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All the Trim(mings)

The right trim color can make or break a beautiful palette. Whether it's wood stain, off-white or a totally different color than your walls, here are the tips to help you figure out which route to go.


Krane: Welcome to Let's talk color.


Woolf: I'm Amy Woolf, principal designer at Amy Woolf Color and Design.


Krane: And I'm Amy Krane founding designer at Amy Krane Color.


We're both professional color experts who specialize in architectural color, we met all training and years later, the conversation is still going strong.


Woolf: We both live our lives immersed in color and design. We often agree, but sometimes we don't because color is personal. Color truths, however, are universal.


Krane: In each episode will unravel the mystery of choosing color for your home or business, both inside and out.


Woolf: Today, our topic is trim and I want to thank one of our listeners for writing in with a suggestion. Today is going to be all about trim color and we're going to go beyond the idea of just white because there is actually no such thing as just white given that there's hundreds of whites to choose from. I think we'll start by talking about what trim actually is. Carpenters and builders will refer to it as millwork. It includes your baseboards, door casings, crown molding, and also built-in things like cupboards or wainscoting.


Krane: I also think we should include picture frame molding - like on those beautiful old plaster walls you'll see in a pre-war apartment where panels are created by decorative molding within the wall. It gives you an opportunity to not only paint that molding a color, but also paint inside the molding, perhaps with a different color than the rest of the wall.


Woolf: Oh right, like a big time picture frame on the wall!


Krane: Exactly. So I think you hit it in the head. That's all of it. People struggle with choosing trim color, unless they just want to repeat what they had before, like white or it's wood stain and they wouldn't even consider painting the wood. We can talk about wood later. They only sem to know about white. But there are quite a number of other treatments for trim.


Woolf: I can't tell you how many times I've walked into a house and we've looked at the trim color and I will ask a client to tell me what have they got in the basement. Let's take a look at those paint cans and see if we can ID the trim color. Particularly when we're going to go with what's already been done. You repeat the same color. And many, many times it's just straight Benjamin Moore white, Ready Mix, interior white. And I think while that's fine, and I think bright white trim certainly has its place. I have a lot of it in my own life, I think there's an opportunity there to do something a little more interesting, a little more different. But not so different, you know. I'm a strong believer in picking one color that's going to work throughout the house, just for the sake of sanity. Just because it makes touch-ups easier and less confusing.


Krane: All one color definitely also helps with cohesion in the house. You've got that one element that is continuing from room to room and floor to floor and it really helps tie a house together. But there are a number of reasons to do something different than white. It certainly will add complexity to the overall palette and design of the house. Certainly different kinds of architecture lends itself to having a different color trim. More historic houses with large, wide, decorative trim are often treated by painting the trim a different color than the walls. And sometimes it's even a different color in many of the rooms.


Let's run through the various choices that you might have in terms of the treatment of your trim. There's a traditional choice of white or off white. There is wood stain trim, which often goes hand-in-hand with a more rustic type of house. There are very modern homes that don't have trim at all, they don't have molding. They have what's called drywall returns. In that scenario, it's a very sleek modern look as you don't have any interruption of the eye as you look across a room and from room to room because there's absolutely no trim. And then there's the treatment you might choose for a historic home. In fact, the casing around the doors and the windows in an historic home can be highly decorative and is often quite wide. It's a great opportunity to jump in there with a different color altogether than the walls. It can be lighter or darker in value than the walls or from a different color family completely. Alternatively, you can take a historic home with decorative trim and paint the trim the same color as the walls, which is a very modern approach.


