Oil Based vs Water Based Paint: What You Need To Know (2023)

We have a lot of options for what type of paint to reach for in today’s market.  Coatings exist that are great in many applications and manufacturers make highly specialized coatings for specific applications also.  In this post, we’ll look at the difference between water (acrylic) and oil (alkyd) based paint.

Water Based Paint

Water based paints dominate the market and are what we use most.  There are many benefits to using a water based coating over an oil based coating.  Greatest of these is working with an acrylic over an alkyd.  Anyone who’s ever painted a room with an oil based coating knows that the odor (the VOCs) in oil based paints are hard on humans.  With water based paints, there are low and even zero VOC paints so that isn’t a problem.  Cleanup is another area where modern water based paints excel.  They are cleanable with water and a little normal dish soap.  Oil based paints require mineral spirits to clean, so if a drip gets on a floor we can’t wipe it up with a wet rag.  Some other pros for water based paints:

  • easy to work with - low odor
  • easy to clean - clean up equipment, brushes, and rollers with water and some soap
  • for exteriors - are more flexible and therefore move with a home’s natural expansion and contraction
  • for enamel - won’t yellow over time like an oil base
  • designed specifically for application with modern spray equipment

Oil Based Paint

Water based paints are excellent, and we use them more frequently than oil based paints.  However, there are a few areas where oil based paints excel and we still use them.

On interior projects where we’re painting trim that currently has a stain and lacquer finish, we use an oil based primer.  Painting enamel over a stain and lacquer finish requires a primer with excellent bond and high hide.  The lacquer finish is difficult to bond to, and sometimes color will bleed through if a product with excellent hide isn’t used.  An oil based primer gets the job done in this situation.  Once we’ve correctly primed the old trim, we top coat the oil based primer with a water based enamel.

Water based primers are getting better and better, so in the future, we may not need to use an oil based primer over oil lacquered surfaces.  We’ve experimented a couple of times now with some of Sherwin Williams water based primers designed to bond to old lacquer and the bond is excellent.  The water based primers don’t sand up quite as smooth as an oil based primer does, but in a situation where we are trying to keep odors to a minimum in a customers home, that’s a tradeoff that is highly acceptable.

It used to be that for painting trim an oil based enamel laid down best and looked smoothest when dried.  However there is a new line of enamels that most paint manufacturers are making called Hybrid Enamel, and in our experience these are excellent.  The are a water based, and have all the benefits of a water based product, but they paint and flow like oil, thus resulting in incredibly smooth finishes.  Some pros for oil based products:

  • dry harder than water based products, which is why they are excellent on trim and doors
  • have excellent stain blocking and hide — helps to cover old grease or water stains

Where we use each product

We rarely use oil based products currently.  Their application is limited because the water based products keep getting better.  We believe that water based products will continue to improve and that oil based products use will continue to become more and more limited.  In states like CA, oil based products are no longer sold in gallon size at all due to their hazardous makeup and high VOCs.


  • oil products - as a primer for raw cedar to block any tannins from bleeding through
  • water based products - trim, walls, doors, metal surfaces, brick, stucco


  • oil based products
    • as a primer over stain and lacquer trim that we are enameling
    • as a wall primer where we’re blocking a water stain, grease stain, or something that continues to bleed through a water based coating
  • water based products
    • walls and ceilings
    • enamel top coat for doors and trim
    • new drywall mud or new drywall primer

Hopefully, this is helpful if you’re trying to decide on what to use where on a project in your own home or if you’re evaluating estimates from painting companies.  Using the correct product for the correct job always gives the best results.  If you’re looking for professional painting services in Kansas City, contact us at Great Plains Painting today!