How To: Paint With Oil-Based Paint

By Scott Sidler • December 10, 2012

How To Paint With Oil-Based Paint
Image credit: janpietruszk / 123RF Stock Photo

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 4 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 that 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.

Share Away!

253 thoughts on “How To: Paint With Oil-Based Paint”

  1. Good Afternoon, By the way, you phone number on is not correct!!! I tried calling and it is not working…

  2. I am painting louvered/slatted closet doors. I believe the paint is original, fom the 80’s, so likely oil base. I cannot imagine sanding all of these slats. I want to simply roll and smooth with a brush, as I saw on a you tube video. Do you think this will work?

  3. i hope you forgive my correction here but you can always put oil over latex but not latex over oil without priming save for the newer waterborne technologies. they also require certain prep prior to application. also you dont have to use a certain brush with oil. it was a preference to use the china bristle for oil. but now the synthetic bristle does well. and if you were to use a china bristle brush in latex youd not notice much difference until the hairs started swelling as chinabristle is actual hog hair and hollow so with the addition of water it starts to resemble long grain rice.

  4. My experience with latex over oil is way different! The latex over unprimed enamel, painted by so-called professionals, pealed right off. Took me 2 years to paint both of my daughters’ interiors because I had to use denatured alcohol to remove the latex off of all the woodwork including doors. And at our first home, hired painter put latex over oil without priming and next day it was all bubbled up. Nightmare!!

  5. Hi Scott
    We just washed with tsp then painted white over our dark wood paneled room with a latex primer and guess what ? The wood is looking a bit yellow and generally patchy showing through after two coats of primer. Any recommendations?

    1. Use Kilz “COVER STAIN” for priming raw wood, oil to latex, latex to oil, plastic, and metal. When dry, it can be sanded if a smoother finish is needed for project, use 220 grit or higher, and light sand. It is an oil based primer so it will need it’s own 2 or 5 gallon bucket with grid, roller and brush. When you are finished, you can either clean up with paint thinner or mineral spirits or, wet the roller and brush with cover stain paint, get a junk bucket half full with water, submerge the whole roller(s) w/handle and brush(s) you used with cover stain in the water, and store in a safe place for use the next day, week, month, etc. Other than that, throw the roller cover away, and clean your roller handle with mineral spirits or thinner. When taking water soaked rollers out, just shake off water and start project. Voila! ???? Aloha

  6. We peimed ome of our imterior doors with kilz. Can we use oil based paint over this or do we meed to prime again with pil nased primer? We also purchased primed doors for the rest of the house. Is it ok to paint these without priming again? I have no odea what kind of primer they use?

  7. Scott, really need an advice. We bought a cast iron coffee table that weighs a ton!! During transportation the paint on the sides got scratched. I assume I need to use oil paint to repair the scratches. I would hate to lose the cast iron texture under layers of oil paint. I was wondering if I can use one of those trendy techniques usually used with latex paint, but with oil paint – like paint and rub, or layer.
    Thanks in advance!!

  8. This has been a huge help for me to understand a problem we had at my previous house, and now I’m starting to see it in my current home. The last house was over 40 years old (built in the mid-70’s), and we hired a professional painter to paint several of the rooms. It cost ALOT of money, so when the paint continued to peel in large chunks we were naturally befuddled and ticked off. We had the painters come back a few times and they continued to argue that they had never seen anything like it, but I always found that unlikely. The problem was clearly to do with the fact that there were several layers of paint in a couple of the rooms. One of them, I counted 5 colors on top of the drywall/primer. Apparently, one or two of the older layers (not the original) had become very chalky, so it wasn’t holding to the wall with any real strength. This had probably been a problem for years, but was never noticed until the painters we hired came in with their over-priced “zero VOC” Sherwin Williams paint. The new layer of latex paint was sticky, so anything that touched it, like furniture or wall-hangings, would hold onto the paint stronger than the paint held the wall. So when you moved a chair away from a wall or took a picture down to dust it, you’d get a chunk of paint with it the size of a half dollar or more. The real problem was that this stickiness never went away, after 2 years. We finally touched up all the dead spots, made a house rule that NOTHING could touch the walls, and then sold the house. Now we’re seeing some of the same issues in our new house (built in the mid-80’s), but to a smaller degree. I’m going to look into using oil-based for our larger well-ventilated trim, but never using that contractor again.