Woolf: I think where I have seen most of that all one color application is with the use of really bold color in historic homes. We're seeing these rooms with a ton of mill work or molding, and it's done in teal or something like that. But actually the truth is, I did a library a few years back that was floor to ceiling paneling and the whole room just got swathed in one color. It was gray because we hadn't moved beyond the gray trend yet. This is probably five or six years ago. But I think what you're talking about with a colorful trim is that classic colonial look, which I certainly see a great deal of up here in Massachusetts. The walls tend to be sort of an off white or maybe a putty color, probably harkening back to raw plaster or lime wash. Then the trim was painted a color like colonial blue, which of course, I think we can improve on. We can do better than that classic colonial blue, which I know some people really don't like or sage green or barn red. Those were sort of the defaults I believe in New England style. But I always think about that in terms of the ratio - the value relationship between the walls and the trim. Lighter walls, darker trim versus darker walls and white trim. I had a house that I worked on when I first moved up here to Massachusetts that was an accurate replica of a 1600s house. The windows were 12 over 12 or 16 or 16. When I say 12 over 12, what I mean is 12 panes of glass with mullions in between on the top half of the double-hung window and 12 on the bottom. So that's a lot of wood. It's a lot of mullions. And my client came from a home where she had color on the walls and white trim and wanted to bring that look with her and replicate that. I kind of drew a line in the sand. I said, "No, no, we can't do that with all those mullions." You'd have all that white trim and it'll stop your eye from really moving beyond the wood work out into the views. They really bought the property, not just for the house, but for the setting and those views. I think for these kind of traditional colonial houses, I really believe we've internalized the way they should look, and we have a certain sense that white trim on that style of house just doesn't make sense. It would somehow feel strange to walk into a house like that and find white trim everywhere.


Krane: Yeah, I think the question of what to do with the windows: Sashes, stiles and mullions, is a big one. Also people question whether, their exterior windows should match their interior. You certainly don't have to... You made a really good point in terms of white on your mullions, also known as muntins. White will stop your eye from going out to the view, while anything dark framing the glass will send your eye straight out. So you will be looking straight past those mullions to the landscape outdoors. And it's really a helpful trick to emphasize the exterior view from a room - go dark. I think that that's one happy by-product of our recent-ish trend in black windows that you're seeing now with the modern farmhouse look, which so many homeowners of other style home's want to emulate. If they have the opportunity to change the windows, either by replacing them or just painting them a lot of people are asking for black on the windows. Are you finding that, Amy?


Woolf: It's a little slow to catch on here in Western Massachusetts. I certainly am seeing a whole lot of black going up on the exteriors. I think it's more of a stretch for the interiors. I have one client right now who's doing a modern barn, and he is putting black on the interior windows and oddly, I think the exterior is all white, which is kind of interesting. He's doing what you've mentioned before, the simple return, there will not be casing around those windows. I have another client right now who's doing replacement windows and she has wood for her interior casing. And of course, we're struggling with what to do for the interior finish on those windows. The coated finish that comes from the manufacturer, they're Marvin windows, is a yellow pine, the natural wood, and it's very yellow. Her casing has aged over time and it's probably was finished maybe 20 years ago, so it's amber and it's quite orange. So white doesn't feel right. The yellow pine doesn't feel quite right. I have suggested black. I have not heard back from her on that idea. I think it's a stretch. I think it's hard for her to wrap her head around.


The analogy I use is the iron fence in the garden versus a white picket fence. I don't know if we've talked about that before, but if you're looking at a garden and there's a black iron fence around the garden, what do you see? You don't see the iron fence. It disappear as you see the garden. Whereas if there's a white picket fence between you in the garden, the white stops your eye. So that's how I like to describe it to my clients. This notion of the view and white and black, and obviously that works with any kind of toned color. I think in an ideal world, my client really likes her wood trim, and I think in an ideal world, what we're going to end up doing is probably having the new replacement windows custom stained to match the existing older trim. She's a self-professed nature girl, a nature lover, and really likes the natural wood. So I think we're going to stick with what she loves and probably aim for that. But the black would work...


Krane: I want to make a distinction between the window sashes, stiles and mullions and the window frame or casing. Because you can have the window itself, meaning the sashes, stiles and the mullions be black or another color, any color, and have your window frames or the casing match your trim. So yes, it is a third color - meaning wall color, window frame with sill, then the sashes, stiles and mullion color. But if you're talking neutrals, if the window sashes, stiles and mullions are black, it's really quite a neutral which to some degree it disappears.


