Oil vs Latex: Which Paint is Best?

By Scott Sidler • May 30, 2016

oil vs latex which paint is best“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.

Metal Surfaces

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.

Priming

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.

Housewife waiting to paintWhen Should I Use Latex Paint?

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)
  • Stucco
  • 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.

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42 thoughts on “Oil vs Latex: Which Paint is Best?”

  1. Galvanized iron sheet roof of our office is getting rusted due to heavy rainfall (>5000 mm). I have decided to first paint it with zinc chromate primer and later on painting with synthetic enamel oil based paint …will it be okay? Pls suggest

  2. I’m painting kitchen cabinets. Is it better to use an oil based paint vs latex? If so,why? The cabinets have been cleaned with Paso and primed with Schwerin Williams 295.

  3. I am redoing my railing and banister that has been stained and then sealed with a high gloss top coat. I have been sanding and intend to use oil base primer and paint. How many coats of primer and paint do you recommend? Do you recommend a top coat of polyurethane after the paint? I too worry about yellowing. What products do you recommend? This is in a high traffic area.

    1. You should only need one coat of primer and though your railing may look fine after one coat of finish, it’s best to apply two. If you’re really concerned about yellowing you might consider using a latex finish which doesn’t yellow nearly as quickly or badly as oil.

  4. I have an antique metal teeter totter that I’ve primed with rust oleum. Is oil based glossy oil paint the best paint for this?

  5. Scott…I live in Kenai, Alaska. My front door, which is in need of painting, is metal, with a vinyl insert. How do I prep this for painting? Can I use the same primer and same paint on both the metal and vinyl parts? Thank you.

    1. Hi Maggie,
      I lived in Anchorage for 33 years , recently retired and now live in Indiana. I painted my rental and home metal entry doors in this manner. These were painted cornflower blue for fung shui recommendations.
      1. Remove door and place in a controlled environment such as a heated garage. I say heated because it would be insulated and the temperature and humidity easier to control and it’s out of the rain.
      2. Lightly sand the door with 200 grit or finer sand paper – wet sanding works great.
      3. Rinse the door with water and dry off excess moisture. For complete drying use a hair dryer.
      4. Prime with Rustoleum primer spray paint. This paint is pretty universal and should work on vinyl, metal or wood. I start with white for the first coat, a second coat with gray. Depending on what color you finish with end up with lighter or darker which could be reverse order from above.
      5. I brushed on an acrylic paint and used two coats. I use Purdy brushes which are among the finest to use for laying down paint.
      6. These door were not in direct sun except for morning and evening which as you know can last for hours. They performed well and looked great for several years..

  6. Hi Scott, One question; years ago I painted my old brown brick fireplace to look like “used brick”. I loved it that way for years. Now I’d like to lighten it up a bit with a whitewash. I think I used an oil-based paint way back then. What kind of paint do you recommend I use to white wash over the old oil-based paint?. (The process is only explained in blogs using water and diluting latex paint). I understand that to use latex I will need to prime with a bonding agent,. I don’t want to prime because it will affect the color outcome that I’m trying to achieve. I suppose I need to use another oil-based paint. Therefore, how can I dilute oil based paint to achieve the “white washed” look that I’m after?

    Any help would be appreciated,

    Thank you in advance,

    Nancy

  7. Scott – I’m building a house in the “low country” of South Carolina near Savannah- I have a bias toward using oil based paint on the exterior trim but I’m being advised by the builder to use high grade latex because the moisture/rain/humidity creates problems for oil based trim paints- mildewing/mold discoloration, cracking. Would you still advise using oil based (in my case- exterior semi-gloss) on the exterior trim?

    -MikeW.

    1. Hi Mike,
      Congrats on building your house! That’s so exciting. Honestly, our best recommendation is to find a certified preservationist in your area using this directory and get their opinion since they are the most familiar with the climate and what’s typically “kosher” with the long term in mind for homes in your area. https://thecraftsmanblog.com/directory/
      We’d love if you kept us up to date on your home building progress! Feel free to tag us in photos on Instagram!
      -Alyssa at The Craftsman Blog

  8. I’m redoing a deck a guy painted with bear solid base stain and put polyurethane over the top it pealed and blistered could I go over it with oil-based paint.

