How To: Paint With Oil-Based Paint

As I write this post about oil-based paint I realize that the information is quickly disappearing from both common knowledge and usefulness today. If you live in California I don’t even think you’re allowed to buy oil-based paint anymore (at least not in any significant quantities).

The landscape of house painting has been changing ever since water-based paints were first introduced by Sherwin-Williams in 1941. Kem-Tone, as it was called proved that water-based paints were a possibility. And it’s no secret that water-based, or latex paints, are easier to work with, better for the environment, and longer lasting than most oil-based paints. But there is still a place for oil-based paint today. And if you live in an old house, knowing how to work with oil-based paint is almost a requirement.

What You Need To Know About Oil-Based Paint

  1. Slow-Drying – Oil-based paint is notoriously slow drying and the reason we have the saying “It’s like waiting for paint to dry.” Most oil-based paint takes about 8 hrs to dry enough to recoat as opposed to latex paint which takes around 2 hrs to recoat. This may sound like a problem at first as it definitely slows down the whole process. But this slow drying allows oil-based paint to flow out better and provide a smoother finish than latex paint. This slow process allows brush marks to level out remarkably well.
  2. Good Ventilation – If you’re working with oil-based paint you need better ventilation than you do with latex paint. Make sure to open windows and put a fan in the doorway to pull in fresh air. Oil-based paints usually have a much higher VOC content than latex paints which is why the extra ventilation is needed.
  3. Yellows in Dark Areas – If you have old oil-based paint on your closet’s baseboards chances are it’s pretty yellow. Light colored oil-based paints are notorious for yellowing with age and in dark areas, The more sunlight it gets the less it yellows. If exposed to more sunlight the yellowing will fade away though, and though today’s oil-based paints have gotten better about holding their color it’s still a problem.
  4. Purdy China Bristle Brush

    A China Bristle Brush is one of the best for oil-based paint

    Can Be Mildew Prone - When used outside oil-based paint has a tendency to mildew. This is especially prevalent in varieties that contain larger quantities of linseed oil.


  5. You Need A Specific Brush – Oil-based paints require a different brush from latex paints. There are some brushes that work with both latex and oil, but natural bristle brushes work much better with oil-based paints. They are readily available wherever you can buy paint brushes. They will usually say “For Oil-based Paints” on the brush holder.
  6. Hard Finish – One of the qualities of oil-based paints that manufacturers have struggled to create with latex paint is a hard durable finish on enamel paints. For doors, trim and moldings nothing beats the hard, durable finish of an oil-based enamel paint. And that hard finish makes it an excellent choice for doors and windows because that hard finish eliminates the sticking that often happens with latex paints. The hard finish also unfortunately prevents the paint from being as flexible as latex which is why old oil-based paints begin to crack and chip off. Temperature swings and expansion of the surface eventually breaks the harder paint film of an oil-based paint.
  7. Odorless Mineral Spirits

    I use this type of thinner since it has less fumes and is a greener option.

    Difficult Clean Up - If you’re painting with an oil-based paint the clean up is a bit more involved. Oil-based paint is pretty much impervious to water so you’ll have to use paint thinner or mineral spirits to clean your brushes. Here’s some tips for using mineral spirits:

    • Make sure the area is well-ventilated.
    • Pour some into a bowl and vigorously mix your brush for about a minute.
    • Pour the used portion into a sealable metal container.
    • Repeat this process until the mineral spirits comes out clear and the brush is clean.
    • Dispose of the used thinner or mineral spirits at your landfill’s hazardous waste drop off.

And there is one last thing you need to know about oil vs water based paints . . .They don’t mix! I would think it’s obvious to most people the mixing a can of oil-based paint with a can of water-based paint wouldn’t be a good idea, but I’m talking about something else here.

If you are painting oil-based paint on top of latex paint then you have to prime the latex first. Latex paint and oil-based paint expand and contract at two different rates. So, if you paint oil-based paint on top of a latex paint without priming first, the latex will flex so much underneath that the oil-paint will quickly fail.

You can get away with painting a latex paint on top of an oil-based paint without primer, but just to be safe, it’s always a good idea to prime first when you are switching from one type of paint to the other.

Hopefully this has been a good “primer” (<—Sorry, I couldn’t resist the painter humor) for working with oil-based paint. If you have any tips I may have forgotten please share them in the comments below.


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by Scott Sidler

I'm a historic preservationist and author. I help old house lovers understand & restore their homes so they can enjoy the history and character that surrounds them more everyday! When not working, writing or teaching about old houses I spend most of my time fixing up my own 1929 bungalow with my wife Delores and son Charley.


