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How to Paint Old Varnished Wood Trim

Ask This Old House painter Mauro Henrique teaches a homeowner some techniques to paint old 1960s wood trim with a varnish on it.

Steps for Painting Old Wood Trim:

  1. Start by protecting the floors and walls with painter’s tape. Mauro likes to use a wider masking tape on the floor and then cover that with the drop cloth to ensure a clean cutting edge.
  2. Tape the walls using regular painter’s tape. If you’re also painting the walls, then don’t worry about taping since the spillover can be covered up with the new paint.
  3. Lightly sand all the wood trim using a 220 grit sandpaper. This should help break up the varnish and give the primer a solid base to adhere to.
  4. Vacuum up as much of the dust from sanding as possible. Then, wipe down each surface with a tack cloth to ensure no dust was left behind.
  5. Prime all the surfaces using the bonding primer and a paint brush. Start by cutting the edges of the trim and then paint the flat surfaces.
  6. Allow the primer to dry. Then, repeat this process with the latex paint.
  7. Apply 2-3 coats, allowing each coat to dry before applying the next one.


Mauro explained that in rooms with wood trim that has a finish applied to it, it’s helpful to lightly sand the surface using 220 grit sandpaper to give the paint more to adhere to. For this project, he used a ProSand Contour Sanding Sponge, which is manufactured by Norton Abrasives.

To ensure a solid base for the paint, Mauro primed the trim with Stix Waterborne Bonding Primer, which is manufactured by INSL-X. Mauro decided to do two coats of primer in this case, since he thought it was more important to ensure a strong, even base for the paint.

The homeowner had already purchased paint for the room, so Mauro finished the room using the same paint. She had selected Sherwin Williams paint in Extra White with a semi-gloss finish. This one doesn’t need to be mixed as it’s available right off the shelf.

The other materials Mauro used to paint the trim, including the drop cloths, brushes, painter’s tape, and buckets, can all be found at home centers and paint supply stores.

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