  9. I just built a fairly large wooden work bench for my shop to accommodate two of my saws (radial arm and miter saw) it is made from 1/2 and 3/4 plywood. Not expensive hardwood. I’m wanting to paint it. Should I use oil or water base on naked wood? I know it’s my choice but what would you recommend? Thank you for your time.

  10. I want best product (Primer + paint) to paint my
    Laminated kitchen cabinets.
    I am impressed with info Benjamin Moore put it regarding ADVANCE both Primer + paint.
    Am tempted to dry this line. Really dislike working with oil base / tough cleanup etc.
    your best advice PLEASE

    1. edda,
      I too was impressed with Benjamin Moore’s aqua line of paint /primer to cover any surface even without sanding. Just painted this weekend( half of a large room w 8 doors). I already know it was a mistake just in removing the tape. It was fine on the walls, but not covering the semigloss train. I will be taking Scott’s advice on the other half of the room and use and oil based primer after degassing!

  11. Hi Scott,

    I am undertaking a project of refreshing our banisters and balusters. I’m replacing all the wood balusters with metal and due to me having to replace the fillet (using a piece of lattice trim) I have no option but to paint the handrail and the landing tread. Currently, they have a semi-gloss gel-stain (best I can figure) on them. Of course I would prefer to do as little work as possible, but I also want it done right. I’m painting everything white.

    Could I use deglosser and go straight into an acrylic? Is oil-based my best bet? Want to make sure I am doing this right. I have about 100 feet of banister/balcony to do, so I also want labor to be a consideration. Thanks!

  12. I’m re-painting my house and used oil based paint on the trim and crown molding vs. latex on the walls. The chair rail is also an oil based white. Their are a number of doors to paint – I assume they should also be in the oil based as they will be white. The oil based is shinier and I’m wondering about two large built in bookcases that I want to do white – should I stick with oil based for them or do eggshell (the walls are in eggshell in a tan color).

  13. Hey Scott, I live in Omaha Nebraska, which is known for having some if the widest extremes in temperatures. I have a outdoor wall I built out of cinder blocks, only 3 feet high, but surrounding back patio. Staining wouldn’t look good because of block joints. I LOVE OIL BASED PAINT FOR MAJORITY OF JOBS so I’m leaning to using my Rustoleum from Lowe’s. But I don’t want to have to repaint all the time. But it’s the quickest, easiest, and cheapest. I thought about mixing black oil paint with a fine cement mix and trowelling it on so it’s more permanent. What do u suggest? Thanks

  14. Hey Scott wondering what type of varnish you recommend to put on the interior side of my stained windows to seal the putty? Thanks for all your information.

  15. Hello! You mentioned industrial oil based paint. Can you get that as a homeowner. I have a 110 yo house and I love the windows. I’m taking them out one at a time and reglazing, fixing rotten wood and weatherstripping. I used the best exterior latex I could find and the windows stick! I want to find some rock hard oil enamel and redo them so they slide. Please help with a recommended oil base paint to use so they all slide again.

    Thank you.

      1. Does that come in an OIL? My google searches only find satin water based . Why do you recommend this one and won’t it cause the windows to stick?

          1. Hi Scott, thank you for your previous reply’s. I went to the Benjamin Moore store and they told me the Impervo was interior oil and not for exterior. I explained what I was doing, removing and painting the exterior windows and was recommended Coronado Poly Rust Scat enamel. Any thoughts on this paint and it’s longevity? Said it’s formulated for metal but is also excellent on wood.

            Thoughts?

          2. Impervo in red and grey can is oil based. not for exterior. Impervo 314 in green and grey can is marketed as 100% Acrylic. The oil based is Low-luster – i think they used to sell “Impervex” which was high gloss and still mat be available. The Acrylic impervo is not dreadful and if thinned to a creamy consistency – water/floetrol, and applied well in moderate conditions, levels well for a waterbased paint. if it is not thinned and applied badly, wo betide you, you will get brush marks like the surface of a rasp. it also has excellent adhesion and, as billed, will not yellow. Any oilbased product WILL yellow, unless it is exposed to good daylight.

