Tips for How to Paint Trim

By Clint C. Thomas, Esq.
Photographs by Zoe Thomas


Trim Paint with Perfection.






Painting is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to transform any living space into something new and exciting. However, for some reason many people shy away from painting. A co-worker of mine once told me that he and his wife tried to paint their newborn’s bedroom. When I asked how it went, he grimaced before answering—it didn’t go so well. In fact, he went on to explain that it was a complete disaster.

There is no great mystery to painting. Like everything in life, we get better at it with practice, but I believe the most important factor in having a successful painting experience is to paint like a neat-freak.

Many paint jobs are unsuccessful because of accidental spills, runs and trying to work with too much paint. A small accident can quickly turn into a big mess. Those few drops of paint on the floor invariably get tracked all over the room and end up getting on the carpet. Brushes that are overloaded with paint can transfer that excess paint onto the hands and clothes of the painter who quickly contaminates everything in his immediate vicinity. Short, choppy strokes with a paint brush cause specs of paint to be broadcast onto other things that are not supposed to be painted.

My family and I recently tackled the job of painting the trim work in our foyer and on our home’s main staircase. It had been stained a dark Jacobean brown and then had a heavy coat of polyurethane applied over it. We decided to use a semi-gloss, white, latex paint in an effort to brighten up an otherwise very dark foyer.

Our plan was to paint the baseboards, door casing, doors and transoms white along with the stair risers, the spindles on the handrail and the paneled wall directly under the staircase. We decided to leave the handrail, treads and newel posts in the Jacobean finish. (To the lovers of fine wood out there, please don’t be outraged. Rest assured that the items that we painted were pine, and not oak or some other exotic hardwood.)

So, to have a positive painting experience it was important to follow a few simple steps. The first step was to clear the work area by completely removing the furnishings from the room. However, if the room is large enough, this can be accomplished by pushing everything to the center of the room. It is much easier to paint a room when it is empty instead of having to work around furniture and decoration. This also eliminates the possibility of getting paint on these items.

The best way to move large pieces of furniture are with dollies. A set of dollies can be made for almost nothing out of scrap lumber that you probably already have around your house. Simply take a couple of left-over pieces of plywood and cut two sections that measure 29 inches long by 10 inches wide. I once made a second set of dollies that were 36 inches wide, and much to my chagrin, I discovered that it would not go through most doorways. This is why a maximum length of 29 inches is preferred. Frame the outside perimeter with 1x strips of wood. This keeps whatever is being moved from rolling or sliding off the dolly while it’s in motion. Attach swivel casters under all four corners to complete the construction of the dollies.



After removing all the furniture from the room, the next step was to give the work area a good cleaning. Start from the top and work down. Run something like a Swifter over the walls and then hand wipe the trim work with a clean rag. A tack cloth works great if you have one. The final step was to vacuum the floor, being sure to get inside all of the cracks at the intersection of the floor and baseboards with the vacuum cleaner’s wand.

Follow up the cleaning by covering the floor with a drop cloth or plastic. A canvas drop cloth works better than plastic because it is not slippery. If plastic is used, try to buy it in

a roll with a thickness of 3 mils. I have found that a thickness less than 3 mils is too light and will billow up with every step that you take. A thickness greater than 3 mils is unnecessary overkill and is too stiff to comfortably work with.

As with the cleaning, it is usually best to start at the top and work down. As a general rule, it is best to paint the ceiling and crown moulding before tackling the walls and baseboards. Personally, I prefer to paint the trim work first because it is easier to cut-in along a wall than it is to follow the narrow edge provided by trim work.

Before applying any paint to the trim work in my foyer, I gave everything a light sanding with a 220-grit sandpaper to rough up the polyurethane that had been previously applied. If this is not done, the new primer and paint will not grab the surface well enough to bond to it. In some cases it will even cause the new paint to smear instead of going on smoothly.