What parts of the room do you like to specify with trim? For me, I think of doors at the same time as I think of trim, and I very, very often specified doors, trim and windows being the same thing. I like to see color in masses in a room. And so I'm not a huge fan of having the trim, be it the base or crown molding, continue up around the door and having that a different color than the door. In other words, I don't really care for matching the doors to the walls with the trim being something different because it's a line. If you forget about what it is, forget that it's molding and just look at its pattern, it's visual impact, it's a line. It's a line traveling along the bottom of the wall, and then up around doors and back down. Door after door, up and around, up and around up and around. I would rather consider the door as a mass of color, as a block of color, and paint it the same as the trim. With exceptions here and there. For instance, I remember specifying color for an apartment in New York City, and the hallway was rectangular with lots of doors. In this scenario having six doors be a different color than the walls is too busy so would having the trim different than the walls running up around each door. I didn't like it either. So that for me is definitely a situation where you might want to go with trim matching wall color. It's all one color and your eyes don't go immediately to this door, that door, or even worse, all the doors. I do like painting trim and walls the same color and I do suggest it to clients very often. I think it's a really seamless look.


Another thing to consider also is that not everyone's trim is beautiful. You know, those historic houses with the 6-inch tall, beautiful, decorative trim is one thing. But if you've got very ordinary trim, who says you should call it out and bring it to people's attention? I think it's nice to just let it sit back. I always give it a different finish, a different sheen, and call it a day. Match the walls!


Woolf: I can think of two cases where I've used that technique pretty effectively. Not if we're thinking about way- finding and doors that are functional. Those are doors that we want to see. But sometimes I'll do this on an exterior actually, where there's a secondary entry door off to the side that you don't want to steer your visitors to. I will often paint that door in the same color as the field of the house, same as essentially the walls. I'll do it in a kitchen if there's a utility closet or something that we don't need to be aware of. Obviously an entry or an exit door, that's about way-finding. We want to see that. I have also done it in a long hallway in a ranch house. Sort of analog to your New York City apartment! If there's a long hallway running down the middle of a ranch house with all these doors, instead of doing the color white for trim I will often just wrap that whole hallway in that single wall color- doors and trim. And you're right, take it up a step in sheen for the trim, so you've got the durability.


So we should talk a little bit about sheen and I want to build on what you said about painting "important" trim. My general rule of thumb, I'll just start with that, is that we take at least one, but usually two steps up in shine from the wall finish. So if you're doing a matte on the walls, which is my favorite choice for most situations, then I would go two steps up and that is to a satin. So we skip over eggshell and go to satin. You can also go to semi-gloss if you like that, but the way I consider sheen is... First, what's the condition of your trim? What's the condition of your millwork? Because the more shine you have, the more details you'll see and also... Is that trim important? Like you were talking about Amy with historic beautiful, detailed trim. Higher sheen is going to show more detail for better or for worse.


Krane: Yeah, I'm in complete agreement with you. The one place that I do steer towards a shiner finish then satin or pearl is again, in a New York City apartment. Having lived in one for so many years, I know the amount of grime, it's not just dust with all the traffic and the pollution. [I'm sorry, New York City]. It's kind of dust that sticks, it's soot. And I think that's one reason to get yourself up a notch and go with a semi-gloss for trim in a city like New York. I think it's about its durability, making it easier to wipe down all the time. As you said, it's a harder finish. It lasts longer. And if you vacuum like me, man, I bump those moldings all the time! Mine should be made of steel.


Woolf: That's one more reason to have your trim color choice be uniform and rational throughout. So you can run around with a Q-tip and touch up all those little ding marks easily. Which I'm going to confess, I usually only do before I'm selling my house. But I aspire to do that more often... In my dreams, right?


Krane: Right. One thing that often trips people up are jambs. How to describe a jamb? A jamb is a section of window casing, a door or the divider between rooms, which is perpendicular to the walls or surfaces it connects to. So it's the width, it's the width of the thing you're looking at. It's that space between the two rooms, if there's an opening between two rooms, and it's that inside of your window casing. God, I don't know if I'm confusing people more than explaining! But if in one room the trim color is wood tone for instance and the trim in the next one is white what do you do? And also there's the question of the leading door edge. There are often occasions for doors to be a different color on each side. Think of a bathroom door. One side is one color, the other side, your hallway side, is another color. So what to do with the doors leading edge, its width? My answer is this: Look at which room the door opens INTO when the door is open. Which room is it in? Is it in the hallway? Is it in the bedroom? And paint the edge the color of the room that the door is opened into, because that's the room that you're going to see. Also take a very wide entrance from one room to another room. Let's say it isn't an open plan home where there is literally no break between rooms, but there's a very wide doorway, without a door. I will paint the jamb the color that I most often walk in the direction of. What I see first. So if room one is color A and room 2 is Color B and you always walk from A to B, paint the jamb between the rooms A.


