How to Paint and Stain Baseboards

Give your home an upgrade with freshly painted or stained baseboards. We've got all your tips you need for a successful job.

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It may take a backseat to your gorgeous accent wall or detailed accents, but baseboards are the root of all rooms. Consistent throughout your home, the baseboards make the natural flow from room to room seamless. When choosing new baseboards or upgrading old ones, you have the option to paint or stain them. Both are great options, but result in two very different looks. Whichever you choose, we've got you covered. Below, find our helpful instructions on how to paint and stain baseboards. 

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Consider the Finish and Material

When choosing new baseboards, consider the finish. Whether it will be painted, stained, or left natural determines the material selection. Wood is the traditional choice, but it's not your only option. If you're planning to paint the trim, manufactured materials such as medium-density fiberboard (MDF) and plastic moldings (including urethanes and other synthetics) are good-looking, budget-conscious alternatives.

To save money when staining, select wood based on the appearance of the grain, and stain to personal preferences. Cherry, for example, is an expensive wood, but you can get a comparable look by buying birch and applying a cherry stain. The grain and hardness of cherry and birch are very similar.

Fill Knots and Nail Holes

For small nail holes on baseboards you plan to stain, use a dough-type wood filler. (Since even filler made to accept stain never looks like real wood, limit its use along the length of the baseboard.) Filler can be applied before or after staining; experiment to find out which looks best. Begin by tamping a small amount of the filler into the hole with your thumb. Smooth it with a putty knife. Wipe away the excess with a rag dampened with water or mineral spirits depending on the type of putty (check the label). If you plan to paint the baseboard, water-mix putty excels at filling shallow depressions. The putty sets up quickly, so don't mix more than you can use in 10 minutes. To fill cracks around a knot, mix the putty to a pastelike consistency and force it into all the cracks with a putty knife. Feather out the patch to the surrounding wood. Once the wood filler or putty dries, sand the surface smooth.

What You Need

  • Sandpaper (fine and medium grits)
  • Sanding block
  • Tack cloth
  • Putty knife
  • Paintbrush
  • Lint-free cloths
  • Disposable foam brushes
  • #0000 steel wool
  • Baseboard
  • Wood filler
  • Mineral spirits or paint thinner
  • Paint
  • Stain
  • Clear polyurethane or varnish

How to Paint Baseboards

Step 1: Sand Baseboards

Sand baseboards, whether unfinished or painted, with medium-grit sandpaper on a sanding block. Be sure to always sand with the grain, not against it. More sanding may be required in rooms with high traffic or areas with furniture that backs up to the wall. Wipe away residue with a tack cloth.

Step 2: Fill Imperfections

Use a putty knife to fill knots and nail holes with water-mix putty. Don't worry about smoothing the putty down yet. Let dry. Lightly sand filled spots until the surface is even and wipe clean.

Step 3: Paint Baseboards

Protect the floor and wall with painter's tape before painting. Apply paint to the wood surface with short light strokes across the wood grain, laying down paint in both directions. Finish with longer strokes in one direction only, working with the wood grain. Use only the tips of the bristles to smooth out the paint.

How to Stain Baseboards

Step 1: Sand Baseboards

It's easier to stain uninstalled baseboards as you can finish them on a waist-high work surface. Sand baseboards with sanding paper or a sanding block and wipe dust particles away with a tack cloth.

Step 2: Apply Stain

Mix stain before using. With a brush or a lint-free cloth, apply it with the grain. Slightly overlap your strokes so you don't miss any spots. Let the stain set according to the manufacturer's directions.

Step 3: Wipe Stain

Before the stain begins to dry, wipe the entire surface with a lint-free cloth to remove excess stain. This forces the stain's pigment into the grain, enhancing contrast.

Step 4: Seal and Finish

To apply clear sealer or varnish, use a disposable foam brush and work across the grain. For the second coat brush with the grain to avoid ridges. Once dry install baseboard and fill nail holes with wood putty.

For a silky smooth polyurethane finish, let the first coat of polyurethane dry thoroughly. Then lightly buff the surface with #0000 steel wool or fine (320-grit) sandpaper. Repeat this step between any additional coats you decide to apply.

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