  1. Linda on said:

    Thanks for these tips. I just used an oil-based black paint on ceramic tile…so far, so good (waiting for it to fully dry). But I have another question. We have a steel door to our garage that our dog has scratched down to the metal. We decided to repaint it black and not knowing any better, applied latex paint (we were told it would act as its own primer and applied 2 coats). Within one day, the dog had scratched it down to metal again. Now I would like to try the black oil-based, Benjamin Moore “Direct-To-Metal” paint I used on the tile. Most of the door is still covered with the black latex. Can we just paint it all with the oil-based? This paint also says it can be used as primer. Will it matter that some is applied to the latex and some directly to the metal? Sorry for this long, long question! I appreciate your help!

    • To make sure re paint job lasts I would make sure to remove all the latex paint first. Oil on top of latex is a bad combination.

  2. Tony on said:

    I just moved into a house where a smoker had been living. Nothing extreme, but there were some nicotine stains on the wall. My painter said that to properly cover the stains, he’d need to use an oil-based primer under the no-VOC latex paint we chose. That was about 2.5 weeks ago and the room still has a very strong smell despite daily ventilation. I should note that I live in a cold region of the US, so the air has been cold. Any advice on how to hurry up the curing/dying process? This is of special concern given that it’s my 2-year-old’s bedroom.

    • Tony, that’s extremely unusual. The primer should have cured within days and the 0-VOC paint shouldn’t have any fumes. I’d call in another painter for a consult.

      • Bob Craker on said:

        Try keeping the room warm to help the drying process.

  3. Tim Scholten on said:

    After applying a coat of oil-based semi-gloss, I realized that some spots needed some caulking which I did and now want to add a 2nd coat in some spots. It has been a few days since it was painted so the paint is fully hardened and smooth. Should I prep by sanding or cleaning before applying the 2nd coat?

    • Tim, it never hurts to lightly sand between coats of semi-gloss or high gloss oil paint. I like the extra insurance it provides.

  4. Jennifer on said:

    Can I use a can I use a latex primer under an oil paint?

    • Jennifer, for the best results use a oil-based primer with oil-based finish coat. I wouldn’t put oil on top of latex primer or latex paint.

  5. karen on said:

    I have enjoyed reading your blog. Thanks for all the good information. I need to give our baseboards and picture frame molding a fresh coat of paint. It was originally done in oil based paint and planning to recover with oil. My question is do I have to sand all the baseboards and molding before giving a new coat? It is good condition no chips or anything.

    • Sanding is probably not necessary, but I would always prime trim especially glossy trim to make sure you get good adhesion of the new paint.

  6. Kerri Peden on said:

    Have done lots of painting and actually follow the reverse … oil over prepped latex ok, NOT latex over oil.

  7. schaundala on said:

    I have read through all of these questions and your responses and I must say…you have been VERY helpful! I am in the process as we speak of refurbishing my bathroom wood vanity (oak). I am using an oil based primer (Zinsser) and I will allow that to dry before using an oil based dark brown paint (Glidden). I had the primer tinted to a darker color because I was told that it helps with the coverage of your paint (less paint required). So far it is covering quite well and I am excited about the seeing the finished product. My question is, should I lightly sand the primer before applying the top coat of paint? Or is it ok to go ahead and paint right on top of the primer? Also, how long should I wait before putting the doors back on the vanity and do I need to apply a sealer on top of the dried paint? Thank you again for your helpful tips!

    • I would always give primer a light sanding with 220 grit paper for a super smooth finish.

  8. Chris on said:

    Painted my kitchen with BEHRS sandwash paint in 2007,the paint is no longer available at Home Depot.Need to repaint some walls and heard that the sandwash paint needs to be repainted with a oil based primer and paint.Any advice

    • Chris, sandwash paints can fail if they are coated with a water-based paint. I would prime with an oil-based primer and then you can top coat with standard water-based paint afterward.

  9. Sarah on said:

    What are your thoughts on using liquid sander products on oil based paint? All the trim and doors in our 1970 house is painted and it is lead based so don’t want to sand it but want to repaint it

    • Sarah, I dont have a lot of experience with them, but usually a good oil primer will be sufficient to give your topcoat good adhesion. I’d try a test in an inconspicuous area first.

