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Tips for Painting Oak Trim White

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Matt is a professional painter who owns and operates his own painting business, specializing in interior and exterior house painting.

Traditional oak trim tends to look outdated, but painting it white is an easy way to refresh your space.

Traditional oak trim tends to look outdated, but painting it white is an easy way to refresh your space.

Should You Paint Your Oak Trim?

Oak trim and doors are common in homes from the 1990s and older, but the wood look is considered outdated by today's standards. The current trend is painting brown trim white. You're probably wondering how, or if you should, paint your outdated trim white instead of replacing everything.

I have painted oak trim white many times in the homes of clients and my house, which had the original dark trim throughout. Painting everything white will make your living space a lot brighter. When done right, painted oak looks really nice, and the grainy profile of the wood can be smoothed out with additional prep work.

Painting vs. Replacement

Replacing your trim will save you the work and time of prepping and painting it, but it will cost you much more. If you opt to do this, you can buy pre-primed trim from a home improvement store and paint it after installation.

The cost to paint your oak trim white is significantly less than buying new trim. Most of the materials needed for paint preparation, including paint brushes and drop cloths, are fairly inexpensive. In this article, I'll show you how to paint your outdated trim and make it look brand new, including all of the supplies needed to get the job done right.

Supplies for Painting Stained Trim

  • Hand masker
  • Masking paper
  • Drop cloth, or heavy duty floor paper
  • Painter's tape (preferably Frog tape)
  • Masking liquid (optional)
  • Cleaner and a scrub pad
  • 220-grit sandpaper
  • Grain filler
  • Paintable caulk and a caulk gun
  • Oil-based primer
  • Enamel (acrylic, or modified acrylic alkyd)
  • Two paint brushes (nylon polyester and natural bristle)
  • Plastic paint pale
Oak trim is very common in older homes.

Oak trim is very common in older homes.

Prepping Oak Trim for Paint

Surface preparation is key when painting unpainted, stained wood; especially oak. There are additional steps involved compared to painting wood that's already been painted. Trim in an older home has collected dirt and other contaminants over the years. All of these things can interfere with primer and paint adhesion.

Clean and rinse the trim

Wipe down the trim with a cleaner formulated for paint prep. I've used the Krud Kutter brand with success. The powder version of Savogran Dirtex cleaner works well too. I use it for cabinet painting, as well.

I have also used plain old dish detergent as a pre-paint cleaner. You can use special cleaners that de-gloss too, but I have yet to find a product that de-glosses as good as sanding. Carefully rinse with clean water.

Sand to dull the gloss

Don't sand down to the bare wood. Sanding oak too hard produces more dust and exposes more wood grain holes. Sand with fine grit sandpaper to dull the surface gloss. Sanding between coats of primer and paint too gives you a nice smooth finish.

Use a finishing sander to sand the flat parts of your trim and a sanding sponge for the curved parts. Sand the unpainted wood with 220-grit, or 180-grit. Use 220-grit to sand between coats of primer and 320-grit between coats of paint. Don't use coarse sandpaper between coats of primer and paint, or the sandpaper will scratch the finish.

Mask the floors and windows

Cutting-in trim along floors and glass is challenging without some skill. Protect surfaces with painter's tape and masking paper, but be sure to use a masking tool. One of my favorite and most useful paint prep tools, the 3M hand masker, is truly awesome for covering windows and floors. You'll save a lot of time using that tool for your painting projects.

Another tip for quickly masking multiple windows is using masking liquid on the glass instead of tape. When the painting is done, score the dried masking film with a razor knife and peel it off the glass. I've used masking liquid before for french doors I painted. The trick is to apply a thick layer so it peels off easier at the end. If the layer is too thin, it will be harder to peel off.

Caulk and patch the trim

Caulk the gap between the quarter round and the baseboard. The top edge of the baseboard and spaces in between trim boards should be caulked so there are no visible cracks when painted white.

