Should You Use Oil-Based or Water-Based Paint On Wood?

I surveyed 52 professional decorators and asked them: should you use oil-based or water-based paint on wood? I then asked them to compare both oil-based and water-based characteristics. The result? 28 out of 52 (or 54%) of respondents claimed they preferred to use water-based paint.

With such a fine margin in the preferences of professional decorators, I decided to speak to paint merchants such as Brewers and Dulux Decorating Centre and it appears that they’re selling a significantly larger amount of water-based paint than oil-based over the past couple of years.

This suggests that whilst professional decorators are still split in their choices, DIYers have taken a preference for water-based paint on wood. So what should YOU use?

I’ve put together a handy comparison based on the comments from the professional decorators we surveyed and have also added my own input to help you decide.

With that being said, let’s jump into it.

Oil-Based or Water-Based Paint on Wood

It’s difficult to say whether you should use oil-based or water-based paint on wood, however, there are some key advantages and disadvantages of using both types – as noted by the respondents of our survey.

I made a list of things you should consider when weighing up your options and asked the 52 decorators to score the oil and water-based paint out of 10 in each category. I then took an average from the 52 respondents to give each type of paint an overall score out of 10.

Hopefully, the results will give you the information you need to purchase the right type of paint for your project.


With recent advancements in paint technology, water-based paint has certainly closed the gap to oil-based paint but the general consensus amongst professional decorators is that it’s not quite there yet.

And there is a scientific reason for this. Oil-based paint dries to an extremely hard-wearing finish due to a superior paint film thickness.

Water-based paint – 8/10

Oil-based paint – 9/10

Winner – Oil-based paint

Ease of Application

With high-quality paints such as Crown Fast Flow, Johnstone’s Aqua Guard and Scuff-X hitting the market in recent years, applying water-based paint to wood has never been easier. All have fantastic flow and are frankly superb for laying off. Painting wooden windowsills and skirting boards is a breeze.

But where water-based paint really shines is when painting interior wooden doors. The thickness of the paint is just about perfect which makes it much easier to avoid any paint build-up (or fat edges as it’s known) in intricate areas. Oil-based paint on the other hand is typically quite thick and more difficult to lay off to an even finish.

The caveat here is that the lower the budget you have, the more the scales tip in favour of applying oil-based paint but if you can afford trade standard paint then w/b paint is the way to go in terms of ease of application.

Water-based paint – 9/10

Oil-based paint – 8/10

Winner – Water-based paint

Coverage and Opacity

The technology for water-based paints is far superior nowadays than what it used to be and this category could’ve gone either way.

The general consensus amongst our respondents was that high-quality w/b paints such as Scuff-X and Aqua Guard typically cover wood and achieves full opacity in 2 coats and is on par with most o/b paints. The issue is that retail w/b paint almost always needs 3 or more coats to achieve full opacity on wood whereas both trade and retail o/b paints can easily cover wooden surfaces in 2 coats.

Solvent-based paints simply have more pigment than most water-based paints and thus cover better (in most cases).

Water-based paints don’t have the best opacity but notice how it covers and allows you to still see the grain detail in the wood. This was painted with Johnstone’s Aqua Guard in a satin finish.

Water-based paint – 9/10

Oil-based paint – 10/10

Winner – Oil-based paint

Impact on the Environment and Odour

There is no question which paint wins here. With one paint using water and the other using oil, it’s clear that the paint that has the least impact on the environment and the leas odour is water-based.

The two paints dry through evaporation (water-based) and chemical reaction (oil-based). Whilst water-based paint doesn’t give off any harmful chemicals when drying, oil-based paint releases volatile organic compounds into the air which is why, if using indoors, you’ll need to ensure the area is adequately ventilated before, during and after application.

When it comes to application outdoors, oil-based paints are perfectly safe.

Water-based paint – 10/10

Oil-based paint – 5/10

Winner – Water-based paint

Wood Protection

As mentioned above, oil-based paints dry to a harder finish than water-based paints and whilst this isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker if you’re painting interior wood, it can be extremely useful when painting exterior wood.

