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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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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!!!

  4. 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?

  5. 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.

  6. 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

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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!

  11. Hi, some great information to be read here but i’am lost, i know Penetrol is stated for use in mineral turps based paint but has any one actually tried it in Thinners based paint with any success? I dont wont to add it to the thinners based paint if its going to waste it.

  12. Hi Scott, if I use an oil base primer “zinsser” and bought Behr paint and primer and used the Behr as the top coat would that be a problem the behr is a semi gloss

  13. Hi Scott,

    Used white oil-based enamel on some window sashes a few months ago. Finally wrapped up the trim work and noticed that the sashes looked to have “yellowed” by comparison.

    Is there anything that I can do in the future to prevent the yellowing? Or it is just a by-product of spreading the work out so far apart?

    Note: Your Penetrol recommendation for oil-based paint made a huge different in how these sashes turned out! Just wish that I had taken some photos to compare.

      1. Hi Guys
        Ive had 30 years experience in restoring historic homes. I too love oil base instead of latex and your information in this article is excellent.
        Ive been using Benjamin Moores Advance ” waterborne oil based paint.” I must say I enjoy using it because of all the good qualities of oil based paints. Yet easier to use. Ive used it in closets and other dark areas with no yellowing. Of course its only been about 4-5 years. But one of the main reasons alkyd(oil) paints yellow is the evaporating and curing of the oil byproducts. At first the voc etc. comes out because theyre thinner bit the actual oil takes a bit of time to truly harden. When it does its not clear or even white.
        If youve ever noticed an old jar of petoleum jelly has a very yellow almost amber hue to the product inside. The yellow jar is intended to have the newer product look yellower because the makers knows the petroleum yellows quickly since there are no piqments and other paint ingredients to get past before making it to the surface. ( One reason it usually takes a bit of time for this to happen. )
        There are other factors but this is why oil yellows but thats a short explanation.
        So back to the BEn Moore Advance. Many DIY’s like it too because they get the look and feel of oil with the convenience of latex. Its great for cabinets. I just painted some new Pella Archetectural series wood windows and it really flows nicely cutting in all the grids. Flows out very well too.
        As far as yellowing, like I said in the closet i put it in 4-5 years ago, its still looking very white. But this is because its not the traditional alkyd as its water clean up. So you can imagine if its water clean up you can see how the “petroleum jelly” analogy doesn’t happen with Bens Advance Alkyd.
        This is just the experience of one guy but I hope it helps.
        Charlie

  14. I painted my daughters room 6 years ago. Two walls are pink and two walls are black. I paint the black walls with rustoleum oil base paint that was already black. Well a few years ago I noticed bubbles on the wall with black paint. I rubbed them and they popped. Water came out of them. I went back and looked where the bubbles were and they were gone! Well I just went looked and there’s some more bubbles and when I rub on them they pop and water comes out! Can u tell me if its the kind of paint causing this or do I have a problem?

    1. Keisha, if there is water behind those bubbles then there is likely a leak somewhere. It’s possible that it’s due to vapor drive issues and humidity but my first instinct is to say there is a leak somewhere behind the wall.

      1. I live in a single wide mobile home. Where the two walls are that have the bubbles there wouldn’t be any water pipes. We put a metal roof on our mobile home 3 years ago. The bubbles aren’t all over the wall. One of the walls where the bubbles are is a closet. I didn’t paint the closet and there’s no bubbles.

  15. several years ago the front of our house needed painting due to cracking, chipping paint, the back was not painted. all was oil based. Front was repainted using oil based primer and latex top coat. We are now repainting the whole house. (it has log siding) Paint in the back is chipped in some places. Said all that to ask if we can use oil based primer on the whole house, (even the front which already has latex paint) then use latex top coat over all. (We also have to wash lots of mold from the back of house which doesnt get much sun.) thanks in advance for your reply.

  16. Step 7 Clean-up:

    Scott- your description sounds a bit idealistic and/or my brush technique is much worse than I thought.
    Some questions:
    • how much is the “some” that goes into the bowl? Let’s just say for a 2″ brush.
    • certainly when you say “vigorously mix,” you mean to do more with the brush than just stir up the thinner as fast as you can, don’t you? Or do you mean exactly that? Ought the bristles be worked (flexed) against the side of the bowl?
    • This ties in to the previous question: I am amazed that the term “brush comb” does not exist on this page with its accumulated 3 years of discussions. As far as I’m concerned, a brush comb is the best thing since sliced bread when it’s cleanup time.

    Do you simply not get paint up into the brush belly?

    1. Nate, I use a brush comb after cleanup usually. Basically I fill a small container (usually an old can of food) with spirits high enough to cover the bristles. That way I can work the bristles clean in deep enough solvent without wasting a ton of solvent to fill a big bucket.
      Then pour out the used spirits and add another helping into the can. I’ll repeat this process until the spirits come out clean and spin the brush dry before combing it.

