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Water-Based Paint vs Oil-Based Paint

Updated on July 9, 2017
Creative Commons, courtesy of Robert S Donovan
Creative Commons, courtesy of Robert S Donovan

How do I Choose the Right Paint?

It seems so straightforward... you decide that a wall, a baseboard or a piece of furniture needs painting so you need to buy paint, right? Pick it up at the hardware store, nothing could be simpler – until you are faced with the choice of what paint to buy. Should it be acrylic, emulsion, satin, gloss, semi-gloss, alkoyd, eggshell, matt? Does it need a primer? Is it safe to use near children? – Argh! What is even more confusing is that different kinds of paint can do the same job but with vastly different results. So... how do you choose?

It helps to know the properties of paint before you make a costly mistake – not just because good paint is expensive, but the object you are painting could be damaged or left unprotected.

Broadly speaking, paint for household use is divided into two kinds: water-based or solvent/oil-based. There are other kinds of paint but these are the most common and most widely used.

Water-Based Paint

Also called latex, acrylic or emulsion. In fact, there is no natural latex in any kind of paint – it is made from synthetic polymers. In other words, when you apply a coat of paint to a wall, you are giving it a layer of plastic. Water-based paint was once only suitable for interior walls. It was not hard-wearing enough for woodwork or floors. However, new developments in paint means that water-based paint now has many more applications in the home, and accounts for about 80% of domestic paint sales. It is easy to apply and can be cleaned up with water. There is a huge selection of colors and sheens available from flat (matte) to a shiny satin finish. Water-based paint is generally low-odor and safe for children's rooms but always check the label to make sure.

Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Luke Roberts
Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Luke Roberts | Source

Where to Use Water-Based Paint

Water-based paint can be used on walls, ceilings, wood, door frames, window frames, baseboards, furniture and on exterior walls. Always check the manufacturer's recommendations for individual paints. Generally when applying to a previously unpainted surface, you will need to prime with a suitable undercoat. If painting over a previous coat of water-based paint, you can usually dispense with primer, unless you are changing the color dramatically, say from dark to light.

Oil or Solvent-Based Paint

Also known as alkyd (or 'gloss' in the UK), oil-based was once the only choice of paint. If you wanted a water-based paint, you had to use whitewash (a solution of water, slaked lime and chalk) or milk paint. Alkyd paint is generally more hard-wearing than latex. It is less prone to flaking but colors can fade under intense sunlight and over time. Before it dries it has a strong distinctive odor. It also takes longer to dry, although that can be an advantage because brush marks will tend to flatten out. Oil-based paint has to be cleaned up with solvents.

Creative Commons courtesy of
Creative Commons courtesy of | Source

Where to use Oil-Based Paint

Oil-based paint is best suited to wood surfaces, such as doors, frames, baseboards, floors and furniture. It can be applied to walls but it's not recommended. On a personal note, when we were looking for our second home, my first husband and I viewed a dear little stone-built cottage. A cowboy builder had bought it cheap with the intention of making a quick profit and had painted all the exposed stonework interior walls with a deep purple gloss paint. Everywhere. Needless to say, we declined to make an offer.

Again, you will have to apply a primer to a previously unpainted surface and if repainting over an oil-based finish, you will need to sand the surface to provide a key for the new paint. You may be wondering why you would want to choose an oil-based paint if there are suitable water-based ones. If the surface requires a very hard-wearing finish, then oil-based is your best choice. It is also best for creating special paint effects, such as marbling though there are now water-based paints that can do that job too.

Safety Precautions When Painting

Always refer to the manufacturer's instructions before commencing painting. Ventilate the room. Wear a safety mask when using oil-based paint and never use near a naked flame. Dispose of old paint, including paint scrapings, carefully as it may contain lead.

If you have old oil-based paint cans and left over paint to get rid of, take it to your nearest municipal/city waste collection depot. They should have facilities there to deal with it. The same goes for a large amount of scraped off paint.

How to Tell the Difference Between Oil-Based and Water-Based Paint

Read the paint can label – if it instructs you to clean paintbrushes with warm water and soap, then it's water-based. If it tells you to use mineral spirit or turpentine, then the paint is solvent/oil-based.