  10. Kathy on said:

    In art class, I learned some neat tricks to dealing with oil paint that might work here too. Take a large peanut butter jar and clean out well. Put a tuna or other flat can with holes punched in the bottom with the holes facing up (can use an 8-penny nail to punch holes and be generous). Pour odorless mineral spirits to about an inch or two above the can. Then when you clean your brush (like a small sash brush)dab the brush against the top of the can to work most of the paint out, and then finish off in another (similar) container. For artist style brushes, you can use the thinner almost indefinitely, just pouring out the sludge once in a while and topping off the mineral spirits. The can separates the good thinner from the bad.

    I bet a similar set-up can be made with a larger sealable container and galvanized hardware cloth for larger brushes.

    Artist grade brush soap can help keep natural bristle brushes in good condition. Plus always hand shape the brush after cleaning and hang to dry.

    Paint brushes left for just a short time (at most overnight) can be wrapped in plastic and put in the freezer or fridge.

  11. Barb on said:

    Hi, i used Sherwin Williams primer and then a Purdy brush to apply Sherwin Williams pro classic enamel. Not sure wut went wrong but I have drips and brush marks. When I only used a light coat, the brush strokes were worse. When I used a heavier coat, i got drips. Please help!

    • Barb, a thin coat dries out too fast and leaves brush marks whereas a thick coat tends to run. Add some Penetrol if you’re using the oil-based version (floetrol for water-based) to help slow the drying time and eliminate brush marks. And then find the sweet spot of how much paint to load on your brush. Practice makes perfect!

  12. Sheryl on said:

    Hi Scott! So glad I found your blog. Lots of useful information here!
    I need to repaint a wood desk chair. About thirty years ago, I stripped it down and applied high-gloss oil-base enamel. I must have done ok, because the only reason I want to repaint is to change the color. I’d like to use another high-gloss enamel when I redo it. So … scuff, prime, paint? What kind of primer and paint would you recommend (going from a medium blue to grayish-green)? I like the look of the oil-base enamel, but don’t really like working with oil-base paints. I’ll do either, though. Whichever is likely to work best. Many thanks for any advice you could give! :)

    • Sheryl, I’d go with a fast dry oil-based primer and then use another oil-base enamel to stand up to the punishment of daily use. Take a look at Ben Moore Impervo which is absolutely incredible and super hard finish.

  13. Wells on said:

    Hello- we bought a house built in 1922, and much of the trim was painted in oil paint. How best to paint over this now with latex paint? In particular, the bathroom. Do I need an oil or water based primer? do you have one you would recommend for trim and around the original window?

    • Wells, If you are going to paint with a latex paint then I would prime with an oil-based primer first. Or you can just put another coat of oil-based paint over the existing without priming.

      • Wells on said:

        Thanks for the response! Our house does not get a lot of direct sunlight, so most of the oil painted trim is now a slight yellow. The loss of white is my main reason for wanting to switch out of oil. Do you have any advice for switching when you suspect the trim has lead paint underneath? I was recommended to me that I sand the trim, but my husband is worried about that.

  14. Kristin on said:

    Hi Scott,

    Our house was built in 1977, in my ignorance, when we first purchased the house I painted all of the trim, doorways and doors in Valspar Paint and Primer Latex. After awhile EVERYTHING started peeling off like sunburned skin. It has been a nightmare. Recently, I have started scraping the paint off one room at a time and sanding everything. I know oil paint looks better but I just hate working with it. What can I do to get everything where it won’t peel but bypass using oil paint? Any primer or bonding suggestions? I haven’t sanded anything down to barewood, I’ve only sanded all the latex paint off but the oil paint is still there. Would I need to completely sand the oil paint off too?

    Thanks for the help!

    • Kristin, if you have glossy trim the paint will have a hard time sticking to it. I would recommend scuffing the surface up a bit to give the paint something to hold onto and then apply a latex or oil-based primer before you try repainting. Try a Sherwin-Williams product call ProClassic “Acrylic/Alkyd” or Ben Moore “Advanced” They are water based paints that dry like an oil-based enamel. Easy clean up and hard finish coat.

  15. James on said:

    I have found your info on oile based paints great. I need to invest ina primer. I am painting an old deck and railing, wood is pourous and soaked up first coat on deck. Second coat came out better. I thought to paint the hand rails with an oil based paint, but you have mentioned a mildew build up over time. Being in the thumb of michigan with the temp swingning all over and a moist atmosphere, what would you recomend? Do I need to scrap the deck and start over (ha ha)?

    • For outdoor projects a water-based paint is usually best or in your case a deck paint. Make sure it’s something designed for decks or floors and can stand up to the brutal weather it will endure.

