How to Buy Better Trim Paint
We picked out 12 trim paints to try. After running tests and conferring with pro painters and industry experts, we singled out a few top performers.
A Quest to Find the Best Trim Paint
I installed new trim when I replaced all the doors and windows in my house a few years ago. Unfortunately, I didn’t get around to painting it. I recently decided it was time to finish the job, and the first step was to determine the paint that would perform best regardless of brand, sheen or color.
To research the options, I picked up 12 trim paints to try. This is what I discovered.
One thing I learned from the experts was that quality paint starts with expensive raw materials. That means the cost is a pretty good predictor of the results you’ll get. Using inexpensive paint could save a few bucks on the front end but cost you down the road. The paints I tested ranged in price from $35 to $90 per gallon.
Does Odor Matter to You?
I steered clear of any oil-based paints because of their smell, but some of the new acrylic-alkyd formulas still use solvent. These are a lot less stinky than pure oil-based paints, but some may bother sensitive noses.
With two kids under 2 running and crawling around, I don’t want to mess with any solvent cleanup, and with so many great water-cleanup options, I don’t think you should either.
The Importance of Smoothness
Smoothness is king when it comes to a trim paint job. I've worked hard to make my trim look great, and I don’t want to ruin it with brush marks, drips or roller ridges. A good trim paint should flatten out and become smooth as it cures. Not all the paints I tested did this well.
A good trim paint can be applied in tight areas like corners and curved profiles and smoothed out before it starts to dry. I painted an intricate profile at a mitered corner to figure out which paints were more workable.
My trim takes some abuse from my kids. It’s no fun sanding and repainting when it gets dinged up. I tested the toughness of the finish by dragging a piece of 80-grit sandpaper weighted with 1-lb. boxes of screws across it. The toughest paints took the punishment with only light scuffing.
The Two Most Common Options For Trim Paint:
Acrylic Latex ($15 to $70).
Most of the cans you see as you walk through the paint aisle will be labeled “acrylic.” These vary drastically in both price and performance. Some gallons cost as little as $15, but I steered clear of them. Paints made of 100 percent acrylic are more expensive but will cure harder and are less porous, making them durable and easy to clean. Acrylic latex paint can be a great choice for interior trim, but it won’t match the toughness of oil-based paint.
Acrylic-Alkyd Hybrid ($35 to $90).
Acrylic-alkyd hybrid paints have been available to contractors for a while but are still fairly unknown to most homeowners. These paints have all the good qualities of oil-based paint (leveling, hardness, flow and open time) while still providing easy soap-and-water cleanup and resistance to yellowing over time. Most brands have a version of these paints now, and they’re definitely worth checking out.
Tip: Always ask specialty paint stores about possible discounts. My experience tells me they're often running some sort of unadvertised sale or may have the freedom to give discounts.
Sherwin-Williams Emerald Urethane Trim Enamel ($93).
This represents a new category of paint, and it reminds me of a pigmented, water-based polyurethane—even the way it smells. This stuff produced the toughest coating of all the paints I tested. I dragged five 1-lb. boxes of screws on a piece of 80-grit sandpaper over the painted surface and the paper just glided right along. Emerald enamel brushes on well, has a long enough open time to work into the corners, and levels out nicely. It had less sheen than other paints; the semigloss I tested was more like a satin. If you want a super-hard finish and have $90 to spend on a gallon, this is right up your alley. It would be my choice if the cost didn’t matter.
Top 5 Trim Paint:
Behr Alkyd ($35).
This acrylic-alkyd hybrid may not be as tough as other hybrid trim paints, but it’s still pretty tough and because it’s a great value, I included it in my list of standouts. It’s thicker than other hybrids and brushes on really well. It also has great leveling characteristics and could get into the tough-to-reach areas in the mitered corners of my trim-painting test.
Top 5 Trim Paint:
PPG Break-Through! ($70).
This is one of the non-hybrid paints I tested. It’s a low-VOC (volatile organic compound) formula with a strong ammonia odor, but it leveled out better than anything else on the list. According to the manufacturer, it’s used to coat the warehouse floors. If it can stand up to forklifts, it ought to be able to take on my son’s Matchbox cars. It dries in 15 to20 minutes, so you need to lay and smooth the paint quickly. It won’t fill in dings or scratches, even small ones, so sand well before painting.
The absolute no-no in painting is spilling paint on the carpet. If paint-spillage ever happens, scrub it out with this household item.
Top 5 Trim Paint:
Benjamin Moore Advance ($57).
With a longer drying time, this acrylic-alkyd hybrid was the most workable of all the paints I tested, and it was also the runner-up in my toughness test. The downside is that you have to wait at least 16 hours between coats, compared with four to six hours for the other options. It also takes about 30 days to cure, so be careful reassembling parts or using the things you paint.
Top 5 Trim Paint:
Sherwin-Williams Snapdry ($77).
This acrylic latex ultra-fast-drying paint has great resistance to “blocking.” That’s the tendency of two painted surfaces to stick together, such as a door and its jamb. SnapDry’s fast drying time worried me, but with some urgency, I was able to apply the paint and spread it before it became tacky. It leveled out fairly well and was one of the tougher paints I tested. It’s harder to work with than others, but the super-fast drying time enables you to close your freshly painted door.
My Top Trim Paint Choice
Ultimately, I decided to go with Benjamin Moore’s Advance. I’ve worked so hard to make my trim look nice, and I want the paint to look like it’s been sprayed on. The base trim also has to stand up to vacuum cleaners, play sets and toy trucks. Advance was a good balance of price and performance, and it hung with the top performers in my tests. I am making a sacrifice in recoat and cure times—I need to figure out how to add an extra day to the weekend. — Mike Berner, an associate editor at Family Handyman, is also a painting-expert-in-progress.
Your freshly painted walls look pristine and you’re satisfied with a job well done.