The UK is renowned for having terrible weather and a good quality solvent-based paint can go some way to protecting exterior wood.

Having said that, water-based paints can be highly protective of exterior wood as they’re flexible enough to allow the wood to naturally absorb and release moisture.

Water-based paint – 9/10

Oil-based paint – 10/10

Winner – Oil-based paint


This was a tough category to score on the basis that oil-based paint can look incredible, especially if a gloss has been used on wood. The sheen is unmatched, even when using high-end water-based products.

So with that in mind, why does water-based paint win this category? Simply put, oil-based paint yellows over time and these days the time it takes to yellow has sped up considerably.

An example of yellowed oil-based gloss. Not exactly appealing is it?

Oil-based white gloss goes yellow because of the drying oil found within the paint. This drying oil speeds up the process of yellowing considerably and has been used more and more since EU regulations regarding high VOCs came into effect in 2010.

With next to no volatile organic compounds, water-based gloss paint isn’t prone to yellowing so you can apply it to wood without having to worry about redecorating within a short period of time.

Water-based paint – 9/10

Oil-based paint – 8/10

Winner – Water-based paint

Drying Time

Without question, water-based paint has a much better drying time than oil-based. This is ideal if you have lots of wood to paint and not a lot of time to paint it in!

So what makes water-based paint superior in this category? With only 3 elements involved in their makeup (thinner, binder, and pigment), this type of paint forms a hard paint film when the thinner (in this case water) evaporates. Water, of course, evaporates rapidly, allowing the paint to dry within a few hours.

Oil-based on the other hand, despite having a drier added to its composition, must go through a chemical reaction in order to dry. This typically means you won’t be able to recoat it for a day or so.

Water-based paint – 10/10

Oil-based paint – 7/10

Winner – Water-based paint

So Should You Use Oil or Water-Based Paint on Wood?

In general, the rule of thumb is to use the more durable oil-based paint on exterior wood and the non-yellowing water-based paint on interior wood. This is what all decorators are taught when starting out in the trade.

Of course, it’s worth bearing in mind that the actual quality of both types of paint will have an impact on overall performance and aesthetics. We’ll cover the best oil and water-based paint for wood below.

Page 110 for indoor vs exterior

Final average scores:

Water-based paint – 9/10

Oil-based paint – 8/10

Best Oil-Based Paint for Wood

With a near endless choice when it comes to oil-based paints for wood, I’m going to list some of my recommendations based on years of experience trying and tested different brands.

I’ve broken them down into the 3 sheen levels they come in – eggshell, satinwood and gloss.

  • Eggshell – Jonestone’s Trade Eggshell. A great eggshell that doesn’t stay tacky and is the perfect sheen level. I’ve tried many oil-based glosses over the years and frequently have issues with the sheen being too high for an eggshell finish.
  • Satinwood – Dulux Trade Satinwood. This self-undercoating satinwood paint is as good as it gets. A perfect mixture of sheen and wood protection and most importantly doesn’t yellow after 6 months like most of the others!
  • Gloss – Crown Next Generation. Oil-based gloss gives a stunning finish and this one from Crown Trade is the most aesthetically pleasing one I’ve ever used.

Best Water-Based Paint for Wood

  • Eggshell – Scuff-X. This eggshell is self-levelling, ultra-durable, stain and scuff resistant and is perfect for use on woodwork that is going to take a bit of a bashing (such as in the hallway).
  • Satinwood – Johnstone’s Aqua Guard. No question here – not even the ridiculously expensive Scuff-X is as good as Johnstone’s Aqua Guard! The opacity is fantastic (I covered a black undercoat in just 2 coats when testing) and it is so easy to apply that it allows me to get through some jobs in under a day.
  • Gloss – Teknos Futura. This water-based gloss stays white and is very quick drying. It gives a lovely glossy finish but it’s worth bearing in mind that you should wash out your brushes every now and again as most water-based glosses can damage the bristles if used for a prolonged period of time.