      1. Interesting… I must have a bad brushing technique, since I need the brush comb to work the paint & pigment out of the ferrule end of the bristles. (I never dip the brush deep, but the paint works itself up there…)

  17. I am redoing a late 50’s red brick rancher in eastern Pa. In June 2015, I had my original wood Andersen casement windows removed, stripped to bare wood, new glass and glazing putty with two coats oil based primer allowed to dry for several weeks. In July, I had a painter use oil based Benjamin Moore HC-107 (Gettysburg Grey) in two coats for all the windows. Because it didn’t seem like the paint was drying, I left my windows ajar until October when it got cold and I just had to close them. They essentially welded shut and when I opened them this spring the paint was pulled completely from one surface down to bare wood. Benjamin Moore blames the preparation, yet the same thing happened to my exterior doors without the extensive prep. I think their new low VOC formulation is to blame, but regardless I am left with a mess. If I sand and re-use another oil based enamel, can I add thinner (VOC) to enhance the drying process? Ben Moore hasn’t been very responsive in standing by their top shelf product.

    1. This is a helpful discussion, thank you. You can still buy oil paint in California. One thing I don’t hear is the lead in the oil based paint that was in the paint previous to 1976. I have a large kitchen that needs painting and it has flaking paint in the ceiling. All my doors and trim were painted previously with oil based and I don’t know what to do. In most of the DIY your self shows I see people sanding the wood trim, windows and cabinets without mentioning the dangers of lead.
      I live back east many years and did the sanding and repainting without any protection who know the damage it did.

      Any tips in how repaint surfaces that have was painted with paint oil based paint that contained lead paint?

      1. Kitchen was repainted with oil based about 20years ago it is now peeling. Can you tell me how to take on this project?

      2. All the door frames and molding were repainted but were originally painted with oil that has lead. How should I go about repainting with water based paint? There is also peeling.

      1. I’ve been using Dumond’s Smart Strip to remove 8-10 layers of glopped-on paint from the woodwork in our 1931-built home in Cleveland. The process of scraping off the paint residue is slow and labor intensive but dust free, because it’s a wet process. So, you don’t even need a respirator. The upper layers of paint in this house are latex and have caused the underlying oil paint to “bridge”–that is, to pull away from grooves in the woodwork, forming brittle bridges that break if you poke them with your finger. Therefore, removal down to bare wood has been necessary. Smart Strip is expensive but non-caustic, cleans up with soap and water, and is environmentally friendly–except to aquatic life–with zero VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Smells similar to Play-Doh. If you get any on your skin, you can walk, not run, to wash it off–no burns. I’ve learned I need to slather it on thickly, like icing a chocolate cake where I don’t want any cake showing through the icing. Although Dumond says you don’t need to cover Smart Strip with their plastic-coated paper (made for their caustic and toxic product, Peel Away), I find it essential. However, I substitute white freezer paper (much cheaper), plastic side down. Let the glop sit for 24 hours to remove latex paint, and up to 3 full days to soften old oil-based paint, which is very hard. With my situation–4-5 old and very hard oil-based, lead-containing layers under 4-5 sloppily-applied latex layers–I needed two coats. The latex bubbles up quickly and turns into fragile, rubbery sheets that may actually tumble off as you start peeling back the freezer paper (from the top down) while scraping downward with a plastic scraper. Use the paper to catch the residue, then fold up and discard. The oil layers require a second coat with a much longer “dwell time” under the freezer paper. I’ve learned to be careful about using plastic sheeting to protect the floor, and to use plastic tape OVER blue painter’s tape to protect the wall edges abutting the woodwork. I use a plastic grocery bag inside a paper grocery bag for the trash. You can clean your brush with soap and water; however, once you’ve reduced old oil paint to a reconstituted gloppy mess, you absolutely do need mineral spirits to clean up your plastic scrapers (not metal–wet wood is very soft). Wear non-disposable -type nitrile gloves throughout the process–the disposable ones disintegrate. I use Handmaster RSF18TS Green Universal Nitrile Chemical Gloves–which, happily for me, come in size small. Once the woodwork dries, you can do a little sanding, but keep it to a minimum and use a respirator with lead-rated filters. I use a 3M 7502 half-facemask with NIOSH-rated P100 filters (3M filter model 2091–pink). Very comfortable and not expensive. Also use a HEPA-bag vacuum and keep the nozzle next to your sandpaper as you work, as much as possible. Regarding your walls: I would not use Smart Strip on plaster walls, since plaster doesn’t like to be wet and will disintegrate. For your kitchen walls, you’ll probably need to go whole hog and follow EPA guidelines for lead dust containment. See:
        “Renovation, Repair and Painting Program: Do-It-Yourselfers”
        https://www.epa.gov/lead/renovation-repair-and-painting-program-do-it-yourselfers

        1. Thanks a million. I have not done the work- but now I’m revisiting the not pleasent task of doing this work.
          where I live in California- painters don’t want to deal with oil painnted rooms and are not much interested in doing ceilings. They charge a fortune for doing a small room.So I have no choice than doing it myself.. It’s amazing that this post keep living. Thank you for all the help.

  18. Some time ago, I used oil based primer, but it was drying to fast and I made a terrible mess and had to take it off. Is there a particular brand of oil based primer that doesn’t dry so fast that you recommend?

    1. There are slower drying oil based primers especially for wood that can take about 24 hrs. Adding some penetrol to your oil based paints will slow down the drying time as well.

        1. There are recommendations on the can but it really depends on personal preference and local conditions. Hot, cold, humid, dry…they all affect the drying time so modify accordingly.

  19. We have 40 year old grasscloth wallpaper we plan to paint and I wonder if just using an oil based paint would get it down to one coat and would not affect the wallpaper paste. The wallpaper is not loose anywhere.

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