Painting: Latex Paint vs. Oil-Based Paint

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May 26, 2011 | Steve Graham

icekitty37/stock.xchngLatex, or water-based, paints dominate the home paint industry for both interior and exterior jobs, and for good reason. Latex paints have many advantages, and should be used for most applications. However, oil-based paints still have their place — and not just on the artist’s canvas.

When to use latex paint

Walls and ceilings: For most big residential paint jobs, including interior and exterior walls and ceilings, latex is the way to go. Latex paint dries quickly and cleans up easily with soap and water. In many cases, it is possible to paint both coats of latex paint in one day, with just a few hours of drying time between coats. Latex paint also has fewer odors than oil paints, and typically has lower levels of volatile organic compounds.

Most other jobs: The experts at Sherwin-Williams recommend latex for pretty much everything. “Today’s improved latex products have allowed for the substitution of latex in nearly all scenarios that had traditionally called for an oil base material,” notes the paint company’s website.  

When to use oil-based paints

Over previous oil-based paint jobs: Some experts only use oil-based paints where they (or someone else) previously use oil paints. Latex paint typically won’t stick to surfaces with oil-based finishes, so it’s easier to just add another coat of oil-based paint. If you insist on putting latex paint over oil-based paint, you will still need to start with an oil-based primer and sealer.

For most other jobs, oil-based paints are impractical. They require mineral spirits to clean up, and typically need to dry overnight. They also often have strong odors and high levels of volatile organic compounds (the VOCs alone could make oil-based paints prohibitive in some areas with stringent restrictions on the use and disposal of hazardous chemicals).  

There are a couple of other reasons to use an oil paint:

Bathroom baseboards: Trim in high-traffic areas might benefit from oil-based paints. Oil paint still has unsurpassed durability and stain resistance, particularly on wood.


Metal and dirty surfaces: Latex paint has great adherence under the right conditions and on the right materials. On the other hand, oil-based paints are still the best option for dirty or rusty surfaces that can’t be cleaned. They also are preferable for metal furniture, railings and outdoor metalwork.

Extreme temperatures: Oil-based paints are less prone to shrinkage and cracking in freezing temperatures. Consider oil-based paints for surfaces that are exposed to extremely low temperatures.

Contemporary latex paints are the best choice for most jobs, but there are still situations that call for oil-based paints. Even so, keep in mind that oil-based paints are more likely to eventually fade, yellow and become brittle.

Steve Graham is a Networx writer. Read more articles or get help with your home projects on

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