizes any abrupt transitions.

6. Avoid Starting on Freshly Applied Paint

Never start a brush stroke on an area already covered with paint. Instead, start each stroke in an unpainted section and work towards the already painted areas. This prevents visible starting points on the trim.

7. Lightly Sand Between Coats

For the smoothest finish, lightly sand the trim with 320- or 360-grit sandpaper between coats of paint. This step helps to remove any imperfections and ensures that the subsequent coat adheres well.

8. Pick the Right Sheen

The sheen of your paint can significantly affect the appearance of your trim. High-gloss paints are reflective and protective but can magnify imperfections.

Semi-gloss strikes a balance between shine and subtlety. Satin offers a smooth, velvety look, while matte or flat paints provide a muted appearance. Choose the sheen that complements your style and the room’s traffic level.

FAQ About Painting Trim

Can you use wall paint on the trim? 

The trim is typically a higher sheen than the wall paint, so painting it with the same shade can result in different hues. It is possible to use a combination of primer and paint designed for both walls and trim, providing similar gloss and hue levels in one product. 

Can you paint the trim without sanding? 

Yes, you can. A primer designed to adhere to glossy or sealed surfaces allows you to skip sanding for perfect adhesion. However, this might be less durable in the long run. 

Do I need to prime the trim before painting? 

It depends on the existing finish. If you have wood trim, sand it before applying a primer coat (and follow our wood sanding guide for tips and tricks).

Can I paint over painted trim? 

Yes, you can if the existing paint is in good condition. Unless the trim was painted in a dark color, you can skip priming and apply multiple coats of latex or oil-based trim paint for best results. However, ensure not to use latex paint on top of untreated oil-base paint as it will cause chipping. 

What’s the difference between spackle and caulk? 

Caulk is designed to fill small gaps between materials such as trim pieces and walls or around windows. Use spackle on flat surfaces like walls or trim to fill nail holes and other damage before painting.

While caulk cannot be sanded after application, spackle must be sanded for a smooth surface before painting.

DIY or Hire a Pro

The journey of home improvement is a rewarding one, especially when taken into your own hands. With the burst of the DIY trend, many homeowners are keen on learning the nitty-gritty to enhance their spaces, and the trim is an excellent place to start.

However, not every DIY journey is without challenges. If, at any point, you feel overwhelmed, we can help you connect with qualified painting experts in your area to take the burden off your shoulders.

Main Photo Credit: Greg / Adobe Stock / License

Adrian Nita

Adrian Nita, a former marine navigation officer, has transitioned his precision and attention to detail into the world of painting and color. With over four years of writing experience, he brings a unique perspective, specializing in painting techniques and innovative color trends. When not exploring the latest hues and painting techniques, Adrian enjoys annoying his wife with new painting projects in their home.