Painting Over Stained Wood Doors, Windows & Trim

Jeremy Holderness

Nothing accents and frames your freshly-painted walls like beautiful trimwork, doors, and windows.  Stained wood lends a rich and warm feel to a home's decor, but many people still prefer the crisp, clean lines that you get from contrasting painted baseboard, casing, and other moldings.

But what if you purchased a home that already had stained and varnished wood and now you want the painted look?  What about painting over stained wood doors, windows, and trim? -- Can you?  The answer is yes...and no.  It's possible to paint over many things, but if you want it to look good and last then you need to do it right.  Here's how.


It's All In The Prep Work

Stained wood may or may not have a clear coating of some kind that's been applied to it to protect the finish and make it more washable.  The clear finish could be in the form of a polyurethane, varnish, oil-finish, or a lacquer; and could also be a water-based or an oil-based product that was used.  With so many potential variables, it makes it virtually impossible to know for certain what type of system you're dealing with, so I'll just give you some general guidelines to follow that will give you the best chance of a good outcome.

Clean - It's imperative that the wood be cleaned before you move on to any other steps.  Anycontaminant that's on the surface (dirt, dust, grease, polish, etc.) must be removed.  

A strong pre-paint cleaner such as TSP powder, mixed with hot water would be a good choice for the job.

Dry - Allow the surface to dry completely before you proceed, especially if the wood has not been clear-coated.

Dull - Using 80 to 120 grit sandpaper or sanding sponge, scuff-up the surface.  If there is a clear protective finish then this will help to dull the sheen and create a profile on the surface for the primer to bite onto.  If the wood doesn't have a clear coating then this will help to remove any "mill glaze" and open-up the wood grain so that it will more readily accept primer.

After you sand the surfaces, wipe them down with a tack cloth to remove the dust.

Prime - In this particular situation I would recommend a primer that will solve the two most common problems you will encounter -- the need for an adhesion promoting primer if you're priming a clear-coated surface; and the need for a stain-blocking primer if you're painting over wood that doesn't have a clear finish...or does but is insufficient to act as a barrier between your primer and the stained wood.

An oil-based product might very well be your best choice in this situation, such as Zinsser's Cover Stain.  If you can't deal with the odor and the messy clean-up of an oil you can try a water-based alternative such as Zinsser's Bullseye 1-2-3 PLUS.

Either way, if you want to be on the safe side before you get all gung-ho and paint everything, you can apply a test patch of primer in an inconspicuous area after you've done your surface prep, apply your topcoat over the test patch once the primer's dry enough to receive it, then wait to see if you get any stain bleeding through.  If you're not in a hurry and you allow it to dry for a week or so you can even perform an adhesion test -- like the one I describe here -- to make sure it's going to stick.

Caulk - In areas where the trim meets the walls it's likely that there had never been any caulking applied if you had stained woodwork.  But you don't want to have gaps between two painted surfaces so now you need to caulk between the walls and the trim with a high quality painter's caulk.

Choosing The Right Finish

Painting doors, windows, and trim can be a time-consuming process.  So that your time isn't wasted, it's important to use the right topcoat product that will provide all of the qualities one desires for this type of project. 

Flow & Leveling - A smooth finish is the ultimate goal when doing a trim re-paint.  Choose a paint that has good flow characteristics so it's easy to work with a brush and won't leave excessive brush marks on the surface.  Self-leveling properties have typically been found exclusively in oil-based finishes but with new technology there are a small handful of latex products on the market that will perform like their oil counterparts, leaving you with an even smoother finish than you could otherwise achieve.

Durability - Again, oil-based finishes have historically been the go-to products for hard, durable finishes, but the trade-offs are that they can be a pain to work with, and the finish can "yellow" over time; or you can go with a water-based enamel finish that will also leave you with an incredibly durable coating that will resist dents, dings, and scratches quite well...and it resists yellowing.

A Top Pick - One of our favorite lines of products is the ProClassic line by Sherwin-Williams.  They're made specifically for this type of situation, and they come in both oil-based and water-based versions.  ProClassic offers you all of the benefits that I just discussed and they're readily available at your local SW store.

The waterbased version can be a little temperamental until you get used to it, so try it out on something before you put in on your project.  Thinning it with a very small amount of water can help -- no more than 5% or so.

What a dramatic difference changing the finish on your trimwork can make to the look and feel of your home's interior.  Skip the important steps and you can end up with a paint failure nightmare on your hands.  But done properly you're sure to love the results.

If you live in the Greater Tampa, Fl or Pittsburgh, PA area and would like some assistance with your house painting project please give us a call at (813) 570-8800, visit our Contact Us page, or click on the button below to request your free, no-obligation consultation and quote.

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photo by: Brian Moloney / CC BY 2.0 

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