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 with the correct preparation, you can paint over oil-based paint with water-based acrylic-latex paint and other oil-based paints.
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. So you may wonder if you can paint over oil-based paint with latex or another type of oil-based paint.
Using Latex Paint Over Oil-Based Paint
Latex paint can be successfully painted over fully-cured oil-based paint. 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. Rather, 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, even latex.
Using Another Oil-Based Paint Over Oil-Based Paint
Oil-based paint can be 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. 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.
There are two types of oil-based paints available: alkyd and natural oil-based paints. Alkyd is made with synthetic resin binders and natural oil is an old-school product made from linseed. Linseed oil paint was favored in old houses since it does not trap moisture which ruins wood. It is still used today, especially on metal, since it's a rust inhibitor and is much longer-lasting than synthetic alkyd paints. However, it is extremely difficult to work with if you're using it to paint over another oil paint. Conversely, if you're painting over old linseed oil paint with new oil or latex, it might still be too slick, even when the surface is primed.
There is also a newer type of hybrid enamel paint that blends latex and oil, combining the best of both worlds, and which can also be used to paint over old oil-based paint.
Regardless of whether you are painting over oil-based paint with latex or another oil-based paint, preparation is important because you do not want your newly painted finish to crack or peel. You can't just paint directly over oil-based paint. Glossy surfaces will not take a second layer of paint well on their own. They need proper cleaning and priming. You can achieve that with the following 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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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
- Wood putty or wood filler
- TSP (trisodium phosphate)
- Paint primer, bonding
- Soft sponge (for TSP)
- Protective glasses
- Protective gloves
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.
Pry off any loose paint from the surface with a five-in-one tool or putty knife. Just remove areas of failing paint. Solid paint can remain.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Can you use latex primer over oil-based paint?
You can use a latex primer over oil-based paint as long as it is a bonding primer. Bonding primers are best because they are formulated to adhere to glossy surfaces, such as oil-based painted finishes. If you use a very high-quality bonding primer, you might be able to paint over oil-based paint without sanding, but always read the primer's instructions. A regular primer (including a self-priming paint) only seals a surface and won't stick well to oil-based painted finishes.
How long should oil-based paint dry between coats?
Oil-based paint might be dry to the touch within six to eight hours, but you will need to wait a full 24 hours to add another coat of paint. Drying time differs from curing time. It takes about seven days for an oil-based painted finish to fully cure or harden. Surprisingly, it takes about 30 days for a latex paint to cure, though flat finishes cure a little quicker.
How many coats of bonding primer should I use?
Use one to two coats of bonding primer over oil-based paint. If after one coat you don't see any of the old paint, you might not need a second coat. However, if you are painting over oil-based kitchen cabinets with knotty wood, for example, you may need two coats of bonding primer to ensure a thorough seal. Read the primer product's label for specific instructions and drying times between coats.