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Woodwork in your home need upgrading? Here’s how to decide whether to paint or stain it.

"If you like stained woodwork — and/or if you want to remain true to your Victorian or Arts & Crafts house — then fine, leave it alone," says design specialist Annie Elliott. (Home decor by Annie Elliott. Photo by Angie Seckinger)
4 min

Depending on your home’s age and style, you may have wood trim around your windows, doors, baseboards and ceiling.

While contemporary-style homes are less likely to have extensive visible trim, some homeowners add trim to rooms for additional distinctive details. Some homeowners are accustomed to painted woodwork, but others prefer stained wood for a natural look. We asked the following experts for advice: Annie Elliott, owner of Annie Elliott Design in Washington, D.C.; and Charlotte Donati, an account manager with Wilderworks, a home services division of Anthony Wilder Design Build in Cabin John, Md. They replied by email, and their responses were edited.

Should you paint stained woodwork? Are there instances when you shouldn’t paint stained woodwork?

Elliott: I disagree when people say, “Under no circumstances should you paint your stained woodwork!” A friend of mine even had two painters refuse to paint her stained ceiling and beams. I don’t think there should be rules about painting or not painting trim, even in older homes. If you like stained woodwork — and/or if you want to remain true to your Victorian or Arts & Crafts house — then fine, leave it alone. But if you purchase a house with dark trim that is depressing you, I absolutely support painting it. (I recommend a high-gloss finish.) Remember that not all historic homes have stained woodwork; the trim colors in Colonial Williamsburg are fabulous. In new-build homes, stained trim absolutely is up for grabs. You don’t have to live with someone else’s selections.

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Donati: It’s all contingent on if you’re trying to keep a historical profile. Older homes tend to have a higher quality of stained woodwork; it’s easier to get away with painting woodwork in a newer build.

Does stained woodwork date a home?

Elliott: I believe it can, especially if the house was built in the 1970s or 1980s and the trim isn’t great quality. A skimpy stained chair rail can look unsubstantial and dated. In that case, I wouldn’t even advise painting it; we should pull it off.

Donati: Yes! Stained wood is not in right now, but everything makes a comeback. With light and bright colors trending, we aren’t seeing much demand for the stained woodwork look.

Should trim be the same color as walls? Or should you just vary the finish such as flat for walls, semi-gloss for trim?

Elliott: If you’re using any color but white, painting the trim and walls the same color is an active choice — a gorgeous statement. It’s also an effective strategy if you’re trying to make a small room appear bigger.

If you're going with bright white walls, you can paint the trim the same shade of white if you like. I recommend a flat, matte, or eggshell finish on the walls (the older or more damaged the walls, the flatter the finish to conceal flaws) and a satin, semi-gloss, or high-gloss finish on trim. Sheen reflects light, so the trim will appear a hair lighter than the walls even if they're the same color.

Donati: We use different sheens of paint for walls and trim. Typically, walls are eggshell or matte; trim is semi-gloss.

If you want to keep stained woodwork in its original form, how else can you lighten and brighten a space?

Elliott: Wallpaper with a bright white background will freshen up a space instantly. And don’t forget actual lamps. Overhead lighting isn’t enough; rooms also need table and/or floor lamps to provide adequate light and cheeriness.

Donati: Lighting should be a priority. We love seeing large custom windows in homes. If this isn’t in the homeowner’s budget, installing multiple light sources is a more cost-effective solution. Also consider lighter-toned wood flooring or vinyl flooring; bright furniture; accent colors and cheerful artwork; and some nice greenery.

What’s the prep for painting stained woodwork?

Elliott: I know that sanding and using the appropriate primer are important, but I would check with reputable sources before painting woodwork myself. Don’t forget to vacuum and wipe down your woodwork before starting.

Donati: You can either sand it down or scuff it up. The goal is to roughen up the surface so the paint adheres to the old polyurethane coat.

Is it more expensive or time-consuming to stain woodwork rather than paint it?

Donati: Yes, it is more expensive and time-consuming to stain woodwork rather than paint it. It’s really about individual preferences when deciding whether to stain or paint woodwork.

Does stain last longer than paint?

Donati: There are plenty of factors that affect the duration of paint and stain. For example, sunlight. Stained wood will darken when exposed to sunlight, while painted wood will fade. Overall, from our experience, we’ve seen that stain lasts longer than paint.

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