There are few sights more satisfying for a decorator (and their customers) than a newly decorated room, the ceiling looking clean and flawless, the walls nice and smooth and perfectly coated in their new colour, and all the woodwork crisp and perfectly white.
And there’s probably nothing more disheartening than finding out a year later that all the woodwork has turned from a perfect white to a creamy yellow! It’s particularly noticeable if the surrounding walls are all white (and have stayed white), providing a very noticeable contrast!
So why does this happen, what can be done to reduce the chances of it happening (or slow down the process), and which paints stay white the longest?
In this blog, I’m going to talk through all the factors, and then give you a few product recommendations (white paint that performs well and will never turn yellow)
Why Do Some White Woodwork Paints Turn Yellow?
There are actually a couple of factors that contribute to the yellowing of certain paints, the first being the type of paint, and the second being the environment/location where the problem is occurring.
Types of Paint for Woodwork
Assuming we are looking at painting our woodwork solid white, rather than staining/oiling/varnishing it, the options fall into three general types of paint:
Oil-based (sometimes referred to as solvent-based) paints.
These have been around for many years, and have always had a bit of a tendency to yellow with age, but this tendency seems to have become much worse in my experience since about 2010. This is when all the manufacturers reformulated these paints to reduce the levels of VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) for environmental reasons.
Whatever they did in the reformulation process seems to have made the yellowing worse as a side effect, so they don’t stay white for very long. Please excuse my non-technical attempt at an explanation – I was the worst kid in the class at chemistry at school, so I may have got this wrong, but I’m going to attempt to explain why white oil-based paints turn yellow. (Actually, from a chemical perspective I assume that all oil-based paints and varnishes must discolour to some extent for the same reasons, but the effect is really only noticeable on white). What happens is that compounds within the paint oxidise (i.e. react with the oxygen in the air), and one of the side effects of this reaction over time is the change in colour.
Water-based paints for woodwork have grown enormously in popularity in recent years, for a number of reasons:
- There have been huge improvements in their quality
- They are non-yellowing, so whites stay looking good for longer
- They have quicker drying times than oil-based products, and are lower odour
- Environmental issues – much lower VOC level than oil-based
- Brushes can be cleaned in water rather than white spirit
So, water-based paints are quite simply the way to go if you want your white paint to stay wite for longer.
Hybrids, which are kind of a midway between the two.
Generally, these are water-based, but contain small amounts of oils or alkyds, often to help create a brushmark-free finish.
It’s not always easy to know if a paint is a true water-based product or a hybrid – they’re not advertised as “hybrids”, but they tend to use terms such as “quick drying” rather than overtly describing themselves as being water-based. Some are better than others. Generally speaking, hybrid paints will stay white for longer than oil-based, but not as long as water-based.
However, I could name some that yellow almost as fast as oil-based paints, and others that seem to stay white for ever, so it is a bit of trial and error, especially as all the manufacturers are constantly trying to improve their water-based and hybrid products, as the market moves away from oil-based.
So of the three main types of paint, oil-based will stay white the least amount of time, water-based paints will always stay white, and hybrids are somewhere in the middle. Interestingly, the sheen level of the paint seems to influence how quickly (or how much) the paint will yellow – high gloss oil-based finishes are the worst offenders, whereas lower sheen-level finishes such as satin and eggshell seem to yellow less.
Environmental Issues Which Lead to Discolouring of White Paint
The presence (or absence) of strong lighting (either natural sunlight or artificial light) has a significant impact on the speed at which white paint will discolour. This can be easily proven in a room that has been painted with oil-based paint; simply remove an item of furniture that has stood close to a wall for a long time, and you will see that the skirting board behind is less white than the paint on either side.
Or look at the back of the airing cupboard door, which typically gets virtually no light – it’s bound to be yellow if it was painted with oil-based paint last time. This also explains in part why many decorators (myself included) continue to use oil-based gloss for outside work (where there is plenty of natural sunlight), even when we have switched over to water-based paints for indoor work.
What Can Be Done To Keep White Woodwork Paint Looking White for Longer
If your white woodwork is showing a tendency to turn yellow, in order to keep it looking white for longer you will need to stop (or slow down) that oxidisation process described above. There are three ways to do this:
- Increase the amount of light in the room (not always possible or practical)
- Repaint the woodwork with a lower sheen paint (especially if it is currently gloss)
- Repaint the woodwork with a water-based product (or ideally, repaint the woodwork with a lower sheen, water-based product).
It’s therefore no surprise that there have been big changes in the paints that decorators choose to use on internal woodwork in recent years. In recent online polls, the majority of professional decorators said that they now use exclusively or mostly water-based products, with water-based satin being the most frequently chosen paint for white woodwork (indoors); fifteen years ago I’m sure oil-based gloss would have been the favourite. So the whole industry appears to be moving to lower sheen, water-based products for white woodwork. The move from gloss to satin (and to a lesser extent eggshell) is undoubtedly partly a fashion thing as well as a practical one, but the move from oil- to water-based is mostly because white water-based paint stays white.
How Can You Tell If Existing Paint Is Oil-Based?
If you’re not sure if your existing paintwork is oil- or water-based, fortunately there’s an easy trick to find out the answer, and as with most things decorating related, it involves alcohol! Simply pour a little methylated spirits (or rubbing alcohol, or acetone) onto a cloth and give a patch of the surface that you want to paint a good wipe with it. If some of the existing paint wipes off, it’s water-based; if none of it comes off, it’s oil-based.
So, the simple answer is that water-based paint will stay white for longest. The good news is that it is possible to paint over old oil-based paints with water-based ones, but it is important to follow the correct procedure, or the paint will fail and peel off – read how to paint over oil-based paint with water-based here. And the even better news is that once you’ve done it, your woodwork should stay looking pristine white for many years to come.
The Best Paint Products That Stay White
As already mentioned, true water-based paints will not turn yellow. Water-based technology has come a long way in recent years, but you still need to choose a good product. Otherwise, the finish and durability of your paintwork will let you down. For that reason, I thought I’d recommend a few products.
This satinwood will never discolour and is very easy to use. It’s a proper Pure Brilliant White too, which looks fantastic once it’s on. Oh, and it’s reasonably priced!!
WRX Satinwood is durable and will adhere to old oil-based coatings without the need for an adhesion primer. The only issue I have found is it crazes over caulk, so prime caulk and filler before going on with the satinwood.
Benjamin Moore Scuff X Ultra Spec Satin
This is a premium option, so expect to pay more for it, but the quality is exceptional. It’s easy to use, durable, goes for miles and looks amazing. You can’t buy Scuff x in Pure Brilliant White, but it is available in various ‘off whites’. If you don’t mind paying a little bit more for quality paint, then this is the one you should go for.
Teknos Futura Aqua 90
Futura Aqua is a hybrid product, so it won’t stay white forever, but it will last a lot longer than any oil-based gloss paint. I’m yet to find a good fully water-based gloss, which is why I’m recommending a hybrid.
You must use Teknos Futura primer before applying the topcoat. You’ll find this system easy to use, has a great sheen level, is very durable and looks fantastic.