  16. Jancy on said:

    I want to paint a metal front door that is forty years old. It is well protected from the weather by a covered porch. Do I really have to use oil based paint? I have painted the inner side of the door with latex and it looks great. Should I use a brush with oil based paint or have it spray painted on the outside. I’m kind of chicken to do this.

    • Latex paint will work fine for the door. The latex may stick a bit when the door is opened and closed but the oil could possibly mildew over the years since it’s outdoors. Either way has its down sides.

  17. Nate on said:

    Thanks for the information about oil paints. It was recommended to me to use Glidden Porch and Floor Polyurethane Oil Paint (PF8090-01 on on a project and I was wondering if you could provide any input.
    My son is working on an Eagle Scout project. There is a wooden staircase at a local park that has fallen into disrepair. He is planning on fixing it up and repainting it. The current paint (not sure if it’s oil or latex, how can I tell?) is coming off of the wood in many places. It will need to be scraped (wire brushes?) of loose paint, then repainted. What type of paint would you recommend? We’d prefer something that doesn’t require primer (self-priming paint) if there is something that will work well. Do I have to worry about new paint adhesion to the paint that is still firmly stuck to the wood? Any advice you can offer would be appreciated.

    • Nate, priming is always helpful for a lasting paint job especially on something that will be outside or be subjected to foot traffic. I have never used the Glidden Porch & Floor so I can’t say how it is. For porches I’ve been using Sherwin-Williams Sher-Cryl with great results. It’s water based so it won’t mildew and it has some of the most tenacious grip on whatever surface you paint it onto. It dries to an extremely hard finish too. Whatever you decide to do I would definitely prime first. The idea of self-priming is a bit silly to me. A primer prepares the surface so the paint will adhere better.

  18. Cheryl on said:

    I painted my outside door with an oil based paint. I prepped it just like your instructions. It looks terrible. Also the paint was thick and left brush marks. I read that you can mix some mineral spirits in the paint to make it spread on smoother. Is this true and how much do you add to a quart? After letting it dry should I sand then apply another coat or is this not necessary since I sanded it in the beginning?

    • Cheryl, what kind of paint did you use and how old was it? I would sand smooth the coat you applied and add a second coat. Try these tips:
      1) You can add mineral spirits to thin the paint, but I would recommend a product called Penetrol (can be found at your local paint store). It thins the paint and extends the drying time so as to help eliminate brush marks.
      2) Make sure you brush the paint on and lightly tip off the surface to help eliminate brush marks as well.
      3) Also, once you’ve tipped off don’t go back over the areas you’ve painted. Let them dry and the paint will level out better.

  19. Robin D. on said:

    Oh darn…Benjamin Moore Paint store no longer carries the Impervo in quarts, so I tried Impervex, which is water-based. I’m happy to report this is the BEST water-based paint for my old house.
    I will use this always. Also has the nice mellow white that suits a vintage

    • Impervex is indeed a nice water-based product!

  20. Barbara on said:

    Scott, is there any way to store a paintbrush used for oil based latex between the 24 hour coat applications? I hate cleaning up after each coat, just to have to get out a new brush the next day while the other one dries!

  21. Robin D. on said:

    I live in Honolulu and I am renovating a 1940’s house. All the door & window trim, ceiling molding and baseboards I have painted in oil. I use Benjamin Moore’s Impervo paint and the sheen is perfect for an old house;the mellow white is beautiful.

    I prefer using oil, I think it’s easier to clean the brushes, just swirl them around in paint thinner, takes 3 minutes
    and this chore is done.

    I will be painting my kitchen cabinets with Impervo-White. My primer for everything is oil-based Zinnser.

    I also paint furniture and I always use oil paint. Always enjoy reading your articles, Scott!

  22. Richard on said:

    I am painting a corn board game with oil paint. I will have three color, black,red and white, which color should be my base coat? And do I need to apply clear oil poly to seal and if I do do I sand my last coat before applying poly.

    • Richard, the order of the paint colors will depend on the pattern you are painting. There’s no real right or wrong there. And you won’t need a clear coat afterward. Use a good enamel oil-based paint and then let the bean bags fly!

  23. Scott, I am a contractor and can use a lot of thinner to clean up. I use a few coffee containers and when I clean my brush, I put the used thinner into another container and cover. After a few days, the paint settles to the bottom of the used can and I then use the (mostly) good thinner over and over again. I hate to trash the environment any more than necessary, and this method saves me lots of money and is ecologically friendly!
    Thanks for your blog.

    • Bob, we do the same thing at our shop. Thanks for mentioning it and adding it to the post like I should have originally!

