Clear Finish or Paint?

There are many factors to consider when choosing between a clear finish and paint.

Choosing between a clear finish and paint may not sound like a difficult decision, but it can become a fairly complex process that balances personal preferences, historical accuracy, and economics.

Several factors influence the economic part of the equation. For example, if you choose a clear finish for the wood, you'll need to purchase stain-grade millwork, and that can be significantly more expensive than a paint-grade counterpart. One reason is that a piece of paint-grade millwork may be made from a number of finger-jointed short sections of wood, while stain-grade demands an uninterrupted length of defect-free lumber. Installation of clear-finished moldings also requires a greater investment of time to achieve tight-fitting joints. Some carpenters estimate that it takes two or three times longer to install clear-finished millwork because there is no quick way to fill gaps. With painted woodwork, you simply pump in a little more painter's caulk.

A desire for historical accuracy also may guide your choice. Genuine Federal and Georgian-era millwork mostly were painted -- often to disguise the mixture of wood species used to make the moldings. The distinctive grain pattern of quartersawn white oak was a favorite of the Arts and Crafts movement, but other homes from that era used painted trim to accentuate architectural form instead of grain patterns.

Finally, there's the matter of personal choice. If you want a Federal-style doorway in your living room but prefer clear-finished wood to coordinate with the trim in the rest of the house, then that's what you should choose.

Clear Finishes

Clear finishes require expensive stain-grade softwood or hardwood lumber. Choose paint, and you can use economical paint-grade millwork, plastic moldings, and medium-density fiberboard.

Paint Finishes

Painted finishes can conceal, but clear finishes reveal. If you choose the clear route, you'll need to invest extra time to craft tight joints.

Historical Precedents

Whether you want to restore the original appearance of your home's millwork or transform new construction to a vintage look, it makes sense to pay attention to historical precedents, such as this quarter-sawn oak Arts and Crafts example.

What If... You Can't Prefinish the Trim or Wall?

Keeping stain off a freshly painted wall presents challenges, but if you know a simple trick, you can avoid the problem. Hang strips of waxed paper around the opening, then nail the moldings in place atop the paper. For a window, you'd apply the lower horizontal strip first, the legs next, and the top last. Masking the wall for baseboards could hardly be easier. When the finishing is complete, pull sideways on the waxed paper to remove the strips. If the strip tears, make a clean slice with a fresh blade in a utility knife.


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