            The Impervo Oil based is not what it used to be 20 years ago but again, thinned to the right consistency (also try some Penetrol additive), will level out quite nicely.

            The nicest oil finish I find available is still Fine Paints of Europe “Hollandac”. its available in Gloss and satin finishes. Very pricey, should use their thinner which is also pricey. It still needs a good hand. Beautiful hard finish, billed as exterior and interior. perfect for you windows doors and trim.

  16. Help! My 100 year old craftsman is ready (waay past ready) for a new exterior finish. It has a rough wood siding (probably heart pine). This will be the 4th time we have ain’t end. The first two times we used a porter solid body oil based stain. Last time he used latex. Latex was a big fail. Not only did the paint peel, crack, blister, etc., it attracts dirt and mildew like crazy. Now I learn that oil asked solid stains are pretty much unavailable. I’m pleading for old house expertise !

    1. Ione, if the surface is prepped properly then latex paint should be an excellent choice for the house. I fear something was missed in the prep which caused the issues you had.

      1. Thank you Scott. The local PPG rep came up to my house to advise and basically said the same. He was able to meet with my painter as well. Very nice service that he did at no charge. Between the 3 of you, I feel much better!
        Ione

  17. Hi Scott, I just finished stripping, sanding right down to the wood and priming my 100 year old sash windows. I was just about to use a latex semigloss to finish until I read your article. I’ve never used an oil based enamel paint but it sounds like the best option. I’d like to know if I need a particular type of brush vs the latex brush, how long between coats and how long is the drying and setting time. Thanks so much. Great website and very helpful advice! Keith

    1. Keith, the only downsides to oil in my opinion is that it is slow to dry (usually 8 hrs to touch and 24 hrs to recoat) and it can mildew if you are in a wet or humid climate. Other than that I prefer the finish. Make sure you have a brush that is marked as appropriate for oil. Usually that is a natural bristle brush (China bristle) but there are some synthetic blends that work as well.

  18. My experience with even very high quality latex paints has convinced me that they often are actually destructive when used on exterior trim! As you note, they are now 100% acrylic, e.g. a thin watery plastic. In weather conditions like sun and frost, in time (often not much) cracks form and rain water gets inside behind the paint. The plastic paint prevents the wood from drying out and so causes serious rot! And rot that extends way beyond the crack and is hidden by the paint until it is so bad you have to replace the wood altogether.

  19. I like milk paint a lot actually, covered with an oil based poly it gives all the advantages of either, but removing it is much more difficult as it penetrates the wood. But is it really so hard to make your own BLO based paint with universal colorants, such as Mixol? I’ve used mixol with plaster and paint with success.

  20. Hey Scott, you mentioned in another post that you like using a product called Sher-cryl by Sherwin Williams for windows. How would you compare this to an oil based enamel?

    1. David, SherCryl is a little tackier than an oil based paint but with a little extra dry time it cures pretty hard. The reason I like it is because it has incredible adhesion and I don’t want any peeling paint on my sashes. Plus I can use it both interior and exterior.

  21. My big issue with oil-based enamel paint is yellowing. All of the woodwork throughout my house has gone from bright white to dingy looking yellow. I love the durability. I just hate that everything looks old and dirty. I’ve tried everything I can think of to brighten it back up. I even once tried a bleach-based cleaner when I thought it was a residue from using the fireplace. So far, nothing has helped.

    It doesn’t seem to matter if I used a primer or not. Some of the wood was new and bare. I primed it with oil-based primer first. Much of it was already painted with oil-based paint and I didn’t prime it. But all of it has turned yellow. Bummer.

    1. Carole, it’s actually a reaction to a lack of UV light that causes oil based paints to yellow. The brighter the room the less it yellows. If you have anyway to introduce more sunlight to the rooms then the yellow will actually reverse itself.

      1. Seriously! I had no idea. My windows are enormous. But because most of them have the original wavy glass, I keep them covered with blinds in the summertime. I’ll try that. Thanks!

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