• Share:
Trim Painting Tips

How to repaint chipped, flaking or dirty moldings so they look like new; the secrets of a professional-looking job.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

Careful sanding is the key to a perfect job

If your woodwork is smooth, just give it a once-over with 120-grit sandpaper. But if your trim is in rough shape like ours, start with 80-grit sandpaper. Switch to 100-grit for smoothing and blending in the areas with layered paint. Finally, go over all the wood with 120-grit. Buy sandpaper labeled "no-load." No-load sandpaper won't clog as easily and is better for sanding painted surfaces.


If your home was built before 1979, check the paint for lead. Call your public health department for instructions on how to test for lead and on what to do if you have lead paint.

Fill holes and dents

To repair large dents or gouges on edges that are vulnerable to abuse, use hardening-type two-part wood filler (Minwax High Performance Wood Filler is one brand). Fill smaller dents and holes with spackling compound. Since spackling compound shrinks as it dries, you’ll have to apply a second (and possibly a third) coat after the previous coat dries.

Shine a strong light across the woodwork to highlight depressions and ensure that you don’t miss any spots as you’re applying the filler. Let the filler dry and sand it smooth.

Caulk for a seamless look

Here’s a step that many beginners don’t know about but pros swear by. Caulk every crack or gap, no matter how small. Use latex caulk or a paintable latex/silicone blend. The key is to cut the caulk tube tip very carefully to create a tiny, 1/16-in.-diameter hole. Fill all the small cracks first. Then, if you have wider cracks to fill, recut the caulk tube tip to make a larger hole. Move the caulk gun swiftly along the cracks to avoid an excess buildup of caulk. If necessary, smooth the caulk with your fingertip. Keep a damp rag in your pocket to clean caulk from your finger and to keep the tip of the caulk tube clean. If caulk piles up in the corners, remove the excess with a flexible putty knife.

Spot-prime to avoid blotches

Brush a stain-sealing primer (B-I-N is one brand of shellac-based primer) over the areas that you've patched or filled, and over areas where you’ve sanded down to bare wood. If you have a lot of patches and bare spots, it'll be faster and easier to just prime the entire surface. Also seal discolored areas or marks left by crayons, pens or markers to prevent them from bleeding through the finish coat of paint.

Add an extender to latex paint

Most pros prefer to use oil-based paint on trim for two reasons: Oil-based paint doesn’t dry as fast as water-based paint, leaving more time to brush. And oil-based paint levels out better than most water-based paints, leaving a smoother surface with few visible brush marks. But because water-based paint is more environmentally friendly, less stinky and easier to clean up, it’s a better choice for DIYers.

You can make water-based paint perform more like oil paint by adding latex paint conditioner. Floetrol is one brand. Conditioners make the paint flow better and slow down the drying time, allowing you more time to spread the paint without leaving brush marks. Check with the manufacturer of the paint you’re using to see if it recommends a particular brand of conditioner.

Paint from a separate pail

Pour paint about 1-1/2 in. deep into a separate pail. A metal painter's pail (shown); a specialty pail (at paint stores and home centers); or even an empty 5-quart ice cream pail all work great. Placing a small amount of paint in a pail allows you to easily load the bristles of the brush by dipping them about 1 in. into the paint.

Slap, don't wipe

Slap the brush gently against each side of the bucket to remove the excess paint. This method of brush loading is best for laying on paint because it keeps the bristles fully loaded with paint. To use the brush for cutting-in, follow up by wiping each side of the brush gently on the rim to remove a little more paint.

Cut in edges before you fill the center

Cutting-in is a skill that takes practice to master, but it's worth the effort. To cut in, first load the brush. Then wipe most of the excess paint off by gently scraping the bristles on the edge of the can. Start by pulling the brush along the edge, but keep the bristles about 1/4 in. away from the wall or ceiling to deposit some paint on the wood. Now return with another brushstroke, this time a little closer. Sneaking up to the line like this is easier than trying to get it perfect on the first try. At the end of the stroke, arc the brush away from the cut-in line. Cut in a few feet and then fill the middle using the lay-on, lay-off technique we show in the next section.

