How to Paint Trim Perfectly Every Time

Erin Lindholm
by Erin Lindholm

Look high, look low, glance down a hallway, or peer out a window—it's nearly impossible to be in a home without catching a glimpse of some form of trim in the frame.

Baseboards, molding, window frames, and door frames—all these various types of finishing woodwork, collectively known as trim, add a touch of elegance to any space.

While it may not be as exhilarating as painting an ombré accent wall or creating a stunning mosaic, the art of painting trim yields its own gratifying results.

Whether you opt for semi-gloss whites to instantly brighten a room or choose a contrasting hue for a stylish impact, painting trim has the power to transform a space in just a matter of hours.

This guide covers all the bases of how to paint trim, starting from repairing cracks to the priming and painting process. We’ll even cover how to paint trim in a room with carpet. Before you know it, that oft-overlooked trim will be the darling of your eye.

Woman applying painters tape to baseboard

Photo via Shutterstock

Assessing Your Trim

Start with an overall assessment of your trim as it is now, which helps determine what tools and materials you’ll need and the scope of the project:

Paint or Finish Type

Unless the trim is raw wood, it’s already either stained or painted in some way. This could be with oil-based paint, latex-based paint, or even lead-based paint (which is known to be toxic).

Newer homes or recent paint jobs are likely latex-based paint. If you're unsure of what type of paint is currently on your trim, test a spot of the trim with a rag dabbed with a bit of mineral spirits, which thins oil-based paints. If the paint starts to dissolve as you rub the trim with the rag, it’s oil-based paint. If it stays, it’s latex.

The Environmental Protection Agency cautions that all homes built prior to 1978 may have lead-based paint. If you’re worried or unsure about the old paint in your home, purchase an at-home test kit, which provides instant results.

If you do happen to have lead paint in your home, call your municipality offices—there are often strict laws to follow on how lead paint should be handled.

Trim Damage

Nicks, cracks, small holes, and divots in trim are all common after years of wear and tear. Inspect the trim closely with a strong utility light or flashlight, shining the light on the wood at an angle to reveal damage or marks that need attention (Circle lightly with a pencil so you know where to look for them later). If no repairs are in order, it’s time to get prepping and painting!

How to Repair Damage in Trim

Giving your trim a little TLC before you crack open that paint can go a long way toward producing an end result that will look fresh for years to come.

Tools and Materials Needed

  • Sponge or rag
  • Sandpaper (medium or fine grade)
  • Tack cloth
  • Lightweight spackle compound
  • Putty knife
  • Caulk and caulk gun (if needed)

1. Clean Trim

With a sponge or rag dampened with water, give the trim a good cleaning, paying extra attention to edges, detailing, grooves, and crevices. Allow to dry. 

2. Lightly Sand

This step helps prep the wood surface for primer application. Use medium- to fine-grade sandpaper to give the surface rough edges; wipe clean with a tack cloth to lift any residual sanding dust. 

Sanding Hack

Make quick work of sanding the trim with a block hand sander.

3. Spackle Small Holes

For nicks and small cracks, apply spackle with a putty knife and let it dry completely (per instructions on the product’s container). Once dry, go over the spackle with sandpaper to smooth out the surface texture. Wipe clean any residual sanding dust.

4. Caulk Large Holes

Whether there’s a visible gap between the trim and the wall behind it or a crack between two pieces of trim, applying caulk will smooth everything over. (Cut the tip of the tube at a 45-degree angle for precision!)

Painter's tape around freshly-painted window trim

Photo via Jenna Burger Design

How to Paint Trim and Molding

There are more than a few paint jobs where prep time exceeds the actual time spent with a brush in hand, and painting trim is one of them. But your time spent preparing pays off mightily in the long run. Now, let’s get into the basic steps for how to paint trim, and molding.

Tools and Materials Needed:

  • Painter’s tape
  • Plastic sheeting or drop cloth
  • Primer
  • Paint sticks
  • Paint trays
  • 2-inch angled brush
  • Ladder or step stool (if the painting job is out of reach)
  • Paint
  • Sponge or microfiber cloth
  • Utility knife (optional)

1. Apply Painter’s Tape

At every border where the trim meets another surface like walls, ceilings, and windows (for carpet, see below), carefully apply painter’s tape, pressing out any gaps or air bubbles as you go. You want the edge of the tape to be as close to the trim as possible without actually sticking to the trim.

2. Lay Down Floor Covering

Lay down a plastic sheet or drop cloth beneath your workspace and, if you're painting baseboard, tight along the edges of the baseboard. Secure with painter's tape.

3. Apply Primer and Let Dry

Such a detailed project as painting trim requires an angled brush, which helps the primer and paint get into all nooks, crannies, and fine lines of trim and molding.