Woolf: So yeah, I will say that the bathroom is one place I kind of break my "only one trim color" rule. I often find that bathrooms want white trim and while I will do a more toned white everywhere else in the house, in the bathroom I go bright white. Somehow, to bring a toned white into a bathroom where there are so many bright white fixtures, "cause we're not going to be doing biscuit toilets on my watch!" One white to another white is one thing, but one color to another color is quite another thing. I heard years ago that the way to do those transitions from room to room was to do it so that... This is hard to describe, but basically imagine yourself walking through the house... Let's just say a shotgun house for an example, where you've got bathrooms stacked on each other. You start with the general flow of traffic from the front door to the back door, and you wrap from one room to the next in the direction of traffic that you mostly going. So this applies to openings that are not cased too. Openings that are just plaster where sometimes you'll have an archway or an opening between rooms. So if you're in the living room and you walk into the next room, the dining room, you're going to wrap that living room onto the 90-degree walls...


This is one time, I guess I wish we had a You Tube channel, 'cause we're here flapping our wings and making motions with our hands, and our dear listeners, we hope you get it! Anyway, I would say generally, just pick something and stick with it. I often will tell clients when it comes to these kind of weird splitting hairs, these choices that need to be made, there is no absolute one right choice and that we can follow the guidelines and follow the rules and see how it feels... And kind of take it from there. I think this also has to do with value of the color- likeness, darkness. That if we're moving from one room that's a very dark color into another room that's a really light color, I think it makes the decision harder. And sometimes you just have to try it out and see how it feels. And just know that there is no absolute one right answer.


Krane: That's fair. I think that's fair. Let's roll back a bit and talk a little more about that wood trim, because you and I, Amy, we kind of chuckle about this quite often. Wood stain trim and the love affair of it with so many males in our society, I'm not being disrespectful in any way, to men here. I'm just saying... Why do they love the wood trim so much? And why are the females in the house game to paint it a color? Even if that color is white. They say, "Yeah, let's do it! Let's get rid of that wood trim. And the men are... " not over my dead body." It's so universal. It's unbelievable. It's like, it's sacred, it's... I don't know, is it from wood shop? Did they all have wood shop and junior high? Did they learn to appreciate wood and maybe they have a little bit of carpentry skills and they have a great love and appreciation for wood. Maybe it comes from a really beautiful place of honoring nature and trees and all. But it's so monolithic. It's so there. And I've never asked a man, "why don't you want to paint that wood trim?" I would love to hear the answer. Maybe I'll do it one day.


Woolf: Oh, because it's... Because it's wrong, it's WRONG [to them]. I mean, what I find with guys who don't want to paint wood, whether it's the trim or the kitchen cabinets or whatever is there's just something inviolable about it. It's just wrong. I have a theory that's not quite as beautiful as the commuting with nature bit. And that it has somewhat to do with the dislike of change. I think it kind of plays out in haircut world. You know, you come home and you say to your guy, "Do you like my hair?" And he's like, "I liked it the other way." There's a part of me that sort of feels like guys just aren't as open to change.


I do also think that the yearning for white trim is also a yearning for more ease with color. I think it's so much easier to pick a wall color when you have white trim. So I think that if you want to split this along the lines of who's interested in design in the house and who is less so, and that can follow either way on the gender line in partnerships, I know that very often people who want to get rid of their wood trim, a big reason for that is because they have struggled with wall color. Because it is really much harder, I think, to pick good wall collars to go with wood trim. Wouldn't you say that's true?


