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

Scott is the owner of Austin Home Restorations, a company that specializes in renovating and restoring historic homes in Orlando, FL and the creator of The Craftsman Blog. When not working on, teaching about or writing about old houses he spends time fixing up his own old bungalow with his wife Delores and their son Charley.


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

  2. 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.

  3. 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!!!!

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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!

  11. 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!

  12. 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!

  13. 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!

  14. 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!

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