What about painted surfaces? There are several ways to determine what kind of paint was used. If you can press your fingernail into the paint and it leaves an impression then the paint is likely oil-based. If you have a heat gun, direct it at an out-of-sight area of the surface. If the paint bubbles and smells of solvents, it is oil-based. Rub a little nail varnish remover on an unobtrusive area – if paint comes off then it is water-based. You can just rub hard with a damp white rag - if you can see the paint color on the rag, the paint is water-based.


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    • theraggededge profile image

      Bev 4 years ago from Wales

      Yes, any wall that has the slightest chance of absorbing moisture - via cracks, via its foundations or from the exterior needs that moisture to evaporate, otherwise the paint will, at best flake or, at worst show signs of mould (mold). Sealing moisture in by painting with gloss is a short-term solution and also will show up every lump and bump when light shines on it.

    • profile image

      Oisin Butler 4 years ago

      Just looking at your comment to furniturez -Walls need to breathe? Lime based plaster walls need to breathe alright but regular walls don't. As for using an oil based paint on walls, its more expensive but also harder wearing. You can use anything from a flat oil to a full gloss on walls if you like. Where would you use a gloss on walls I hear you ask? Generally anywhere that will have a lot of moisture - bathrooms, utility rooms etc. Whilst it might not be the standard it is quite acceptable, harder wearing , longer lasting and easier to keep clean.


    • theraggededge profile image

      Bev 4 years ago from Wales

      It's because it's 'matte' or 'flat', i.e. it doesn't reflect light so much. If you want a surface with more of a sheen, look for 'silk' or 'semi-gloss' finish.

      The chalky look is very much in vogue at the moment as Annie Sloan paints are very popular. You can an even chalkier look by adding plaster of paris to the paint. You have to add it little by little until you get a degree of chalkiness you like. It's much cheaper than Annie Sloan!

      Happy painting!

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      isabel 4 years ago

      i don't know if it's just me but why does water based paint looks so ... sheer once i aplly it? i don't know to me at times looks like chalk.

    • theraggededge profile image

      Bev 5 years ago from Wales

      Yes, you are right, eubug, the trend is towards water-based paint. It is wrong not to make it clear on the label, as your experience demonstrates.

      Oil-based paint is more durable in colder, wetter conditions but isn't so good in hot, dry climates where it fades and cracks.

      Hope you find a suitable alternative for your gate.

    • eugbug profile image

      Eugene Brennan 5 years ago from Ireland

      A lot of oil based paints used for painting metal for instance are being replaced by water based paints because of environmental concerns over white spirit. In some cases the manufacturers haven't even changed the tin and made this clear or specified that previous coats need to be sanded or stripped to bare metal. This happened me earlier this year when painting a gate and using my favorite brand of black paint. Luckily I noticed there was no smell of spirit and discovered that the paint was water based. I had been using the brush in the remains of the previous spirit based tin of paint and it now had to be cleaned. I painted the gate and after several months the paint started to flake. From my experience, water based paints don't form as durable, thick or flexible a coat as an oil based paint. The chances are that that oil paints will probably be phased out like everything eles because it is not "environmentally friendly".

    • theraggededge profile image

      Bev 5 years ago from Wales

      Yes, furniturez, the only place to use it on walls might be somewhere where it doesn't matter, but even then it's never a good idea. Walls need to breathe.

    • furniturez profile image

      furniturez 5 years ago from Washington

      Great point on not using oil based paints on walls... seriously guys, that's a big no no!

    • theraggededge profile image

      Bev 5 years ago from Wales

      Good luck with it all, CyberShelley! Thanks for stopping by.

    • CyberShelley profile image

      Shelley Watson 5 years ago

      Hello the Raggededge,

      Thank you for the info, as we are about to begin painting, both inside and out, this came at just the right time to remind us what was what! Voted up

    • theraggededge profile image

      Bev 5 years ago from Wales

      Thank *you*!

    • GoodLady profile image

      Penelope Hart 5 years ago from Rome, Italy

      I am such a fan! Finally after all these years somebody explains it to me in a way even I can understand. Thank you so much.