Oil-Based Vs. Water-Based Paint: One Rule Painters Never Break

People are starting to move away from oil

can I put acrylic or latex paint on oil paint? oil-based vs. water-based paint

Many people attempt to cover up oil-painted surfaces by painting water-based paints directly on top, totally unaware of the mess that is guaranteed to follow. In the battle of oil-based vs. water-based paint, oil is a rival that will show no mercy.

Because of the harmful VOCs emitted from oil-based paints, the awful smell that can lead to headaches, or the way oil yellows drastically over time, so many people are looking to switch their oil-painted surfaces to water-based (acrylic/latex) paints. But there is so much more to the process than just switching one paint for the other.

Let’s just spoil the ending now, it’s that important – you should never cover oil with waterborne paint. Now, let’s get you equipped with the correct tools to defeat this oil-based beast.

Why you absolutely cannot put water-based paint on top of oil

Is it okay to put acrylic or latex paint on oil paint?

This water and oil rule is really important. In all the time we’ve been in business, we have seen this mistake made over and over. A client takes their trim, cabinetry, or doors that were previously painted with oil-based paint, and they cover it with an acrylic or latex (water-based) paint they picked up themselves. Then they call us because, within a few days, this happens:

The disastrous effects of oil-based vs. water-based paint

Can I put acrylic or latex paint on oil paint?

Because oil and water don’t mix, when you apply any water-based paint over oil-based surfaces, you’re always going to get this cracked and peeling paint. Sometimes it’ll show up as a rubbery texture that you can pull off in strips, other times it’ll crack and flake. This is because water-based paint cannot bond with oil, so as it dries, it begins to separate and pull away from the original paint. After putting in all the time, effort, and money, this result can be so disheartening and leave you feeling super confused. All that work, only to create more work.

How do you fix peeling water-based paint?


Is it okay to put acrylic or latex paint on oil paint?

When this happens, either at the hands of the homeowners or through the misstep of inexperienced painters, we’re often called on to troubleshoot. We come in and strip down all of that mess, sand, and clean up.

Now, if the client decided they’d like to stick with oil-based paint but just want to freshen up, then we’ll start fresh with oil-based paint to give them a smooth, hard finish that won’t flake, peel, or chip.

In many cases, clients decide they want to completely rid their home of oil-based paint, so we’ll apply an oil-based primer first and then come back and paint with a water-based paint, like Sherwin Williams ProClassic Waterborne Acrylic Latex Enamel. Acrylic and Latex are both indicators of a water-base in this context, are faster drying, have less odor, and age at a much slower rate than oil.

Rules when it comes to oil-based and water-based paint vs. primers

can acrylic latex paint be used over oil based paint?

Now that you see why you absolutely cannot use water-based paint on top of what was previously painted with oil, let’s take our knowledge to the next level. This rule gets a little tricky because of how water-based primers and oil-based primers work. Let’s break it down.


You cannot use water-based paint on top of oil-based paint.

You can use oil-based paint on top of water-based paint.


You can use a water-based primer on top of an oil-based primer.

You can use an oil-based primer on top of a water-based primer.

Primer on paint

You cannot use a water-based primer on oil-based paint*

You can use oil-based primer on water-based paint.

*There are a few specialty water-based primers that you’d be able to use on top of oil-based paint, but generally you can’t.

Therefore, the oil-based primer is what we use as a bridge for transitioning from oil-based paint to using water-based paint. From then on, anytime you repaint, you’ll be able to use water-based paint every time, without the bridge.

Do not skip this step when working with oil-based paint!

can acrylic latex paint be used over oil based paint?

Sometimes people move into a house and don’t know what kind of paint was left on the woodwork by the previous owners, so when they go to paint, they may just assume it’s water-based and run into trouble. We’ve seen this mistake happen with homeowners and professional painters alike. To avoid this issue, we recommend first running this simple spot test to see if you’re going to be painting on top of an oil or water-based paint.

How to test if your surfaces have oil-based paint or water-based paint on them

can acrylic latex paint be used over oil based paint?

Pick a spot on the surface you want to paint, dip a cotton ball or rag in some rubbing alcohol (acetone works too), and rub it on. If the old paint comes off easily onto the cotton ball or softens up, then that paint is a water-based paint. If the paint didn’t budge, it’s oil-based.

TLDR: remember this when you go to cover up your oil-based paint


We are going so hard on this topic because there are huge consequences if you ignore these facts!

It can take anywhere from many hours to days and days of work to fix this mistake, depending on how many areas you painted.

So, if you have an oil-based paint that you need to be covered up, you have two options:

Option 1: First, cover the surface with an oil-based primer, let it dry, then paint with a water-based paint.

Option 2: Use urethane paint. This is an option we didn’t include in this post because it takes a lot of sanding and meticulous preparation that, if rushed through, will lead to the same issues you’d get if you’d put water over oil.

We’ll cover this option in a future post, but for now, we say hire a professional if you want to pursue this route.

Check your adhesion before doing the whole job 

A way to save yourself some more time and energy is is to scuff-sand one spot and apply your new paint to that spot. Wait 24 hours and scratch at it with your fingernail. If it comes off, you either need to apply an oil-based primer or switch to oil-based paint because that paint isn’t going to bond otherwise.  

Are you ready to change out your old paint?


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