Don’t forget my neat-freak mantra. After sanding everything down, wipe down the walls and trim work with a damp (not wet) rag, rinsing it often, and then run the vacuum cleaner over the floors. Be sure to pay special attention to the cracks and crevices along the edges of the floor and on staircases.



It is usually a good idea to prime your work surface before applying the finish coat. Many paint manufacturers advertise one coat coverage, but in actuality this is extremely rare. Typically, two coats are required, and if a primer is used it will help to cover any stains that may exist. A primer is an absolute necessity when painting over raw wood ora stained surface. Priming your work area also has the added advantage of providing you with an intimate acquaintance with the surfaces that you will be painting. This allows you to discover or detect potential problems in the priming stage that can be avoided when the finish coats are being applied.

On this project I used Kilz 2 brand primer that I had tinted with a small amount of black color. Kliz 2 is white, and after the addition of a little black it becomes battleship gray. The purpose behind doing this is to keep water spots and other stains from bleeding through the finish coat. Much like painting a car, battleship gray or primer gray makes it harder for a discoloration to bleed through the finished product. Since I was painting over a very dark brown stain, the use of a primer that was tinted gray allowed me to use fewer coats of paint than if I had used a white primer.



With the sanding behind me and everything primed, all that was left was to apply the finish color. Depending upon the paint, this can take one to three coats for complete coverage. When applying paint, it is usually best to use two thinner coats than to try and apply one thick coat. Thick coats of paint are much more likely to have runs or fill up ornamental detail unnecessarily.

Trim work is always painted with a brush. Paint brushes come in all shapes, sizes and price ranges. I avoid the really inexpensive brushes and high-end brushes alike. My philosophy is to stick with middle-of-the-road paint brushes and buy a new packet of them for each new job. This may seem a little wasteful, but it doesn’t take too much use to wear out a paint brush. The bristles often begin to stiffen slightly or spread out even after a minimal amount of use. Trying to paint with a stiff brush or one that is the wrong size for the job is a common problem for neophyte painters.

I prefer a 3-in.brush with straight bristles and use it almost exclusively for interior work. My wife, on the other hand, prefers a 2-in. brush that has the bristles cut at an angle. For tedious jobs I will alternate between a new, 1-in. brush and an artist’s brush that has a flat, wide tip and not the traditional teardrop shape.

It is a good idea to wash out your brush halfway through the project or if it becomes over-loaded with paint. Any painting experience will go better with a clean brush that is not holding a bunch of excess paint. On hot days, it is often necessary to rinse brushes more often so the paint doesn’t dry out and stiffen the bristles. When using latex paint, make sure the brushes are placed in a cup or bucket of water during any breaks or while eating lunch. If your painting will continue the following day, thoroughly rinse out the brushes and then leave them in water over-night until the next day. This helps to ensure that they do not stiffen up.

The best technique for applying paint is long, slow strokes. Never dunk more than half the length of the bristles into the paint. The deeper it is submerged into the paint, the faster that paint gets into the base of the brush where it will dry, hardening the bristles. It is also just messier.

Blue painter’s tape is handy if you need to paint along an edge or otherwise cut-in something. I personally don’t use it anymore because I have a steady hand and have had more practice painting than I care to remember. For those without a steady hand, I highly recommend the use of painter’s tape because it will save a lot of time by eliminating the touch-up work. Another option for cutting-in is a painter’s shield. They work well for larger items, but do not try to use one on anything tedious or if the surface that you are working on is not completely level. Paint shields are handy, but they are not infallible.

To complete my project all that remained was to scrape the paint off the panes of glass on three French doors. I like to use a 4-in. wide wallpaper scraper for this type of work.

Be sure to always use a new blade. A dull blade will do the job, but it will take a lot more effort and time than a razor-sharp one.

By taking just a few precautionary steps it is very easy to have a successful, and I dare say, pleasurable painting experience. A new coat of paint can simply freshen up a room or it can transform a room into something totally new. There is no other more cost-effective home improvement technique for the do-in-yourselfer. The cost of paint and brushes are minimal, but the impact is monumental.


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