Guide To Exterior Trim Paint

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Got some outdoor trim to paint? Here are some tips to help you choose the right paint and complete the job like a pro.

Paint is paint, right? As long as you can live with the color, you should be able to slap any kind of paint on your home’s exterior trim — right?

Wrong. You need exterior paint for exterior trim, for the same reason you can’t use interior wood filler to patch holes in your deck.

Exterior paint must withstand tough weather conditions, so it’s formulated differently than indoor paint. There are also significant differences between various exterior paint formulations, so a paint that works on exterior walls usually isn’t the best choice for trim. One more thing: Don’t expect to find the same color selection in exterior paint that you have with interior brands.

What to Look For in Exterior Trim Paint

Interior and exterior formulations differ in binder and pigment materials, the ratio of pigment to binder, and sometimes the solvent.

There are usually more binders in exterior paints, which are more durable. The pigments are made from inorganic materials like red oxide and yellow umber, which withstand sun and rain better than the organic pigments in interior paint, but with earthier tones.

Volatile non-aqueous solvents generally can’t be included in interior paints because of air-quality concerns but are OK outside, so you usually have a choice of water- or solvent-based exterior trim paint.

The higher concentration of binders makes exterior paint more resistant to weather, but it also gives it a higher sheen because binders are more reflective than pigments. Exterior wall paints often contain glare-cutting additives to flatten the sheen. But for trim paint, you’re better off without them because a higher sheen helps the trim stand out and provide an accent.

To summarize, look for the following when shopping for exterior trim paint:

  • Sheen: Choose satin, semigloss or full gloss.
  • Oil- vs. water-based: Both are fine, although cleanup is messier with oil-based paints. If you want a full gloss sheen to make a door or flower box pop, you’re better off with an oil-based paint. It flows more slowly and smoothly and dries to a harder, more reflective surface.
  • Additives: The most beneficial additive is a mildewcide, and you’ll find that in many high-quality products. You can mix that in yourself, so it shouldn’t be a deal-breaker if your chosen product doesn’t have it.
  • Color: Some product lines have more varied color palettes than others. If you’re committed to a particular hue, you may be limited to a particular product line.

Shopping for Exterior Trim Paint

Specific exterior paint formulations vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, and as with anything else, you get what you pay for.

Behr Marquee Exterior is regarded as one of the best, and that’s reflected in its price — a little more than $60/gallon. Sherwin-Williams Everlast, a close competitor, costs a little less and is almost as good. But it has a satin sheen, slightly flatter than semigloss, and tends to collect dirt faster.

Most exterior trim paints cost much less than these top-of-the-line products, with the average per gallon around $30. But they won’t last as long and coverage may not be as good. You’ll find the expected coverage displayed on the can.

Make sure you buy enough paint. Most products cover 250 to 400 square feet per gallon, but it depends on the porosity of the surface. You get better coverage when painting primed or pre-painted trim than raw wood.

Choosing the Right Color

You could write a book on how to choose colors for exterior trim, invoking the color wheel, feng shui principles and general color matching guidelines. But who has time to read all that? Keep things simple:

  • Blend with existing colors: Trim should harmonize with the colors of the walls and roof, but also pay attention to surrounding landscape features. A complementary trim color such as terra-cotta or pinkish beige would look less monotonous on a green house in a forested setting than blue or a different shade of green. On the other hand, the darker shade could help cool things off in an arid, sunny location.
  • Pay attention to the architecture: Bright, fun colors appropriate for a beach house would look out of place on a more stately residence.
  • Check out the neighborhood: Before you buy that can of lavender paint, assess how well that color fits with the neighboring homes. In some cases, your color choices may be limited by homeowner’s association or community rules.

Is Trim Painting a DIY Job?

The quick answer is yes, if you’re comfortable working on a ladder. The job doesn’t involve any high-tech painting equipment. All you need is a brush and possibly a four-inch roller to speed things up.

The most difficult trim to paint is overhanging fascia on multi-story homes. To do it, you need a ladder that extends beyond the roof line. If the roof is exceptionally high, or the ground around the foundation is sloped or unstable, you may be better off hiring a pro painter with all the necessary safety equipment for the job.

How to Paint Exterior Trim

If you’re installing new trim, prime it and paint one coat before you hang it. That way, you’ll only need to apply one more coat from a ladder. Don’t skip the final coat. It will hide blemishes, cracks and nail holes that are an inevitable part of trim installation.

When painting existing trim, some painters like to tape the edges. But if you have a good eye, a steady hand and a high-quality three-inch angled trim brush, you may find this step unnecessary. Just make sure you have some leftover wall paint to touch up the spots where your paintbrush slips.

Work from the top down when painting vertical trim so you can take care of drips as you go. Don’t carry a full can of paint onto a ladder. Pour some into an empty can or a pail and hang it from a ladder hook. To prevent paint from dripping over the edge of a paint can, drill a few holes in the rim to allow it to drip back into the can.

Begin each stroke on wet paint and brush in long, continuous strokes. Stroke lines usually aren’t visible on exterior trim, so you don’t have to be overly fastidious. But you do want to avoid overloading, which causes drips, and applying too little paint, leaving streaks.

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Chris Deziel
Chris Deziel has been active in the building trades for more than 30 years. He helped build a small city in the Oregon desert from the ground up and helped establish two landscaping companies. He has worked as a carpenter, plumber and furniture refinisher. Deziel has been writing DIY articles since 2010 and has worked as an online consultant, most recently with Home Depot's Pro Referral service. His work has been published on Landlordology, Apartments.com and Hunker. Deziel has also published science content and is an avid musician.