Oil and Water: Which paint, when and why?

By Ian Richardson


In the past I have always used oil-based paints for woodwork, being very disappointed with my first attempts using water-based satinwood. The early paints I tried were of very poor opacity and gave a disappointing finish. Oil gives you the ability to achieve an almost-miraculous smooth, opaque finish that you will (still) never get with water-based paints. I’ve recently used the Weathershield Dulux Gloss system to paint new external doors, surrounds and porch. I’m always pleased with the smooth, fine surface that I can get and, if my preparation is conscientious, the result seems to last many years before beginning to break down. Indoors, it’s a different story. Cleaning up is a nightmare, the fumes are unhealthy and unpleasant, and drying times make the job last for days.

Oil and Water: Which paint, when and why?

A pleasing result with oil-based paint on the Porch props.

Recently, I had to do extensive renovation and repainting in a large extension and decided to try a water-based version again. I prefer a Satinwood finish on interior woodwork and so I used the standard Quick Dry Dulux Undercoat and Satinwood Topcoat. This time, I found the QD undercoat excellent and felt that two coats was more than good enough to prepare the surfaces, which included new wood, pre-primed MDF and old, previously painted, doors. Two further topcoats of Satinwood gives a finish that is “whiter” than the oil and (I’m assured) does not yellow anywhere near as quickly. It also becomes (after a few days) incredibly durable to knocks and is very easy to clean.

There are drawbacks: You have to work like lightning over the surface and make damned sure you have a good brushed-out finish in a relatively small area before moving on. There is no going back to “fix” runs and clumsy execution in the way you can readily do with oil-based paints. A foam roller works great on sills and smooth surfaces but you still can’t afford to hang about. If you leave a visible run or ridge for more than a few minutes, it becomes impossible to brush out. A careful inspection revealed a few “problematic” finishes that I would never have accepted from an oil-based paint. However skilled you are, I do not believe that it is possible to achieve the smooth surface finish, free of brush marks, which it is possible to get with oil. Even so, if you can adapt your technique in the ways that I suggest, I think that the results are very pleasing. When you look closely, the sills rolled with a fine foam roller give the orange-peel finish that I have heard described and fine brush marks are visible all over the finished woodwork. Even so, the finish is significantly “whiter” than an oil paint and I find the result very pleasing aesthetically, as long as you’re not expecting it to look like an oil-based paint.

Close-up of “Orange-Peel” surface finish on sill.

The corner of an outside door, from inside.  Gloss Weathershield on the external door and frame. Quick-Dry water-based skirting.  Both Brilliant White! (Please, no personal comments on the quality of the cutting-in.)

The corner of an outside door, from inside.

Gloss Weathershield on the external door and frame. Quick-Dry water-based skirting.

Both Brilliant White! (Please, no personal comments on the quality of the cutting-in.)

It is the ease and speed of cleaning up that clinches it for me. I have always been uneasy about the volume of unpleasant solvents that I get over my hands, and whose fumes I am forced to inhale, as well as the quantities that inevitably end up going into the drain. A faint smell of ammonia was the only environmental issue that I could detect and cleaning up was easy. I was also able to complete at least two coats effortlessly in a single day of painting, whereas with oil I have to allow a day between each coat.

In spite of the drawbacks, I would never go back to using oil-based paints again for internal paintwork. I will probably continue to use oil-based gloss for outside paintwork, but I may change my mind over that, too. Perhaps time for another systematic comparison?

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