  9. I would never impugn your motives, but I think a lot of misinformation has been dished out by paint companies in cahoots with professional painters regarding oil paint. The fact is, if you want gloss or semi-gloss, oil is better for all trim, doors, shelving, and furniture – period. It looks 10X better. It is harder. It is more durable. There is no latex that can compete with top oils.

    1. As a pro painter I agree that oil is exponentially better than latex on trim. But the fact of the matter is the EPA has put a restriction on the VOC count allowed in paints and manufacturers have had to respond by trying to emulate oil’s properties using water based products. From a painters prospective the only good thing about the new hybrids is they clean with water instead of thinner. No one in the industry is all that happy about the change in my experience.

  10. Hi. We recently used an oil based primer (Zinnser bin) on our 1970’s wood paneling. The fumes were awful! We live in a cold area, so we left the windows open a few days, sealed off the room (vents and doors), and ran a box fan from the window to suck as many fumes out. Then we kept a window open and ran a space heater for a few days to keep the temperature up and help the paint dry. I am still having throat and nose irritation when I have to walk into the room for any more than 10 minutes, and it has been a week! Is this normal??

    Also, we plan on painting over top with some latex paint and primer in one, that we happen to have enough of. Will this seal in some of these lingering fumes??

    Thanks for any feedback! I’m just wanting this room back to normal, and safe for my kids to play in again!

  11. I have popcorn ceilings that are 37 years old and have never been painted. We added on to two large rooms. Now we have fresh textured ceilings to match the old. After testing the old ceilings, I could see that latex paint could not be rolled on except with lots of time as at least 4 coats would have to be applied (having to stripe the ceiling on coat 1, fill in the stripes on coat 2, go in the opposite direction in coat 3, and cut in on coat 4). After talking with professional painters and research, I have painted the ceilings with an alkyd based paint. This allowed me to go over the wet spots without the texture coming off. Unfortunately, a satin finish is all that I could find in my area. I want flat paint on my ceilings. I see I can paint latex over the alkyd. So I would like to let the alkyd cure before going over it with a flat latex for the second coat. How long should I wait in between?

  12. I am painting kitchen cabinets. The doors are solid wood but the boxes are laminant over fiberboard. I sanded all the surfaces with 120 grit orbital sander. I want to use oil based paint for the hardness. Do I have to prime? If I prime does it have to be oil based? Can I glaze oil based paint?

          1. Hi Scott, I’m tackling the same task in painting the kitchen cabinets.
            I have sanded, undercoated in oil based twice. Both times drying for 2-3 days between and then went on with my first top coat of oil based eggshell. It’s had over 24 hours to dry (26/27) and is still tacky! I have started a second top coat yet.
            It’s not overly hot/cold weather wise. So I don’t think that has affected it.
            Any ideas what’s causing it? Do I continue with the second coat and hope that doesn’t dry tacky?
            Each time I touch the paint, the blue colour is coming away on my fingers, so we can’t live with it and hope it disappears over time.

  13. If we had our window frames painted with oil based paint, how soon is it safe to be in the house? 24 hours after the paint was painted, we can still smell the paint.. does that mean the fines are still in the air?

    1. Caroline, oil-based paint fumes in your situation aren’t dangerous but merely a nuisance. The fumes should greatly decrease within the first 48 hrs and be completely gone within a couple weeks.

    1. Tack rag after 220 or 320. Short nap roller or sponge roller to apply the paint evenly (roll in two directions) – this help reduce sags, then tip the finish with a good $$ 4″ natural bristle brush. Don’t forget the Penetrol. Leave it alone for 48 hours.

