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How To: Paint With Oil-Based Paint

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 paints. But there is still a place for them paint today. And if you live in an old house, knowing how to work with oil is almost a requirement.

What You Need To Know About Oil-Based Paint

Slow-Drying – This paint is notoriously slow drying and the reason we have the saying “It’s like waiting for paint to dry.” Most oil paints 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 the paint to flow out better and provide a smoother finish than latex paint. This slow process allows brush marks to level out remarkably well.

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. They usually have a much higher VOC content than latex paints, which is why the extra ventilation is needed.

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 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 paints have gotten better about holding their color, it’s still a problem.

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.

You Need a Specific Brush – Different paints require a different brush. There are some brushes that work with both latex and oil, but natural bristle brushes work much better with oil-based paints. It’s important to pick the right paint brush. They will usually say “For Oil-based Paints” on the brush holder.

Hard Finish – One of the qualities of oil paints that manufacturers have struggled to create with latex paint is a hard durable finish on enamel paints. 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.

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

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.

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254 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.

      1. Fire the EPA Group who is out of control. The tree hungers don’t care about your paint working and they don’t care about people they just want to save the earth and having to repaint everything 4 time more is not helping the environment either.

  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.

  14. Curious about your thoughts on the best applicator to use to get the smoothest finish with oil based paint

    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.

  15. 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.

  16. “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

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