Our House’s Wood Trim: To Paint Or Not To Paint?

The house-blogging genre dosen’t have much to offer in the way of controversy, but if anything comes close, it seems to be the subject of painting wood.

One interesting example can be found over on the blog Making It Lovely, where Nicole wrote this post a while ago about painting the natural wood trim in her home. This decision resulted in some generally polite, yet critical second-guessing from commenters who saw it as destroying something special and valuable and unique to the home — but in this case the wood trim wasn’t in the best shape, and she didn’t care for the way it looked, and why treat the house like a historical time capsule instead of the place where a family lived in the here and now? They ended up painting the wood trim, and based on subsequent blog posts, it turned out well and everybody was happy.

So on that note, I wanted to talk about the wood trim in our house, since it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. The virtual house tour post is full of photos taken before we moved in, but here’s a quick glimpse of what we’re working with for reminder purposes:

The Wood Trim In Various Rooms

The living room, dining room, and kitchen (shown above) have wood trim around the doorways, windows, and along the floor. But there are some inconsistencies throughout the house, and the trim in the hallway, bedroom, and bathrooms was already white when we bought the place. Here’s the view looking from the dining room toward the hallway and bedrooms:

Inconsistent Trim Colors

The trim in the hallway also seems to be a slightly different, less fancy style (notice the slight curve and lack of ridged detail compared to the unpainted version) but the difference in color only makes the inconsistency stand out even more.

This next angle, looking from the hallway back toward the kitchen, shows a better view of how the trim is actually painted white on the part of the door frame not visible from the kitchen:

Mismatched Door Frames

I think it looks kind of strange to have it cut off like that part of the way through the doorway, though I’m not sure it would look any less strange to have it all wood with white trim (of a slightly different style) right there next to it.

The view looking toward the other bedroom (Lillian’s room) isn’t bad, though I’m not sure how I feel about the dark stained wood of the door combined with the white frame:

Brown Door With White Frame

I’ve seen some great-looking photos of spaces with white trim and wood doors, but somehow the combination feels a bit off in our house. Granted, we didn’t do any painting in the hallway when we bought the house, so maybe it would help if the trim here got a fresh coat of paint? Or maybe it’s just that the wood is so dark?

Or maybe a part of it is just the general surface condition of the wood. At a glance the wood looks rich and glossy and high-quality, but up close… I’m not sure if it’s gotten too many layers of varnish or what, but overall it has this kind of brushed-over, splotchy look, and seems to lack the texture that comes to mind when I think “natural wood.” Here’s a closer view of the trim around the entryway to the living room:

Wood Trim Closeup

Quality-wise, what the above photo shows is about as good as it gets, and there are other places where the wood trim is marred by nicks, scratches, and even nail holes:

Damaged Wood Trim

I hope this post isn’t coming across as a big whiny complain-fest, though — it’s not that I’m trying to give the impression that it’s horrible, but rather to provide some context before saying, “we’ve been thinking it might be nice to paint all of the trim in our house!”

Truth be told, I didn’t expect to arrive at this mindset when we bought the house. But the more time goes by, the more I can’t help feeling drawn toward the idea of the entire house having crisp, clean, consistent white trim.

Granted, it would be a lot of work just to cover it all, since that would surely take multiple coats of primer and paint. And we’d have to research carefully and select a durable paint that would easily wipe clean, since we have a little one running around the house. And even if there might be other options — one of our friends suggested stripping everything down to the wood and then re-finishing it all — it seems like painting would yield the best result for the least work from among those.

So anyway, that’s where things stand — no concrete plans have been made either way, so this post is mostly just thinking out loud. What are your feelings on the subject of painting wood trim, either in general or in our specific case? Have you ever taken the plunge and painted wood, and if so, how did you feel about it afterward? I’d be very curious to hear your thoughts and experiences on this in the comments.

17 Comments

  1. I personally like the idea of painting the trim. I am a little wary about white though; while I agree it will make the house look cleaner, you WILL have to touch it up every so often (just ask my dad about the white hallway at my mom’s house… :D ). I might suggest using a color, although not a dark one. Something light and colorful would probably be good for y’all (I’m kind of in love with the colors of those butterflies in Lillian’s mobile!) and I think you could get away with it, provided it’s not TOO bold. Ask Joe if he remembers how dad painted the trim and doors in our old bedrooms; I always liked how that turned out. :)

    • I asked Joe about that, and he said you guys got to pick your own colors for the walls and trim? That sounds neat, and since white seems like such a common / safe-looking choice for trim I admittedly hadn’t put much thought into any other colors. I’d agree that it’d have to be not too dark, since I think one of the things that appeals to me about the possibility of painting it is the thought of generally lightening things up in here a little. Must look for examples on Pinterest! And also do a bunch of research on painting techniques and what kind of paint to use and if there’s anything we can do to make it more durable so as to not need touch-ups as often, all before even considering going anywhere near anything with a brush. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and ideas on this matter Rachel!

  2. Our trim was already painted when we bought, many layers of paint in fact. So luckily we didn’t have to make a decision like you. The trim styles themselves though are different in every room…eh. As far as painting wood, I don’t think it’s necessarily bad.

    • I can imagine having it all already painted would take a lot of pressure off — no need to worry about how big of an architectural sin you might be committing, and any paint-related imperfections (like too many layers) falls squarely on the previous owners. Thanks for sharing Tammi!

  3. If you think it takes a long time to paint the woodwork, I can tell you it takes MUCH longer to un-paint woodwork. Months and months, in fact. In general, there is no going back. And it doesn’t just affect you, but every future owner of the house for the rest of the time it’s standing.

