How to Paint Woodwork: Tips and Techniques

Get a silky smooth finish on your woodwork

How to get the perfect finish

Having trouble getting your paint to look smooth? Welcome to the club. Painting woodwork so it has a flawless, glossy sheen is challenging. In this article, we'll show you some techniques and tricks that'll produce top-notch results.

For great painted woodwork, good surface preparation and good brushing technique are essential. We'll show you how to accomplish both plus what to add to the paint to help it lie smoother.

Many pros still rely solely on oil-based paints because they dry slowly and allow brush marks to flatten out. But you can achieve similar results with high quality latex paint. Today's formulations cover and brush out well. You won't have the strong odor of oil that'll drive you out of the house for days. And latex also offers the advantage of fast drying and easy soap and water cleanup.

Latex paint is available in a range of sheens from flat to high gloss. Because you want your wood trim to wear well, we recommend eggshell or semi-gloss. The downside to these shiny finishes is that every bump and scratch shows through. Good prep is critical.

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Preparation, preparation

A coat of paint won't fill or hide cracks, chips and other surface defects, and it won't smooth an existing rough surface. You have to fill and smooth the woodwork first. Wash the woodwork with a TSP solution (or TSP substitute) to remove grease and grime. Mix according to the directions on the package and scrub with a sponge or rag. Be sure to rinse well with clear water to remove residues.

Next examine the surface for loose and cracked paint that'll need scraping. Many scraper types are available, but a 2-in. stiff putty knife works well for small areas (Photo 1). When you're done scraping, you'll be left with a rougher surface and a few more scratches and gouges than when you started. Don't worry—you'll fix these areas next.

For dents and chips deeper than about 1/8 in., we like to use a two-part polyester resin. One example is Minwax wood filler. It sticks well, doesn't shrink and sands easily. It's also the best material for rebuilding chipped corners. Auto body fillers also work well.

Scoop out a golf ball–size amount onto a scrap piece of wood or cardboard. Add the correct amount of hardener (follow the directions) and mix thoroughly but quickly (Photo 2). The resin only has a 5- to 10-minute working time.

Keep in mind that stiff putty knives work better for scraping; flexible putty knives work better for filling.

CAUTION

Paint dust and chips from lead paint are hazardous. If your home was built before 1977, the year lead paint was banned, call your local public health department and ask about paint testing details and safe scraping, sanding and cleaning techniques.

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Fill scratches with spackling compound

For finer scratches and chips, use spackling compound. (Ready Patch by Zinsser is one brand used by many pros.) Don't use a lightweight compound; it doesn't stick to painted wood as well.

Finish up the prep work by lightly sanding all areas that haven't been scraped and spot-primed. Use 180-grit paper or the fine sanding sponge. This will smooth out previous brush marks and scuff the surface to help the new coat of paint stick. Then wipe down the whole surface with a damp cloth to remove all the dust.

Brush marks in the old paint are particularly annoying and have to be sanded out, not filled.

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Caulk the gaps

Now that the filling, sanding and priming are done, caulk any long cracks and gaps (Photo 6). Use an acrylic latex caulk; it adheres well, remains flexible and cleans up with water. Cut the caulk tube at the very tip to leave a very small hole. You'll have better control of the caulk.

Apply a bead of caulk that protrudes slightly, then wipe it with a damp cloth wrapped around your finger. Wipe excess caulk off the cloth so you don't smear it on either side of the joint. You may have to wipe several times to produce a smooth, clean caulk line.

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The paint and the brush

Don't undermine all the time and effort you've put into the prep work by using cheap brushes and paint. Buy the best. With proper cleaning, a quality brush will last for years. In most cases, you'll find the highest quality paint and tools (and good advice) at specialty paint stores. While we recommend latex, it does have one weakness: It dries quickly. The longer the paint remains wet, the better it flows and flattens, leaving a smooth surface. We recommend that you use an additive that slows down the drying process and helps the paint lie smooth. (Floetrol is one common choice.) Read the directions for the amount to add.

For best results from brushing, don't dip directly from the can. Pour a quart of the paint into a 4- or 5-qt. pail. This is your working paint that will move around with you. Add the measured amount of additive and mix well (Photo 7). From this pail you can dip and tap your brush without splattering. Good-quality paints are ready to use out of the can and don't need thinning with water. Be sure to have the paint store shake the can so it's well mixed, then stir the paint occasionally as you use it.

Choosing a Brush

As with paint, buy quality when you shop for brushes. My favorites for trim are a 2-1/2 in. straight brush and a 1-1/2 in. angle brush for detail work and cutting in. Whether to use a straight or an angled brush is an individual choice.

For latex, buy a synthetic bristle brush with “exploded” tips.

A good brush draws a decent “load” of paint into the bristles and applies it smoothly onto the work surface.

Straight tip brush A synthetic brush with a straight tip
Angle tip brush A synthetic brush with an angle tip
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Brushing technique

The sequence in brushing is to quickly coat an area with several brush loads of paint, and then blend and smooth it out by lightly running the unloaded brush tip over it (called “tipping”). See Photos 9 – 11. Try to coat a whole board or section, but don't let the paint sit more than a minute before tipping.

The more paint the brush carries, the faster you'll coat the woodwork. But you want to avoid dripping. So after dipping, tap the tip of the brush against the pail, like the clapper of a bell (Photo 8). For a drier brush, try dragging one side over the edge of the pail. Hold the brush at about a 45-degree angle, set the tip down where you want to start and pull it gently over the surface with a little downward pressure (Photo 9).

Here's where the good brush pays off. The paint will flow smoothly onto the surface with little effort on your part. A common mistake is to force paint out of the brush after it becomes too dry. The goal is a uniform thickness but not so thick as to run or sag. With practice, you'll quickly find the ideal thickness. If the new color doesn't hide the old, it's better to apply a second coat than to apply the paint too thick. Continue the next brush load from where the last stroke left off, or work backward, say from an inside corner back into the wet paint.

When “tipping,” avoid dabbing small areas as this leaves marks in the paint. Make long strokes. The brush will leave a slight track of parallel ridges, but they'll lie down before the paint begins to skin over (Photo 11).

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Masking off and cutting in

Often the boards you're painting butt against a different paint color or a wall. There are a couple of ways to leave a sharp, crisp line.

Masking off with tape is one method. Lay painter's tape tight to the line where your new coat of paint will end (Photo 12). Push the tape tight against the surface with a stiff putty knife to prevent the wet paint from bleeding (running) underneath the tape. Brush the woodwork, letting the paint go partially onto the tape, then tip. Remove the tape when the paint is dry.

The pros usually skip the masking tape and just cut in with a brush; it's faster. With some practice and a steady hand, even an amateur can get very sharp lines. Learn with a smaller brush (1-1/2 in.) and go to a wider brush as you gain control. Dip the brush and scrape one side on the pail. Hold the dry side of the brush toward the line and slowly draw the brush along (Photo 13). Support your arm to steady it, and keep the stroke moving. Use gentle downward pressure; you want the bristles to splay out slightly as you stroke. You'll find you can control the paint line by varying the pressure you apply to the brush.

When the brush is dry, reload and start where the previous stroke ended. Sometimes you'll have to go back over a section where the paint is shy of the line. Complete cutting in and then coat the rest of the piece.

Whether one coat will suffice depends on the paint used and the color. If the first coat of paint looks streaky or transparent, a second coat is necessary. Let the previous coat of paint dry overnight, then lightly sand with 180- or 220-grit paper or a fine sanding sponge. Wash the dust off the surface with a damp cloth, let dry and brush on another coat.

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