  24. Janet on said:

    I need to repaint my kitchen cabinets. They were originally spray painted with white lacquer. I would like to repaint with oil-based paint. Would 220 grit
    sandpaper & oil-based primer be the correct protocol? Thank you!

    • Janet, you’ve got it! Sand with 220 then coat with oil-based primer and sand again with 220 before applying the paint.

  25. Kathleen on said:

    Interior trim in our home is painted with oil paint. To repaint it, what is best to repaint with same color oil paint: 1. apply new oil paint over the old; 2. scuff the wood first, then paint; 3. apply primer then paint. Also, my hubby painted some areas with latex paint. How to handle this? I want to repaint with oil paint (looks so much better).

    • Since the wood has already been painted with oil-based I would simply scuff the surface a bit before applying a fresh coat of oil-based.
      For the area with latex paint I would sand more thoroughly to remove as much latex as possible then prime with an oil-based primer before repainting with oil-based paint.
      Be sure to follow lead safe practices if you are sanding painted surfaces in an old house.

  26. Ana on said:

    I am working on an old house. Trying to repaint the trim. After scrapping off the old chipped paint, I got down to an even layer. I painted one doorway with an oil based enamel,after 12hrs it is still tacky.
    Do I just need to wait longer, it will need a second coat

    • Ana, oil paint does take a long time to dry. The typical time necessary between coats is usually about 8 hrs. But if the weather is cold or humid that time can be slowed down significantly. And if the temperature is below 45 degrees or so the paint may not actually dry at all. I would wait till the paint is dry to the touch before recoating in your case.

  27. Jessica on said:

    We painted a brand new steel door with black oil based paint. We have painted it with 2 coats of paint and it looks horrible! We can see brush marks and uneven texture all over the door. What should we do? We thought about lightly sanding it, then repainting another layer … But not for sure. I think latex would’ve been much easier!

    • Sand the door with 220 grit sandpaper to smooth it out and apply another coat of the oil-based paint. If you’re getting brush marks you are either brushing too hard or continuing to brush the paint as it starts to cure. Get the paint on quickly, then tip off the paint and leave it alone while it cures. Don’t try to fix any drips once it starts drying.
      Also, if the surface wasn’t smooth before you started painting you won’t be able to get a smooth surface in the end. Hope that helps!

      • Jessica on said:

        Ok, thanks for the tips. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

  28. Chip on said:

    I am using oil based paint over a previous oil base on cabinet doors. It is a smooth surface and I was told I need to scuff sand the doors before painting. My question is what grit of sandpaper should I use and will the paint adhere if the sanding is too light?

    • Chip, you’ll need to use a 220 grit sandpaper on the cabinets. Make sure you sand everything otherwise you may have adhesion problems. Using a good oil-based primer before painting would also help assure good adhesion by the new paint.

  29. bonnie on said:

    I painted latex over sanded clean sliding closet doors and the paint peeled. I resanded the doors primed them with oil based primer, then used oil based semi-gloss with a foam roller. I think i went over the paint to often for I have uneven texture on some places on the doors. Can I just roll over the doors again with the paint, of course not as often this time?

    • Bonnie, if you painted with oil-based paint you can sand that top layer smooth and apply another coat without priming.

  30. Steve on said:

    I certainly agree that you shouldn’t short cut any prep work, but as a professional paint here in UK, I have found it perfectly acceptable to put oil based finish over a good acrylic (water based) primer/ undercoat. Acrylic over poorly prepped oil based paint is a recipe for disaster!!!!

  31. Arthur Alford on said:

    A “professional” painter we hired put latex over oil-based. Of course, it peels and the painter is long gone. Thought we would have to sand down all the bad paint and then redo it. But if we could just prime and then use latex over it that would save us a lot of time. Any tips on how to do this?

    • Chances are that if the paint is peeling off then he didn’t do a good enough prep job. I always prime before switching between oil and latex paint just to be sure it sticks, but the traditional thinking is that latex over oil is OK whereas oil over latex is a no, no!

      Unfortunately, If your paint is peeling off then the only way to get a solid coat of paint is to strip off the bad paint, prime and start again. Paint is only as good as the substrate it is painted on. And even if you do a quality paint job on top of his bad job it will still come off sooner than it should.

  32. We also have to ensure that the painting area is well-ventilated.

  33. victoria on said:

    Ive HerD One Shot enamel Will Be The Best For The Lettering But It’s The Point From Priming To Lettering That Im Stuck On As Well As Finishing.

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