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Should You Paint Trim or Walls First? We Asked a Painting Pro for the Answer

Living room with black walls and trim


There’s a chicken-or-the-egg quality to the question, “should you paint your trim or walls first?” The answer: it depends, but most likely, your walls should come first. We tapped David Steckel, a home expert at Thumbtack, to help us break down the whens and whys of painting trim or walls first. 

Before you break open a single can of paint though, remember that the most important part of the job is the prep work. “That means filling all holes, caulking all seams, sanding walls, and protecting finished areas,” Steckel says. This ensures a roomful of smooth surfaces, so later you won’t be staring at rough patches and wayward holes wondering why you didn’t fix that before you painted. 

After thoroughly preparing your walls and trim, then you can paint the ceiling, which is typically the first area of a room to be painted. Then comes the debate—should you paint the walls or trim first? Which you choose mostly comes down to your application method, Steckel says.

“If you’re going to spray the trim, you do the trim first," Steckel explains. "If you’re going to hand paint, you do the walls first,” he says. Here are the factors that affect this decision, and some painting tips to increase your roller know-how.

Meet the Expert

David Steckel is a Home Expert at Thumbtack, with 15 years of experience as a general contractor in the home building industry. At Thumbtack, he provides homeowners with the guidance they need to better plan, budget, and complete home repair, maintenance and improvement projects.

Pink painted living room with black trim

Black Lacquer Design

When You Should Paint the Walls First

If There's No Spraying Involved

It’s easier to cut in the trim versus cutting the wall (cutting in is when you use the angle of the brush to create a very fine line, used for any change in direction that requires a different color or sheen of paint). Steckel uses this analogy: “If you think about when you’re cutting in the baseboard, you’re looking down at the top of the baseboard and you can be accurate. Think about trying that the other way around; you’d have to lie down.” 

If Someone Is Helping You

Lucky you! If a friend or family member has offered to help you with painting, take them up on their generosity, but don’t task them with the tedious job of painting trim. Lay down the drop cloth and have a painting party rolling the walls.

Painting large swaths of walls requires less skill and detail than trim-work does. Later, after you’ve profusely thanked them, focus on the trim yourself. 

If You're Unsure of the Color

Paint colors can look drastically different in a can versus on a wall in various lights. You’ll get a better idea of the overall impact of the color if you paint a good section of wall first, versus the slim trim. That way, if you change your mind, you haven’t wasted nearly as much time.  

neutral bedroom with blue accents

Tyler Karu Design

When You Should Paint the Trim First

If You're Spraying

“The reason why you do the trim first if you're spraying is that there will invariably be overspray on the walls,” Steckel says. “Most builders or professionals will spray versus brush or roll trim to get a smoother finish, and you want your trim to be smooth to the touch and to not have any orange peel or brush lines.”

Since you always tape when spraying, you end up with a very clean line, which allows you to cut in nicely.

Orange peel is a term to describe an improper painting technique that leads to an uneven, bumpy surface, like—you guessed it—an orange peel.

If You Want to Get a Head Start

Hoping to knock something off your to-do list, but there is still work being done in the room? As long as large furniture, which could hit the trim, isn’t being moved in and out, you could consider painting the trim first. That’ll keep you busy until the room is finished and you have the space to paint the walls. You can rest easy knowing the walls won’t get banged up, and that you’re one step ahead with the trim already painted.

Living room with black walls and trim


How to Properly Prep Your Walls and Trim for Painting

“Every hour you spend prepping will save you more when it comes time to apply the actual paint,” Steckel says. Think: filling holes, sanding, priming, patching, painting, cleaning up overspray, or spills. “There has never been a time where someone kicks themselves for spending too much time prepping a paint job," he says.

Keep in mind that while you can sand down primer, once your top coat is painted on, if there are any errors, it’s a headache. “You have to prime and then paint again, and each of those coats is adding micro millimeters to the finish," Steckel warns. "That means you’re probably going to have to paint the entire elevation to get a perfect finish. So, measure twice, cut once, prep for two days and paint for one.”