Painting furniture – Should I use latex or oil paint?

painting furniture - oil vs latex paint

I’m addressing this question because it comes up rather often from our customers.  “I’m painting a piece of furniture in my home.  What type of paint should I use?  Oil?  Latex?  What’s the difference and which is the right choice for my project?”  While this is not necessarily a difficult topic to cover, it is one which harbors tons of curiosity.  Search the web for “oil paint vs latex paint” and you’ll find tons of sites and posts but no real answers.  I’m hoping this will become the DeFacto reference for painting furniture and why you may choose oil paint or latex paint to complete your project.  Enjoy!


Painted Furniture?

Painted furniture has grown in popularity over the past few years.  With magazines like “Country Living” and “Flea Market Style” striking inspiration in the hearts of the most avid DIY’ers, there are a large number of beginner decorators with more questions than you can shake a stick at!  One of the most popular questions is “Should I paint my furniture with Oil based paint or Latex based paint?”.  The answer:  Yes.

How do I choose?

There are many factors to consider when choosing paint such as cost (oil paint is 4x more expensive than latex), availability (big box stores like Home Depot and Lowes don’t sell oil paint), and cleanup – oil paint must be cleaned up with solvents whereas latex paint can be washed up with warm water only.  Ultimately however, if you are serious about your project, the type of paint you use on your furniture depends on only two factors:  (1) What will the furniture be used for and (2) How long must it last?.  If you’re painting something that may very rarely get touched or have anything put on it, latex is an easy way out.  It will paint fast, clean up easily and look beautiful – not to mention the smell will not drive you from your home.  Good candidates for latex paint are end tables, shadow boxes, picture frames and stair railings.

What’s the difference?

Latex (water based) paint is sold everywhere.  Home Depot, Lowes, and all small hardware stores.  It costs around $20-$25 per gallon and can be mixed to any color.  Latex paint is inexpensive and dries fairly quickly.  Additionally, the odor of latex paint is mostly non-offensive to most.  Latex paint is found on almost every painted wall in the world – that’s due to its cost and versatility.  This paint has its drawbacks too.  The biggest drawback to latex paint when it comes to painting furniture is the fact that it never really cures solid.


Let’s talk about the curing process for a moment.  It will help if I first explain that paint, for the most part, consists of two things: (1) pigment (the color) and (2) a thinning agent to allow the color to flow – for latex paint, this is  water (which you would thin latex paint with) but for oil based paint, the thinning agent is some type of alkyd solvent.  Paint thinner or mineral spirits (the same thing) is necessary to thin this paint.)  “Curing” is a drying process of sorts.  When you paint something with wet paint, the paint flows as you brush or spray it.  Soon after, the thinning agent begins to evaporate and the paint begins to dry.  When paint dries, you can touch or re-coat it.  But, it should be known that paint is not completely dry until it is “cured”.  When paint is cured, it is completely dried – and hardened.  When dealing with latex or oil based paint, this curing process takes about 30 days.

It seems that latex paint like “Behr” sold from Home Depot never cures satisfactorily for most furniture applications.  It never gets really hard.  That’s why you can leave a mark in it with your finger nail.  No matter how long you leave late paint sit, it is always a little “soft”.  “Soft” isn’t good for furniture that is going to see serious use.  If you’ve got a piece of  furniture you want to paint and it’s going to get some serious use, you need oil based paint.  Oil based paint takes a while to cure, and it’s a pain in the butt to clean up but once it’s cured,  it’s the real deal.

Where latex paint sort of ‘bonds’ to the wood, oil based paint soaks into it.  Oil paint becomes a part of the wood.  This is why when you paint furniture with oil paint, not only do you not need to use a primer, you don’t have to worry about what is on the furniture currently.  Oil paint sticks to anything.  It penetrates wood, becomes one with other finishes, and covers shellac and old paint.  It’s not surprise at this point – I’m a huge fan of oil paint.  When we do a job for a customer who requests to have a piece of furniture painted, we only use oil paint.  The reason is because it will last a life time and we avoid callbacks because of this.  Oil paint will withstand just about anything you throw at it.  Where latex paint will become damaged from a wet glass, just overnight, oil paint remains impervious to this sort of everyday abuse.

So what now?

We use Sherwin Williams paint.  To be fair, we don’t have any sort of sponsorship with them, and, Benjamin Moore has oil paint that’s just as good.  I can’t recommend enough, the use of oil based paint for a project which will see a lot of use.  We typically use Sherwin Williams Pro-Classic Enamel.  You can brush, roll or spray this paint – all with a beautiful result.  If you are going to distress the furniture piece after painting, i recommend waiting a full month after painting with oil or latex paint.  The reason is because if the paint is not cured, when you sand it, it will behave like rubber and you won’t achieve a smooth,  feathered edge.

We paint furniture all the time and,  as a rule of thumb, we use oil paint 95% of the time.  The reason is because we can depend on it.  Yeah, it’s more trouble to clean up and yeah, it’s more expensive but the result is worth every moment and penny spent.  You can use either latex or oil paint on furniture but for a lifetime, trouble free finish, we use oil based paint and then finish it with paste wax.  This leaves a painted surface so strong, you could pour water on it and leave to dry.  That’s a finish that will please not only you,  but any customers you may paint for and everyone will be happy for the lifetime of the furniture piece and you’ll not have to worry about callbacks.

2 comments… add one

  • Nathan

    I just had to strip our kitchen set because the latex didn’t do a good job. I took it down to raw wood this time, which I think will help if I use the latex again. I want to use oil, but that’s adding a lot to the cost since I still have enough latex to do the job…but I’m worried about the yellowing that everyone says oil does after a couple years. How have you experienced this?

    • Mike

      I’m not aware of any yellowing from quality oil-based paints. Oil paint has been used for hundreds of years and it’s still just as wonderful as it ever was. What brand oil paint are you considering? Ben Moore makes a hybrid paint that is amazing – the best of latex and oil. This stuff cures like oil paint but otherwise, goes on like latex and the odor is much less. It’s called “waterborne” and is probably the most state of the art pigment coating available right now. You might want to call your local dealer and ask about it.

      I would not recommend Latex paint on anything except walls. Hope that helps!


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