Lay on, lay off

The biggest mistake beginners make is to work the paint too long after it’s applied. Remember, the paint starts to dry as soon as you put it on, and you have to smooth it out before this happens or you’ll end up with brushstrokes or worse. So here’s the tip. Load your brush. Then quickly unload on the surface with a few back-and-forth brushstrokes. This is called “laying on” the paint. Repeat this until you’ve covered a few feet of trim with paint. Don’t worry about how it looks yet.

Now, 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. Areas wider than your brush will require several parallel laying-off strokes to finish. When you’re done laying off a section, move on and repeat the process, always working quickly to avoid brushing over partially dried paint. Try to complete shorter pieces of trim with a continuous laying-off brushstroke.

Don't start a brushstroke on already-smoothed paint

Setting the paintbrush on an area that's already been smoothed out with laying-off strokes will leave an unsightly mark. Try to start laying-off strokes at the end of a trim piece or board, or in an unpainted area. Brush toward the finished area. Then sweep the brush up and off, like an airplane taking off from a runway, to avoid leaving a mark.

Don't brush across an edge

Brushing across an edge wipes paint from the bristles and creates a heavy buildup of paint that will run or drip. Avoid this by brushing toward edges whenever possible. If you must start a brushstroke at an edge, align the bristles carefully as if you're cutting-in, instead of wiping them against the edge. If you accidentally get a buildup of paint that could cause a run, spread it out right away with a dry paintbrush or wipe it off with a damp rag or your finger.

Back to Top

Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

    • Caulk gun
Putty knife, flexible
Paintbrush, 1-1/2 in. or 2 in.

Required Materials for this Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here's a list.

    • Sandpaper, 80-, 100- and 120-grit
    • Spackling compound
    • Latex (acrylic) caulk
    • Primer, stain-sealing
    • Paint conditioner
    • Paint can

Comments from DIY Community Members

Share what's on your mind and see what other DIYers are thinking about.

1 - 4 of 4 comments
Show per page: 20   All

November 18, 11:14 PM [GMT -5]

This weekend I was painting the floor trim in my house. Some was close to carpet and some was close to laminate. I was tired of taping off and then discovering the tape let through paint anyways. Very frustrating and costly.
I thought about the thinnest thing in my house to use as a straight edge. I thought a cutting board, but then saw paper towels. I tired it. Amazing results!! The paper towel curled downward for a snug fit between the floor edge and trim. I laid on a smooth coat making sure not to over load the brush. What little paint did get on the paper towel was absorbed. I slid the paper towel away. Perfect result and no paint on the floor or carpet. Took me no time at all to do the trim in my kitchen and hall. Give it a try I think you will be please with the result. Again don't lay on the paint to heavy or you will get paint on your floor or carpet.

February 06, 4:56 PM [GMT -5]

Oh no! All of my secrets exposed! I hope my customers don't read this or I'll be out of work. Seriously, though, these are all excellent tips that I use on every painting job I do. If I had found them all in one place like this I wouldn't have had to learn them myself the hard way. These tips also show there's no substitute for careful prep work, and as long as people are allergic to elbow grease, I'll have customers.

December 02, 9:55 PM [GMT -5]

Very helpful, thanks


October 07, 2:49 PM [GMT -5]

These were very helpful for my last painting project!

+ Add Your Comment

Add Your Comment

Trim Painting Tips

Please add your comment

Log in to My Account

Log in to enjoy membership benefits from The Family Handyman.

  • Forgot your password?
Don’t have an account yet?

Sign up today for FREE and become part of The Family Handyman community of DIYers.

Member benefits:

  • Get a FREE Traditional Bookcase Project Plan
  • Sign up for FREE DIY newsletters
  • Save projects to your project binder
  • Ask and answer questions in our DIY Forums
  • Share comments on DIY Projects and more!
Join Us Today

Report Abuse

Reasons for reporting post

Free OnSite Newsletter

Get timely DIY projects for your home and yard, plus a dream project for your wish list!

Follow Us

Featured Product

Buy Now