You’ve just painted your room and are admiring your streak-free finish. Then you see it: uneven wavy lines around your trim. You don’t even know if it’s the wall paint that went over the trim or the other way around! Well, if you want to avoid making that kind of mistake, I’ll tell you how to paint your trim without even using masking tape.

Whether you’ve decided to only paint the trim or the entire room, the tips I’m about to share are definitely going to be useful. But before I teach you the secret to the perfect cut-in method, let’s talk about painter’s tape. As I’ve mentioned in my article about wall painting equipment, painter’s tape is a useful tool to have even if you’re not using it to protect your trim or the wall around it. Well, in this article, I’m going to talk about how you can use it to paint straight lines.

The Pros and Cons of Using a Painter’s Tape to Paint Trim

Before I tell you the drawbacks of working with painter’s tape, let’s go over how you can use it. When you’re painting the wood trim on your walls, whether it’s the baseboard or the details around the doors and the windows, you want the lines to be as crisp as possible.

One way to achieve those results is to be strategic about the order in which you apply your paint. As a general rule of thumb, if you’re painting a whole room, you should go from the top down. So you would start with the ceiling, then do the walls, and end with the trim.

If you were using painter’s tape, you’d need to wait until the walls or ceilings are completely dry before applying the tape. You should also keep the pieces of the masking tape fairly long so the paint will be less likely to leak anywhere. Once you have the piece, bring it right up against the trim, and press it down with your fingers. After the tape is attached, use a clean putty knife to firmly press the rest of the tape down.

Even if you attach the tape properly, leaks might still happen. So you might not even get the crisp line you’re looking for! Still, masking tape is a useful tool for beginners who aren’t that confident in their brush strokes.

Long story short: painter’s tape does allow you to get a crisp line if you’re using it correctly. First of all, you’d have to use it on dry walls. Even then, you’d need to press down on the edges of the tape to prevent leaks. However, since you might still get leaks, let’s talk about how you can get a nice, straight line when you’re painting your trim without tape.

How to Cut a Straight Line With a Painting Brush

At this point, I’m going to assume that you have prepared your room for painting. Remember to pay special attention to prepping your walls and the wooden trim. They should both be patched, sanded, and cleaned by now. Once you take care of the prep work, you can go about painting your trim in one of two ways.

Pick Your Paint

First things first, you’ve got to decide which paint you want to use. Most people choose a glossy finish paint for their trim. Oil-based paint looks absolutely beautiful on wood. What’s more, using oil-based paint would give you a streak-free finish even with a brush application.

However, you could also use water-based paint (also known as latex or acrylic paint). Those come in many finishes, although people usually go for flat, matte, eggshell, and satin finishes for walls, and glossy finishes for detailing. Whichever color and finish you end up choosing for your walls and trim, make sure that you’re using the right brush for it.

Get a Quality Brush

As I have explained many times before, you should use natural bristle brushes for oil-based paint, and synthetic bristles for latex paint. That’s pretty much the only rule here. However, if you want to get the sharpest and smoothest lines, you should keep several other things in mind.

In my article about the best paint brushes for a smooth application, I explained that angled brushes are probably your best bet, no matter which painting project you are tackling. You can see my recommendations for natural and synthetic bristle brushes in the article I’ve linked to. For now, I’d like to point out the features that will help you cut in a sharp line.

Whether you’re painting trim or the surrounding walls, you should go for a sharp angled brush. It should be no more than 3 or 3.5 inches wide, and no less than 2 inches wide for a normal width trim. When it comes to brushes, you want to spend as much money as your budget allows. If you take care of them, they’ll last you for years, so this is really a once in a lifetime purchase.

Cheap brushes have harsh, blunt ends that aren’t going to let you paint in a straight line. Conversely, high-quality brushes have edges that taper to a point, allowing you to get a smooth and straight line.

If you need to paint in a straight line, you also don’t want to use brushes that have bristles that are too soft and bendable. Bristles that are slightly stiff are going to allow you more control over your strokes. Now, if you already own a great brush, clean it before you use it.

Method 1: Paint the Trim First

Once you have your paint and brush ready, it’s time to start painting. But where do you start? Personally, I prefer to start with the trim. This method may not be the most popular one, but if you hear me out you’ll see that it makes sense.

If you’re planning on applying paint manually without the help of masking tape or other instruments, you should start with the trim. Take your brush and dunk its tip into your can of paint, and don’t forget to tap off the excess paint. Feel free to mess up as you apply the paint, but spread all of it in one direction. Begin every new brush stroke in a dry area of the trim, then drag the paint toward the part that already has paint on it.

Once you’re done painting, you may have some splatter on the walls. You can use a clean, wet rag to pick up the excess paint. Paint all of your trim, and keep picking up the splatter as you go.

Paint the Walls

After the trim has dried, you can paint your walls — starting with the edges. Again, you’ll want to dip your brush into the paint and tap off excess paint. Don’t drag the brush against the rim of the paint container, you don’t want to lose all of the paint.

Touch the tip of your brush about an inch away from the edge of the wall, then press the angled brush against the wall. When you’re dipping your brush into the paint and tapping it off, you can hold it by the end of the handle. However, when you paint, it may be easier to hold it by pinching it with your thumb and forefinger near the metal ferrule, like a pencil. But then, that really depends on your preferences.

When you touch the wall, press down on the brush and start dragging until it touches the corner or the trim where you need your line to be. You should be able to paint about 10 inches before you run out of paint on that side of the brush. Then, flip it over to the other side and, using the same technique, paint back to the starting point.

Keep in mind that you’ll need to dip your brush into the paint before painting another 10-inch section. Overlap each paint stroke with the previous one — as demonstrated in this video. After you “cut in” your line using this method, you should feather the paint our with a brush or a roller. But remember to apply the rest of the wall paint while the edges are still wet.

Method 2: Use a Paint Shield

If you only wanted to paint the trim and not the surrounding wall, you can always use a paint shield. Paint shields (like this one from Hyde Tools) are basically thin and long pieces of metal or plastic you can jam into the trim.

They primarily act as a painter’s tape you can move along after each stroke. However, they require less setup and may even be more helpful for getting crisp lines. In fact, you can read all about how paint shields measure up to painter’s tape in my other article.

Using a paint shield to paint your trim is fairly easy. You would be using the same brush stroke technique while holding the shield in your other hand. However, you will need to periodically wipe paint off the tool to prevent smears. But that’s pretty manageable — just keep a clean damp rag on hand.

You can see how to use a paint guard on all types of trim, including windows, in this handy video.

Final Thoughts on Painting Trim Without Tape

The trim is an often overlooked part of our living space. However, the glossy paint we usually use on it tends to reveal all of its flaws and make it noticeable. It seems like I’m always finding mysterious nicks in my trim detailing. Fortunately, I’m fully equipped to fix it. All it takes is a bit of wood putty, a good sanding, and a fresh coat of paint.

As you have seen today, there are several ways to go about painting your trim. You can paint the trim last or do it before painting the walls. On the other hand, you can also use painter’s tape to mask the surrounding wall or use a paint shield. Ultimately, in this case, the best method is going to be the one that works for you and your home.

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