    If it’s just that’s it looking a little bit beat up, you could always repair the finish and make it look nice and new again.

    • Thanks for weighing in, Sharon! You raise a good point about what it would take to undo painting the trim, and I think you’re completely right that this would be a one-way street if we went ahead with it. We don’t have any plans to sell the house in the foreseeable future, but since I hear a lot about how painting woodwork decreases property values, it might be wise to try to figure out exactly how nicely-finished woodwork vs. shabby woodwork vs. painted woodwork might affect the value, and then weigh that against the cost of fixing / refinishing it versus painting it (as well as how much we’d value any particular aesthetic preference vs. doing nothing.) Lots to think about in any case!

  4. Some denatured alcohol may make the shellac look nicer, smooth it out a bit.

    I can tell you why paint starts with “pain.” I stopped counting at fifty hours stripping paint from three doors and one large window in a ten by eleven foot kitchen with one built-in cabinet. I probably won’t strip the beadboard ceiling, which was only painted six months before I got it. In fact, I dropped my purchase offer by two thousand dollars for each room in the house with painted woodwork.

    If paint it you must, do the future homeowners a huge favour and heavily coat the wood with shellac before the paint, so that if and when they go to strip it the shellac will come off clean and they won’t have white paint in every crack and pore in the woodwork.

    Cheers!

    Chaz

    • Wow Chaz, it sounds like you’ve put in a lot of painstaking work in to restoring the wood in that kitchen, and it’s really interesting to hear exact dollar figures on how the painted vs. unpainted woodwork affected your offer price.

      That sounds like a great idea about using a heavy coat of shellac to make it easier to remove any potential paint later, although ours is already coated with such a thick layer of shellac (or varnish or whatever it is) that there really isn’t much wood grain texture or cracks/pores to be had — in a lot of ways it feels like it’s already painted, just in a very dark shade of brown, haha.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment on this matter!

  5. I’d consult a local realtor to advise about how much the house value would change by painting the wood trim. That being said, my own opinion is that first photo of the “streaky finish” is possibly NOT shellac, but a “faux finish”, or possibly woodstain applied over a previous finish without proper prepping of the surface. From the looks of it, you need to do some serious sanding prior to ANY redo of the moldings, whether paint, stain or polyurethane. BTW, who uses actual shellac anymore? Or is that just the art teacher in me getting technical? At any rate, since the moldings already do not match throughout the house, I’d go for finishing it to your own tastes/pocketbook for now, and worry about “future buyers” later (like when you need a bigger house), as it’s pretty easy to simply replace the door trims thoughout the house to match when the time comes.

  6. Oh, and you do NOT want to paint over shellac, as the paint will not adhere properly. In fact, don’t paint over PAINT without first cleaning with something slightly caustic (like floorwax stripper) and light sanding, since you don’t know if the previous finish is oil based or latex. Water-based paint will NOT stick to previously oil-based paint without prep! After prep, if it’s still a dark surface you are wanting to lighten, use a base-coat of KILZ, it’s very covering, and also helps eliminate any mold or oil spots you may have missed with sanding.

    • Thanks for the suggestions! I admittedly don’t know very much about painting trim, I guess I just assumed you could prime and paint over anything with maybe some light sanding, haha. And I had to look up shellac the other day to even figure out what it was and how it differed from varnish, etc. — we’ll definitely need to figure out what we’re doing better before pulling the trigger on anything here!

      As for the streaky finish, you bring up an interesting point about woodstain or faux finish possibly being applied incorrectly over an existing surface — it does seem to have been layered on very thick with lots of visible brush strokes, and we’ve even joked that maybe it’s completely fake and layered on top of wood that was already painted or something before (although that’s probably unlikely). Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this matter!

  7. I may be the lone voice here, but I wouldn’t paint it. The stained finish gives your house character, and I think painting it white or even some color, would just make it “blah.” And I’d try stripping the white paint that’s there and going back to stain, or easier to do, carefully remove the white trim and replace with new trim that you stain and varnish to match what’s already there. And I wouldn’t think of it as an historical time capsule, but more as an appreciation of style.

    • Replacing the white trim in the hallway to match the wood trim instead of vice versa is an interesting idea — I think we’d still need to do some kind of repair or refinishing to the wood portions, but that might be a way to go if we want to avoid painting while also achieving a consistent look. And, I hope I didn’t imply that preserving and appreciating those historical details is somehow bad or not worth it. At this stage we haven’t really committed to a direction for the house, whether a faithful restoration or a more modern look, and there’d be lots to think about for either approach. Thanks as always for reading and commenting! :)

    • Thanks for the link! Lots of lovely interiors there — I think my favorites are the living room with the fireplace and the kitchen with the breakfast nook. It’s nice knowing there’s lots if inspiration out there no matter what style (or combination of styles) you want to aim for! :)

  8. We just bought a late 60s ranch with basically the same predicament.
    The trim doesn’t match throughout the house, the original wood is in great shape in some parts and in terrible shape in others. I think I might do one of the bedros to start and see how I like it. Although I really am against painting the wood doors, so we will see what I end up doing.
    I’m anxious to see what you opted to do

    • It’s hard when there’s a mixture of nice trim and terrible trim and non-matching trim, isn’t it? Starting small with one of the bedrooms sounds like a good way to test the waters and see if you like it though. Unfortunately we haven’t yet decided on this one way or another (we seem to move along at a snail’s pace when it comes to home improvement stuff, haha) but I’ll definitely post an update about it whenever we do! Thanks for reading and commenting! :)

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