  14. Hi Scott – Painting some big flat wood columns, I made a mistake and rolled on Zinsser oil primer with a 1/2″ nap roller. In a rush to get them covered before end of the day. The nap made some thick stipple marks, I planned to sand afterwards so wasn’t too concerned and just carried on to get a coat on and start the tedious dry time. I noticed it wasn’t covering the bondo, and raw wood that well, and didn’t want bleeding on finish coat. So I did a second coat after about an hour. 24 hours later it’s still not ready to sand.. I plan to topcoat with latex, but need to sand first. Anyone else run into trouble with this stuff not drying enough to sand? I’ve been here before and I feel like it took 3 days… Any advice is appreciated. I’m only a carpenter !!!

    1. If you have trouble sanding the primer, but you really want it to be smooth, it may actually be less work to skim coat it with drywall mud (I like USG all-purpose), then sand it smooth until you’re happy with the surface, and just paint over that. You will probably need at least two coats depending on what paint you use, because the mud does soak up the first coat.

    2. Just went through this experience with z-prime. Had the paint store shake well six hours before use. Sprayed on door and took a week to dry. Second time used a power drill with a mixing tool and found globs at the bottom. Took almost 20 minutes mixing before it was all smooth. Sprayed again this time had to thin with mineral spirits. dried to touch in hours and sanded after 18 hours. This stuff has to be mixed really well before use.

  15. “You can get away with painting a latex paint on top of an oil-based paint without primer,” I have found this first part to not be true, LATEX WILL PEEL OFF, with out your next part which should be a must not a choice, ”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.”

    I am having to remove the latex from all the wood work so that can prep the oil based painted trim in a 3000 sq ft home.

    1. This is true if the oil paint was glossy. you will still need to sand it before painting with latex, or it will peel off. but this is true of any glossy surface

  16. Do thin oil based paint when n painting over old oil based paint? I cleaned and sanded and the new paint did not go on smoothly like not sricking.

  17. Hi! I am having tons of anxiety, as I hired a painter who is using oil based paint to repaint the molding in the house we just bought and plan to move into next week. He has already painted the first room, which just happens to be the nursery room for my two-year-old … which is where my anxiety now falls! If I could go back and use latex based paint, I would, but the damage is done. The fumes are out! I am planning to buy a VOC reader so that I know when it is safe to move into the house. I assume it will not be safe, fume free and ready for a two-year-old to live there in a week. we are going to check with our landlord to see if we can stay in our rental an extra month. But I am wondering if you have any idea or advice on about how long it will take for the rooms to be safe for us to move into the house . Somethings I read online say that oil based paint will let off gas and fumes for up to two or three years !! We plan to open the windows at night time and use box fans to get the air out of the house as much as possible. I don’t know what else to do.

  18. Morning, I purchased 3 barstools from a used furniture store, one of them was painted red,the other green, and the other gold. I want to change the color to maybe a white gloss, or semi, I was told i could use rustoleum oil base paint. After reading the clean up (brushes), and the ventilation( i live in an apartment), i really don’t want to go that route, especially if it takes 8 hours to dry, but, I already had a can, and didn’t see the purpose of buying a new can.
    Any other recommendations as far as paints i coudl use, or should I just use the oil base paint ( i can probably take it somewhere outdoors to be painted).

      1. Hey Scott, can you paint with oil based paint OVER existing oil based paint. I want to paint white over black :/ the door is lovely in black, the trim not so much.

    1. Just from my own (bad) personal experience, if it’s going to receive regular contact (shelves, stools, doors – they touch the frame) stick with oil. I’ve had a paint store employee even tell me that new latex is OK for shelving, but it is absolutely not…I’ve got boxes with latex paint stuck to them now, and I’ve got a door with its edges stripped off after opening the first time.
      Only thing I can say on the downsides is that you can get away with painting layers every 4 hours, with the final layer getting the 8 hour (I prefer a full 24 cure) dry. I typically paint 3-4 door layers at a time and then find something else to work on (NOT sanding) for a while, and when the paint isn’t tacky any more on the last piece, I paint another layer.
      And I do less layers with oil (3-4) than with latex/acrylic (6 *minimum*)
      Having used both extensively, I prefer oil on anything but walls, no contest.