Krane: Oh yeah, I agree. I totally agree. It's actually one of my blog posts that I get so many hits on it. Picking wall color for wood trim walls. But you know, Amy, it goes back to something you said in our kitchen episode, which I totally agree with. It's that people may think of the wood color as neutral, but the reality is they're looking at a color and then suddenly, as you said, it can skew Brown or reddish brown, or orange or orange brown or yellow or grey or whatever, and it's all over the room. And it's such a major component in the design of that room and it complicates choosing the wall color without a doubt.


Woolf: I think we see oak that's yellow or amber pine trim in so many houses and that's a lot of color. I know it's not like people are doing walnut or a cool Birch. We're seeing a lot of yellow trim and that's a burden.


Krane: It is always a bummer when folks don't want to paint the trim because budget-wise, they can't. And although it might be in okay shape, it's very often a screaming bright white, and it just makes me sad. I don't really want a screaming bright white so often. Sometimes, but not so often. But budget is budget, and if you can't afford to paint the trim you can't. Even worse to have to continue that stark white into some other rooms that do need trim to be painted because you want the continuity. And you're forced into using that white.


Woolf: There's just a ton of labor involved. It's a lot of really fussy work and so it is time consuming and costly. I think the other thing to remember is that if everything got painted at once: The trim, the walls, the ceiling, they've all sort of gone downhill together. They've all tracked and gotten worse looking together. And so when you then add some fresh new paint on the walls, it's that juxtaposition between the new clean fresh paint job, that's going to make the trim look bad. So maybe do the Q-tip touch up thing, or maybe try to budget painting the trim the next year. Or if you're handy and you get snowed in, which only counts for half of the country, you know it can be a DIY.


Krane: Or pandemic'd in!


Woolf: There you go. Painting trim can be a DIY project if it's something you like. So let's talk about sheen again real quick. Another thing to talk about with sheen is that if you aren't painting houses every day for a living and you're an amateur, the shinier the paint, the harder it is to get it to apply well and look good. So if you are not the best painter and you end up with brush drags and stuff like that, a little less sheen will be your friend. And you can ask me how I know that. In my very first house where I learned so, so much, including the fact that I needed to get trained in color, I decided to paint the trim, semi-gloss. I might have used high gloss and it was not easy. Yeah, it was not easy.


Krane: Let's talk about common problems we see and pet peeves.


Woolf: Pet peeves. Do we have pet peeves?


Krane: Yes, a couple. Hmmmm, not so many with trim, but a couple. I don't mind so much if there's different color trim in some different rooms but if the trim color in every single room is different... That is too much for me. I think that really fights the idea of cohesion in your house. So I would say if you want variety from room to room, come up with a plan and pick a few colors and work out a palette of a few different trim colors that work. I think if you've got 11 rooms in your house, you really don't need to have 11 different trim colors, if they're different than the walls. If they are the same color as the wall, then that's fine, it just blends in with your walls and not standing out. It doesn't create that super chaotic and busy situation. I guess the other thing is, going back to what we said before, if you've got an inch and a half high trim... Absolutely nothing looking trim, really consider not emphasizing your trim with a different trim color. You shouldn't just do it because you think you have to, even white. Make sure your trim is nice enough to be called out with its own color. How about you?


Woolf: I think my big pet peeve, and this is something I probably see more on exteriors than interiors... But I think it's a mistake is when... Yeah, this would be an exterior trim pet peeve, when people paint the house a certain field color and then they decide to use a lighter version for the trim. So there's a house near me... Boy, I hope that person isn't listening! It's a rich yellow. It's really a lovely home and the trim is a pale yellow instead of a white. And I just feel like it's one of those shortcuts that you shouldn't take. I suppose my other pet peeve about trim is that... And this goes to interiors, if it's going to be white, I want it to feel clean and fresh. I think you can still tone a white trim color, but keep it clean feeling. I tend to stay away from the muddy whites, just because for me, I want it to kind of sparkle. It doesn't have to be bright and stark, but it should still be clean.


Krane: Makes sense. Well, thanks for listening.


Woolf: Thanks again to our dear listener who wrote in and asked us to talk about trim. You can find us on our website, Let's Talk [paint] Color dot com. And there's a place where you can send us a little note. So let us know what you'd like to hear us talk about.


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