I recommend spending a few extra dollars on elastomeric caulk or acrylic latex caulk that is more flexible. These are more flexible and less likely to crack than regular painting caulk. SherMax white elastomeric caulk from Sherwin Williams works well for caulking trim and cabinets. The caulk is paintable and dries in four hours.

Patch nail holes and wood damage with a high quality patching compound. My go-to patching products for nail holes are Crawford's spackle and Bondo wood filler. Crawford's spackle is a lot easier to sand. Bondo wood filler shrinks less and dries a lot harder than spackle, and it's great for patching damaged wood.

Using filler smooths out the surface of your oak trim.

Using filler smooths out the surface of your oak trim.

Filling the Grain of Oak Trim

Filling wood grain isn't fun, but the results are worth the effort. Brushing primer and paint onto unfilled oak does fill some of the grain, but using filler smooths out the surface even more. Filling is definitely worth the extra time investment if you want to minimize the grain. Without filler, small pores and cracks in the wood will show through the gloss of your paint.

The Best Grain Filler

After testing and using various wood filling products on my painting projects, I've gone back to using Aqua Coat grain filler now that the new and improved version is available in the color white instead of the previous clear color. The new white version is meant for cabinets and trim. Unlike the clear version, now you can actually see the product as you work it into the grain.

The new white version is noticeably thicker and performs better than the old version in the clear color. The dry time is under one hour. This product dries hard and sands fairly easy as long as you apply thin layers.

Apply two to three coats of filler: One coat is enough to fill most of the grain, but some small pores and partially filled holes will remain. Most of that will go away after brushing and rolling, but for the best results, applying two to three coats is ideal.

I cannot stress enough the importance of applying thin layers to make sanding easier. This stuff is hard to sand when applied too heavily. Use a rag to wipe away excess filler from grooves and corners. A plastic taping knife, or an old credit card, works best for spreading on the material. An electric sander is a must for the flat parts of the trim. I use an orbital sander with 220-grit sandpaper discs.

A close-up of oak I skim-coated with grain filler.

A close-up of oak I skim-coated with grain filler.

Priming and Painting Oak Trim

The best primer and paint to use for oak trim is debatable, but I recommend using oil-based primer instead of latex. The reason is because oil primer is an amazing surface sealer for blocking stains and tannin bleed; a hideous yellowy oil that leaks into paint from inside the wood. Tannin makes white paint look yellow and aged. Latex primer is soft too and does nothing to seal unpainted wood.

The Best Primer for Stained Wood

Most people avoid oil primer because of the horrible smell, but it's one of the best options for stained oak. Two of the best oil-based products for priming stained oak are Zinsser Cover Stain and Kilz Original. A third option I have also used several times is Pro Block oil primer from Sherwin Williams. Any of those three products will seal the surface of your oak trim and enhance the paint finish.

Apply two coats of primer with an angled brush. Let the primer dry overnight before sanding. Overnight drying makes the sanding a lot easier and prevents residue from gumming up your sandpaper. The Cover Stain primer I recommended sands very nicely into a fine powder when given enough time to fully dry. You can thin the primer with a small amount of paint thinner so it brushes on smoother.

Paint Options To Consider

Acrylic enamel, or an acrylic alkyd hybrid, are the best options to consider for your oak trim. I can vouch for Pro Classic and Emerald urethane, both from Sherwin Williams. I've used Pro Classic acrylic enamel for over fifteen years to paint cabinets and oak trim. There is also a hybrid version of Pro Classic, but the acrylic and oil-based version are all I have ever used.

Another option for more durability is using oil-based enamel instead of a water-based product. Oil enamel is more stain-resistant, smoother and undoubtedly has a smoother look when applied right, but the biggest downside is light colors can yellow over time. Clean up involves paint thinner, which is toxic and expensive. For these reasons, the best and most commonly used option is a good acrylic enamel in a semi-gloss finish. Apply two coats of enamel over two coats of sanded primer.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Matt G.