      1. Hello again! I painted my wood bathroom cabinets with oil based paint after reading and inquiring on this page a couple years ago. I LOVE it! I have had NO problems with chipping, peeling or dirt. It works like a charkm I slightly sanded the area, liked with an oil based primer, then let dry. Went over it with an oil based paint and wow! What a beautiful turn out! Recently I started another projected using the same technique with my papasan chairs. So far, so good. They look brand new! Using both oil based products are definitely the way to go! Thanks again!!!

  19. My husband just built a free standing pantry for the kitchen. It’s made from birch with a little pine and and has been patched and sanded. Is there a primer that is better for new wood? The rest of the cabinets have been painted with Behr’s best semi gloss enamel latex paint. I’m not thrilled with how they turned out. What would you suggest?

  20. I screwed up last weekend and painted several doors with acrylic. The stuff is too tacky against the door jam, so I’m having to redo it with oil. I didn’t know I could prime over the acrylic, so I sanded all of the paint off…quite a chore. I’m really kicking myself for getting the wrong paint and making so much extra work for myself.

  21. Scott, I noticed that you said that it’s fine to put latex paint over oil based paint. Yet I’ve always heard, ad nauseum, that you should NEVER put latex over oil — apparently the latex paint won’t adhere and will peel right off? It seems like you know what you’re talking about, so now I’m TOTALLY confused. Please help!

    1. I believe that on interior surfaces, never put latex over oil without using a bonding primer 1st. Oil over latex is fine . Exterior is a different story due to severe temperature changes. If a gard brittle oil paint is over latex, the latex underneath expands and contracts which can crack the oil paint on top, latex over oil is ok because it’s usually going over a well worn weathered surface and should bond just fine. And the latex on top of the oil can exoabdvand contract without causing a problem.
      These are my opinions based on my experiences.

    2. My dad has always used latex paint over oil based primer. No issues whatsoever. I’m 35 and he painted the house before I was born. Washes it down every year and hasn’t had to repaint. He uses the same method inside the house every time my mom changes colors

  22. Hi! We are getting the brown trim in our 5 year old house painted white. The painters originally were using water based on the main level but informed us they were going to switch to oil based when they started upstairs, I think because they were having a hard time getting the water based to apply perfectly and stick and have had to redo some of the windowsills a couple times because of it. They sanded and primed prior. Now reading about oil based I’m concerned about the yellowing. Should I ask them to stick with the water based or just let them do their thing? Is it normal for water based to no apply as well or is it just a time saver to switch to oil? Thank you!

    1. Oil yellows very minimally over many years, but IMHO it is a much better paint for trim. Harder finish and longer lasting. They should be doing the same prep whether it is oil or latex (sand and prime first). You will likely get a smoother coat of paint with oil since it levels out better. I think you’re good to switch unless there is some other reason they are trying to hide like cost of paint or other wise.

  23. Our kitchen island cabinet was painted with latex over the original oil based paint and the latex is starting to chip and peel and also has a tacky feel. We want to strip the cabinet and repaint with an oil enamel. I was wondering if it’s possible to strip just the latex off and if so what stripper and/or method would do this or do you recommend completely stripping both layers? We’ve tested with rubbing alcohol and the top latex layer (which is black) comes off pretty easily revealing the original white oil enamel below.

  24. How long does an oil-based primer need to dry and/or cure before you can paint over it with a latex paint? Also, you’ve mentioned that you should “tip off ” paint before letting it dry. What does that mean and is that only for oil-based paint?

    1. Each paint is different so it’s hard to say exactly but usually an hour or two unless it’s a slow dry wood primer. Tipping off is gently running the brush tip over the paint surface to even out all your strokes. It creates a smoother finish.

  25. Hi Scott,
    thanks for all the great information!

    We have a house built in 1879 with plaster walls. We are stripping the walls down to bare plaster. Some will get new wallpaper. Some paint. We are trying to decide between linseed oil and milk paint for our interior walls. We are using linseed oil paint from Allbeck for our exterior surfaces and their shellac and boiled linseed oil for our interior wood work. We have milk paint on the interior of our windows. If anyone has experience between the two on plaster walls we could really use some input. Thanks!

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