Pour primer into a paint tray. Dip your brush into the primer and tap off the excess. Work slowly in sections at a time. Paint the primer onto the trim in back-and-forth strokes if you're working on a horizontal piece of trim and up-and-down strokes if you're working on a vertical piece of trim. Wipe up any drips with the brush. 

Allow the primer to dry overnight or up to 24 hours. Touch up any spots where the primer seems thin and let it dry thoroughly before painting. 

Primer Tip

What you’re painting over determines what type of primer you should use for this job. There are specific primers for painting over oil-based paints or previously stained or polyurethane-coated trim.

4. Paint the Trim 

At last, it’s time to bring on the color—or a fresh, neutral look, as the case may be. Give the paint a good stir before pouring a modest amount into a painting tray.

Dip a clean angled paint brush into the paint, knocking off excess. Paint trim in sections at a time, cutting in from edges of trim and working towards the center.

Before moving on to another section, run the brush over the still-wet paint in the direction of the wood grain in long, sweeping motions, blending the brush strokes for a smooth finish.

5. Consider a Second Coat or Touch-Up

Once the first coat of paint has completely dried, you’ll start to have a sense of what the finished paint color will look like. There's a good chance that you’ll want to go over the trim again with a second coat to truly saturate the color.

6. Remove Painter’s Tape

After all that hard work, you want your trim to have a crisp, straight edge. Carefully remove the tape when the paint is not yet dry or score the edge of the trim with a utility knife before removing the painter’s tape. Voila, a clean line!

How to Paint Trim Against Carpet

Painting baseboard trim that sits against the carpet is a little trickier. Fluffy carpet fibers sit right up against the baseboard, and they need to be maintained before you start laying paint down on the trim.

We’ve got some tips for you—follow this tried and true technique to paint the baseboards of a room with carpet.

Tools and Materials Needed

  • Wide painter’s tape (2- or 4-inch width)
  • Plastic putty knife
  • Clean paint stick, or other thin, flat tool that’s not metal
  • Primer
  • Paint
  • Sponge or cleaning cloth

1. Lay Painter’s Tape on Carpet 

Working with strips of painter’s tape a couple of feet in length at a time. Position the tape so that about ½ inch to 1 inch of the tape curves up against the baseboards.

Don’t affix the tape to the wood . . .

2. Tuck in Edge of Painter’s Tape 

Here’s where the “ah-ha!” moment happens: With one hand flat on the tape on top of the carpet, press down on the carpet and away from the trim to expose a wider gap between the carpet and the trim. Keep that hand in place. With the flat tool in your other hand, gently tuck the still-loose edge of the painter’s tape down between the carpet and the trim.

For greater protection of your carpet, lay down one or more strips of painter’s tape next to your first strip, making sure there’s a little bit of overlap so no carpet peeks through.

You can always tape down a section of plastic drop cloth, too. It’s so much easier to go the extra mile during prep than having to clean paint out of the carpet later.

3. Repair and Paint Baseboard Trim 

Follow the instructions for how to clean, repair, prime, and paint baseboard trim listed in the sections above. 

4. Remove Painter’s Tape

This last step in removing the tape calls for the flat tool again.

Working in small sections at a time, press the tool into the crease in the tape between the carpet and the trim. The purpose here is to gently release the tape from the baseboards so that when you pull up the tape, you don’t accidentally pull any of the paint coat with it.

Carefully peel the tape back and remove it.

magic eraser on a polka-dot tablecloth

Photo via Savings Mania

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Tips for Caring for Trim

Here are some hacks for keeping your trim and molding looking fresh and clean: 

Repurpose Dryer Sheets

The anti-static coating on dryer sheets rubs off on baseboards, too! Periodically wiping down baseboards in high-traffic living areas with used dryer sheets helps deter dust build-up and pet hair. 

Opt for a Magic Eraser

Trim on baseboards, especially around doors and entryways, see a lot of traffic and may accumulate scuffs. Have a stack of Magic Erasers on hand for quick trim touch-ups. Just be sure not to scrub too hard—just until the scuff is lifted.

Get Ready to Vacuum

If you’re cleaning or dusting crown molding, some dust will end up falling down on the floor below. Be prepared to vacuum the floor below where you’re cleaning when you’re done.

Use Cotton Swabs for Corners

Use a cotton swab dipped in your cleaning solution of choice to clean corners of the trim, like where two walls meet.

Do you have any trim-painting tips? If so, share them below!

Frequently asked questions
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  • Dee Dee on Dec 20, 2021

    This is the most valuable tutorial on painting trim I have ever seen. Over the years I have learned these tricks too. I prefer the blue tape over the green frog tape. I find the green tape does not come off as easily. One more tip if you are painting around any wallpaper used the purple delicate tape so not to tear the wallpaper.

  • Sianwedlake Sianwedlake on Jun 06, 2022

    best way to remove paint from very detailed mouldings