How to Paint Over Oil-Based Paint

Woman Painting Over Oil-Based Paint

Kohei Hara / Getty Images

Project Overview
  • Working Time: 2 - 3 hrs
  • Total Time: 1 - 2 days
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Estimated Cost: $20 to $60

Oil-based paint once ruled the world of interior paint for high-impact areas such as trim work, doors, and cabinets. Oil-based paint is tough and durable, and as it dries it self-levels, creating a flat, flawless surface. But oil-based paint isn't perfect.

When it dries, oil-based paint emits a host of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that are harmful to the environment. The paint is often messy and smelly since mineral spirits or paint thinner must be used for clean-up, not water. The most significant issue with oil-based paint is that it's becoming more and more difficult to find.

So, if you have a surface that was previously painted with oil-based paint, it might not just be a case of you wanting to use water-based paint on top—you may have few other choices. The good news is that you can paint over oil-based paint with water-based acrylic-latex paint.

Painting Over Oil-Based Paint

If a house is old enough, it will likely have oil-based paint somewhere, since water-based latex paint wasn't introduced until the 1940s. And newer houses might have some areas of oil-based paint since it is not entirely banned: Oil-based paint is still available in quart sizes or smaller.

In fact, many professional painters even favor oil-based paint over latex paint for a smoother, rock-hard finish that leaves no brush marks, gaps, or bubbles. You'll typically find oil-based paint used on door casings, trims and moldings, mantels, cabinetry, and shelving.

Latex paint (and even other oil-based paint) can be successfully applied over older oil-based paint as long as the surface is fully cured and there is nothing inherent in the coating that prevents another layer of paint to be added.

Latex paint cures from the outside-in. It develops an outer skin and then slowly hardens inside due to evaporation. But oil-based paint has no water; it does not evaporate. It chemically hardens. Once it has become hard and fully cured, oil-based paint has no oil that would repel subsequent layers of paint. The chemical reaction has transformed the paint into a hard shell that can accept any type of paint.

Preparation is important. Glossy surfaces will not take a second layer of paint well on their own. They need proper cleaning and priming. You can achieve that by following these steps.

Before you begin painting, make sure to get enough paint to finish the project with the help of The Spruce's Paint Calculator.

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What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • High-quality paintbrush
  • Fine 180-grit to 220-grit sandpaper
  • Medium 100-grit to 150-grit sandpaper (optional)
  • Putty knife or five-in-one tool
  • Tack cloth

Materials

  • Wood putty or wood filler
  • TSP (trisodium phosphate)
  • Paint primer
  • Paint
  • Soft sponge (for TSP)
  • Protective glasses
  • Protective gloves

Instructions

  1. De-Gloss the Surface

    With sandpaper, manually scuff down the surface of the oil-based paint layer for improved stickability. Aim for eliminating surface sheen or gloss; the goal isn't to remove the paint, just scuff up the surface so new primer and paint can adhere well. If fine-grit sandpaper isn't working well, switch to gentle scuffing with medium-grit sandpaper.

    Tip

    If you are scuffing up cabinetry or trim with details, you may prefer to sand by hand instead of using a power sander. A power sander may apply too much pressure on the surfaces.

  2. Remove Chips

    Pry off any loose paint from the walls with a five-in-one tool or putty knife. Just remove areas of failing paint. Solid paint can remain.

  3. Fill in Small Gaps and Holes

    Fill small gaps and holes with wood putty or wood filler. Let the filler dry completely, then lightly sand the filled areas with fine-grit sandpaper.

  4. Clean With a Tack Cloth

    After the surface is completely dry, gently use a tack cloth to wipe down the surface to catch dust, dirt, or sandpaper granules. 

    Tip

    Tack cloth is an inexpensive, simple product made of cheesecloth impregnated with a tacky substance, such as beeswax. Its sticky surface takes up stray dust particles. Use gently. Applying hard pressure will result in a waxy surface which can only be removed by a second round of sanding.

  5. Deep Clean the Surface

    If the surface is exceptionally dirty and greasy even after using a tack cloth, your best bet is to use TSP to do a deep cleaning before priming.

    Mix 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup (for extra dirty surfaces) TSP with a gallon of hot water. Use a sponge that's damp with the TSP solution to wash the surfaces. Wash surfaces from the bottom up to reduce streaking.

    After cleaning with TSP, sponge the surface with fresh water to rinse (unless you have chosen a no-rinse TSP formula). Let the surface thoroughly air-dry.

    TSP, known as trisodium phosphate, is a gentle but effective cleaning chemical used to prepare walls and other surfaces for paint. It also acts as a de-glosser. Make sure you have adequate ventilation, skin, and eye protection before using TSP. Some communities have banned phosphates. If so, use a product called TSP substitute or TSP phosphate-free.

  6. Prime the Surface

    With the surface completely dry and clean of dirt, you can now prime it. This is essential as it provides the latex paint with a porous surface to help it stick. Brush the primer onto the surface. Brush one coat but preferably two coats of primer on the surface. Let it dry thoroughly.

  7. Paint the Surface

    After the primer is dry, you're ready to paint. Paint as you normally would, using two coats if necessary. Let the paint dry for at least two hours between applications.

    Tip

    For the best painting technique, do not load up the brush with too much paint; only dip the tip of the bristles into the paint. Draw the paint in slow, even strokes, always maintaining a wet edge.

Article Sources
The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. 

  2. Safety Data Sheet - TSP Trisodium Phosphate. Purdue University. 

  3. Flood Clean-Up: Questions about Cleaning Products. University of Illinois Extension.