“Should I use oil or latex paint?” It’s a question I get asked a lot. Oil vs latex, the two paints are very different, and each has their strengths and weaknesses. In this post, I’ll try to help you figure out when and where each type of paint will excel so you can make the right decision for your project.
The landscape of painting has been changing quickly since the introduction of latex paint by Sherwin Williams in 1941. For hundreds of years, paint was mixed on site by the local painters adding a little linseed oil, colorant (usually lead), some whiting and driers. Most paints were custom formulated by the painter of that region.
With the advent of premixed oil paints in the mid-1800s, paint manufacturers began to rapidly improve the consistency and quality of their oil-based paints. By the early 1900s, oil paints were incredible products that leveled beautifully, created hard durable finishes, and held up to the harshest conditions.
Unfortunately, oil-based paint’s heyday was short lived and for the last 40 or so years due to increased regulation and air-quality restrictions the quality of most oil-based paints has suffered. Manufacturers have focused on improving their lines of latex paint and neglected their oil paints other than the reformulation occasionally required to keep them in compliance with new regulations.
The results have been a mixed bag, in my opinion. While we’ve gotten a vastly improved selection of higher performing latex paints, our options of oil paints that still perform like they did before regulation changed their formulation to less effective coatings is now minuscule.
When Should I Use Oil-Based Paint?
Though there are fewer options, there are still times when I prefer a good oil-based paint. My use of oil-based paint has largely been limited to enamels in recent years because no matter how hard I search, I cannot find a latex paint with the same performance as a good old-fashioned oil-based enamel.
Oil-based enamels provide for a glassy smooth finish and are as hard as nails, but the biggest advantage to me is that once dry, they prevent blocking. Blocking is when two painted surfaces stick together. This happens on doors and windows, and usually results in ugly gummy corners on doors.
Windows, Doors & Trim
When I paint windows, doors, and trim I want the hardest, least tacky, and most durable surface I can get, and that is usually an oil-based enamel. As far as paint technology has come, they still have not figured out how to make a latex paint as hard and smooth as oil paints.
In these high traffic areas, latex paints peel or scuff too easily and don’t clean as well as their oil-based cousins, so, as of today, there’s really no contest for me.
I want you to think very carefully about this complex scientific formula I’m about to give you:
Water + Metal = Rust
Have you got it? Good! Metal is not a good candidate for latex paint which is water based. No matter how much they improve the formulations and technology, they are still based on water suspension, and anytime you put water on metal, you have the potential for creating rust.
There are a lot of specialized paints that are designed specifically for metal surfaces. Anticorrosive metal primers or DTM (direct-to-metal) paints are just a couple. They may not be available at the counter of every paint store, but they are around, and if you are planning to paint something like a cast iron tub, steel windows or some metal railings, then this is your best option.
About the only time I use latex primers is on plaster or drywall. All the rest of my priming is done almost exclusively with oil-based primer. Why? Because when you don’t know what the previously painted surface is (Is it old oil-based, latex, milk paint, etc?) there are conditions and surfaces that a latex primer will not bond well with.
You need the security of a good bond with your primer, and oil-based primers have excellent adhesion and are the best option when changing from oil to latex or latex to oil. They will bond to either, and are the recommended base coat for both a latex or oil topcoat.
Latex paint is everywhere today and super easy to find a huge variety of products. Today’s paints are not technically “latex” like the original water based paints developed in the 1940s and 1950s. Most are now 100% acrylic, which is a big improvement over their predecessors.
I’ll refer to these paints as water-based paint from here on out, because that’s a better description of what they are, and that name plays into their biggest advantage. They are water clean up! Not to mention some of the other benefits like the fact that they are more color fast than most current oil-based paints available and their increased flexibility helps them last longer.
The reality is that today, water-based paints are usually a better choice for most common painting situations like:
- Plaster & drywall
- Siding (wood, fiber cement, aluminum)
- Porch floors
The list may seem short, but if you think about it, that encompasses almost everything on a house. While I did mention that windows, doors, and woodwork are the items I prefer to paint with a good oil-based enamel, these items could just as easily be painted with water-based paints. My personal preference doesn’t mean it isn’t done everyday all across the country this way.
There really isn’t a place today where a water-based paint can’t be used. Are there better options sometimes? Yes. But the huge array of water-based formulations makes it easy to keep all your painting in the water-based family if you want to.
The Truth Of The Matter
It’s not a battle of oil vs latex, because they both have their place. Water-based paints (in my opinion) really excel in several ways that their oil-based counterparts today do not. And that’s what I’m really comparing here. Oil-based paints made before the mid 1800s were a completely different breed. Their ingredients were simpler and hard to compare to modern paints.
In a lot of ways, I prefer those old paints. Linseed oil paints could be renewed again and again over the years without scraping and stripping. There weren’t as many color options or sheen options, but the really old school paints were excellent at what they did and were some of the greenest products way before green was cool.
Even the first solvent based oil paints, though they were heavy on the fumes and filled with lead, they performed better than most of the coatings we have today. Lead paint covered very well with fewer coats, the lead prevented mildew growth (a major problem on oil-based paints today), and it gave the paints extraordinary flexibility to help them last a long, long time.
Sure, lead will kill you eventually if you ingest enough of it, but there is a reason it is still used in industrial paints today. It makes for an incredibly effective paint.
With easier clean-up, lower VOCs, and ever improving performance, I would wager that in my lifetime we may sadly see the end of oil-based paints for anything other than an artist’s palette. But while I’m alive, I’ll be showing people the benefits and nuances of working with oils because I feel there is still a place for them in our homes.
Founder & Senior Editor
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.