To Paint or Stain Your Trim?

Interior Design >

Image caption: In this high floor duplex apartment in NYC, the walls and moldings  are kept consistent, light, and bright. The ample sunlight reflects the semi-gloss sheen of the trims, accentuating the architectural detailing in the archway. Trims and moldings are painted Decorators White by Benjamin Moore. Image courtesy Lisa Weiss Interiors

Like a picture frame, the trim that surrounds your doors and windows and marks the transition between your walls and floors or ceilings stands as an attractive embellishment. Also called molding or casing, these long, narrow strips – typically made of wood – create architecturally interesting borders in a room. And they can really pop when nicely painted or stained.
Which begs the question: should your trim be stained or painted? That depends, say the experts, who commonly caution that it’s better to choose one or the other and use the same paint or stain color for all your molding—at least within the same room.

“Consistent trim and molding with one paint color or stain tone throughout a house presents a nice, clean look and helps create uniform flow from room to room,” says Victor Tirondola, CEO of Manor Works Painting in Purcellville, Virginia.

This harmonious look “can also help highlight architectural details in a home and bring them to the forefront. When they aren’t consistent, spaces tend to look choppy and out of rhythm,” Lisa Weiss, owner of New York City-based Lisa Weiss Interiors, says.

Indeed, too many variations in trim color can create a “Frankensteined” look, according to Rebecca West, owner/interior designer with Seriously Happy Homes in Seattle.

“Consistent trim color can also make smaller homes feel larger,” West adds.

Ask most designers and they’ll tell you that the trend today is toward painted trim, preferably in white.

“This is fueled in part by the home-flipping craze, as investors looking to refresh a space find it a quick and relatively inexpensive way to update a home,” says West. “Painted trim also parallels the current cultural desire for simplicity. White trim always looks fresh and clean and lets you design your space in nearly any style, from traditional to rustic to industrial.”

Weiss notes that painted casing is best suited for modern spaces with minimalist trim profiles and for highlighting elaborate and detailed wainscoting and dentil or picture moldings.

“Benjamin Moore Decorator’s White in semi-gloss works well in most homes,” says Weiss.

But while simple white trim is more common and affordable, you can’t beat the upscale look of handsomely stained hardwood molding.

“The unique features of stained quality wood can really add character to a home and help the integrity of the architecture shine through,” Tirondola says.

If your existing trim is plain paint-grade wood trim lacking finer detail and you’re on a budget, the decision is simple: paint it. But if you have high-quality trim in place – like oak or mahogany with ornate details like beveled edges and fine wood grain – or seek to upgrade to such, staining is the better choice.

“Investing in new hardwood trim is a significant budget increase. Plus, you’ll want the look and stain of your doors to match, so you’ll need solid core wood doors, which can up the price,” says Allyson Case Anderson, founder/CEO of Chicago-headquartered Integro Rehab, LLC.

If you opt for stained woodwork, Anderson recommends avoiding MDF or lower-cost hardwoods like poplar, birch and pine (they won’t stain as evenly), using a satin finish varnish (less reflective than a high-gloss stain), and considering your wall colors, lighting and furniture carefully before choosing a stain color.

Additionally, “don’t stain paint-grade wood trim – the stain comes out blotchy and very uneven,” suggests Tirondola. “And preparing old wood to be stained is imperative. Hire a professional who can properly condition the wood and apply the stain.”

Lastly, if you choose paint, “avoid painting the walls and trim with the same paint, which can make a space feel flat, especially when you don’t even vary the sheen,” West notes. “And if your to-be-painted trim is old and beat up, consider a satin finish, instead of a semigloss or gloss, to camouflage dents and dings.”

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