Oil vs. Water-Based Paint: The Difference

July 15, 2014

For a DIY paint job, we’d wager that most homeowners will reach for latex simply because it is the most common paint found at home improvement stores. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only kind of paint there is! Walk down the paint aisle and while water-based options will dominate, there will still be plenty of oil-based paints to choose from.

The abundance of latex options is telling. It gets the job done and is safe for the painting novice, which does make it the better option for those painting at home with amateur equipment. Oil paint still has plenty of uses, though, so we thought we’d talk about what makes latex paint so good and where oil paint really shines.

difference between oil paint and latex paint

The Pros and Cons of Water-Based Paints

Water is the carrier for water-based paint – it “carries” the pigment and acrylic or vinyl binders. The advantages of this carrier are manifold. You can have healthy low- or even no-VOC options. It dries quickly so you can get in two coats in a day. Cleanup is done with soap and water. And the finished paint job resists both yellowing and cracking. The downside is that it is generally less durable than oil paint, and it can be more difficult to apply uniformly.

The Pros and Cons of Oil-Based Paints

Admittedly, this is not the eco-friendly option, and cleanup requires mineral spirits or turpentine. But for a hard-wearing, smooth finish, oil can’t be beat.

Thanks to the petroleum that serves as carrier for oil-base paints and the natural oil or synthetic resin that acts as the binder, this paint dries more slowly resulting in a much smoother appearance and a gorgeous gloss. Some companies have completely phased out their oil-based lines but it’s still a favorite for painting woodwork, doors, and furniture, and surfaces that need to take a beating like floors.

Choosing the right paint means letting your project, lifestyle, and the needs of your family be your guide. Want the hardiness of oil without the fumes? Some paint companies have introduced what they are calling “waterborne enamels” or “waterborne alkyds” – these are paints that go on like oil-based paint but are safer and more environmentally friendly. Though relatively new, they may add a whole new layer of complexity to the great paint debate!


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