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How to Paint Woodwork: Tips and Techniques

Get a silky smooth finish on your woodwork

how to paint wood, painting woodFamily Handyman
Brushing a silky smooth finish on woodwork takes patience and attention to detail. In this article, we'll show you the tricks and techniques that pros use to get a flawless finish. Our step-by-step instructions and how-to photos will walk you through the prep work, then show you how to apply a durable, attractive finish that will improve the look of any room in your home.

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Time
Multiple Days
Complexity
Beginner
Cost
$51–100

How to get the perfect finish

Flawless finish

Follow the steps in this story to get these great results.

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.

How to Paint Wood: Preparation, preparation

Photo 1: Scrape off loose and cracked paint

Remove all loose or cracked paint with a stiff putty knife. Work in various directions to get underneath the loose paint.

Photo 2: Mix wood filler

Fill nicks and gouges with a two-part wood filler. Mix it thoroughly (following label directions) with a 2- or 3-in. flexible metal or plastic putty knife.

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.

Fill scratches with spackling compound

Photo 3: Work putty into scraps

Pick up a dab of putty with the knife and apply it to the gouges. Hold the putty knife at an angle and press and smooth the filler into the scraped area. Leave the filler slightly higher than the surrounding surface.

Photo 4: Use a sanding sponge to sand the filler

Sand the painted surface with 100- or 120-grit sandpaper or a medium sanding sponge. Make sure to eliminate all ridges. Then finish-sand with 180-grit sandpaper or a fine sanding sponge. Spot-prime the filler and any bare wood.

Photo 5: Mark imperfections in the wall

Hold a utility light close to the surface, and circle any imperfections with a pencil. Fill, sand and spot-prime these areas. Finally, lightly sand the entire surface with the 180-grit paper to ensure that the new paint will stick.

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

Spot-prime the filler and any bare wood with a latex primer. This step is worth the effort because it helps you see imperfections. Check your work by holding a bright light (trouble light or flashlight) close to the woodwork (Photo 5). Every small bump and scratch will jump out. Circle the defects with a pencil, then go back to the filler and sanding steps. Spot-prime and finish-sand these reworked areas. Prep work requires patience, especially when you have to go back to an earlier step. What you decide is acceptable here is what you’ll get in the finish coat. But keep in mind that the most critical eye will probably be yours.

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.

Video: How to Sand Wood By Hand

Caulk the gaps

Photo 6: Caulk cracks and gaps

Apply a small bead of paintable acrylic caulk to the crack between the wood and the wall.

Detail of smoothing caulk

Smooth the caulk with a damp rag wrapped around your finger. Wipe the edges to remove any ridges of caulk.

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 acrylic 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.

The paint and the brush

Photo 7: Mix in an additive

Pour a quart of paint into the pail and add a latex additive (such as Floetrol) for smoother results. Follow the label’s instructions for the correct amount. Mix thoroughly.

Photo 8: Tap the brush; don’t wipe it

Dip the brush bristles 1 to 2 in. into the paint to load the brush. Lightly tap the tip of the brush against the sides of the pail to shake off excess paint.

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.

Painting Wood Brushing technique

Photo 9: Painting wood from the top down

Start at the top of the board with the loaded brush and stroke down toward the middle. When the brush begins to drag, stop and reload.

Photo 10: Hold the brush perpendicular to the boards

Tip: the wet paint by lightly setting the tip of the brush against the wet paint at the top of the board and lightly stroking down the whole length of the board. Hold the brush almost perpendicular to the surface for this stroke.

Photo 11: Don’t worry about the fine brush strokes

The fine brush strokes left after tipping will flow together until the paint begins to skin over.

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).

Masking off and cutting in

Photo 12: Tape off finished areas

Apply painter’s masking tape to protect finished surfaces before brushing on the second color. Carefully position the tape and push it tight against the surface with a stiff putty knife. Be sure the paint underneath has thoroughly dried.

Photo 13: Cut in along the wall

Load the 1-1/2 in. brush with paint and drag one side over the edge of the pail. Holding the dry side of the brush toward the wall, carefully set the tip of the brush close to the wall line. Apply a little pressure and pull the brush along the line. Guide the paint up to the line by manipulating the pressure and position of the brush’s tip as you pull it along.

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.

Required Tools for this how to paint wood Project

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

  • Bucket
  • Caulk gun
  • Paint scraper
  • Paintbrush
  • Putty knife
  • Rags
  • Sanding block
  • Utility knife

Required Materials for this how to paint wood Project

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

  • Acrylic caulk
  • Latex paint additive
  • Paint
  • Painter's tape
  • Primer
  • Spackling compound
  • Two-part wood filler