How to Thin Latex Paint for Brushes or Rollers

This method also works for paint sprayers

Thinned latex paint dipped in bucket with paintbrush

The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

Project Overview
  • Working Time: 1 hr - 1 hr, 30 mins
  • Total Time: 3 - 4 hrs
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Estimated Cost: $0

You won't need to know how to thin latex paint for that you just had mixed at the store. That's one benefit of working with new latex paint since it's ready for brushing or rolling as soon as you bring the paint back from the store in mixed condition. You may, however, need to thin latex paint for applications such as paint sprayers or for older paint that has partially lost water content due to evaporation.

How Does Water Thin Latex Paint?

Paint is divided into two categories: oil-based (or alkyds) or water-based paints. Oil-based paints should be thinned or cleaned up only with petroleum or mineral-based products. In contrast, latex paint is water-based and should be cleaned up and thinned only with water.

Water is the carrier of solid products in latex paint. Successful latex paint thinning requires a reasonably precise assessment of paint viscosity and the addition of the correct quantity of water.


Rubbing alcohol is often used to soften and remove latex paint from surfaces but not necessarily to thin latex paint. Rubbing alcohol is a drying agent and can cause paint to dry too fast, it can dry out some of the paint's compounds, or it could even make the paint thicker after the alcohol begins to dry.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Cordless drill
  • Metal spiral power mixer
  • Wood paint stirring stick
  • Latex or nitrile gloves
  • Fluid measuring cup
  • Viscosity cup (optional)
  • Fine mesh cone strainer (optional)


  • Latex paint
  • Room-temperature water


Materials and tools to thin latex paint

The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

  1. Acclimate the Paint

    Before you thin the paint, acclimate the paint to ambient room temperature between 50 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit.


    Cold paint will flow more slowly and does not require thinning. If the paint is too cold, it may give a false impression that it needs thinning.

    Light purple latex paint bucket opened to adjust to temperature

    The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

  2. Pre-Mix the Paint

    Mix the paint thoroughly. If the paint has recently been shaken at the store, this step is not necessary. Over time, solids tend to gather at the bottom of the can, making it more difficult to gauge the true consistency of the paint.

    Chuck the power mixer attachment into the drill and mix the paint thoroughly. Run the wood stirring stick through the paint to test it. If the stick drags at the bottom, the solids have still not completely mixed through. If this is the case, run the power mixer in the can until the paint has the same consistency from top to bottom.

    Latex paint bucket pre-mixed with power mixer attachment on drill

    The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

  3. Assess Whether the Paint Needs Thinning

    To fully atomize paint, paint sprayers require a paint that falls within a certain viscosity range. Consult the paint sprayer documentation for information about this range.

    For precise calibration when using a paint sprayer, invest in a small low-cost viscosity cup. A viscosity cup is essentially a long-handled funnel with a calibrated hole at the bottom. Industry-standard viscosity cups include the Ford #4 Paint Viscosity Cup and the Zahn Immersion Viscosity Cup.

    For a less precise but reasonably accurate way to gauge viscosity, dip some paint with a clean disposable cup and pour it through a kitchen funnel. Paint in need of thinning will clog the exit hole and either will not drain at all or will take an unreasonably long time to drain.

    Viscosity cup dipped into latex paint bucket to test for thinning

    The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

  4. Strain Out Impurities

    Solid paint chunks and film that have developed cannot be restored by thinning with water. Pull out large pieces with the hook end of a paint can opener. Remove remaining pieces and other impurities with a fine mesh cone strainer.

    Mesh cone strainer removing large chunks of latex paint

    The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

  5. Measure the Water

    To portion out the correct quantity of water, use a fluid measuring cup, not a dry measuring cup. The amount of water to add varies according to the current consistency of the paint and the consistency that you desire. Begin with 4 ounces of clean, room temperature water; you can always add more as needed. Paint manufacturers tend to cap the quantity of additive water at 8 ounces per gallon of latex paint for spray applications. Consult the paint can label or online paint specifications for your specific latex paint.

    Measuring cup pouring water into latex paint pucket

    The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

  6. Mix the Water Into the Paint

    Slowly pour the water into the paint while gently stirring the paint with the wood paint stick. Test with the viscosity cup or funnel before use.


    Go slowly and be careful when adding water because this is only a one-way process: You can always add more water to the paint to further thin it out but you cannot thicken the paint again. The best way to save paint that is too thin is to add it to a second can of paint.

    Wood paint stick stirring latex paint bucket mixed with water

    The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

  7. Test the Paint on a Similar Surface

    After the paint has been thinned, mixed, and left to settle (bubbles may develop when vigorously using a paint mixer), brush or roll out the paint on a surface similar to the one you intend to paint. If it isn't thin enough, add a small amount of water until it reaches the desired consistency.

    Paintbrush applying thinned latex paint on wooden plank for testing

    The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

When to Use a Paint Sprayer vs. Roller

Spray painting with an airless paint sprayer is faster than rolling on latex paint, but either one is good for interior projects, such as large expanses of walls. If you do choose to use a paint sprayer, you will need to thin the latex paint to get a fine spray. It can also take some practice to use an airless paint sprayer if you haven't used one before; it's tricky to get that flawless finish until you are used to controlling the equipment.

Tips for Thinning Latex Paint

  • Never use petroleum-based products to thin water-based latex paint. Any product that goes under the name mineral spirits or paint thinner likely is a petroleum-based solvent.
  • If you want to eliminate brush or roller marks, consider incorporating a paint additive like Floetrol instead of water. For roller and brush applications, add 8 ounces of Floetrol.
  • Adding water to paint dilutes the paint and thus lightens its color, so additional coats may be necessary to improve the color quality. Also, keep this fact in mind when using multiple cans of the same-colored paint for a project.
  • One telltale sign that latex paint has lost water through evaporation is when the lid of the can is encrusted with paint. Even a pinhole-sized gap between the lid and the can is enough to allow water-based paint to evaporate over time.
  • Combat evaporation by replacing the crusted lid with a tight-fitting plastic pour-and-store type of lid or by pouring the paint into a sealable paint can.