Paint debate: oil vs. latex

10 steps to a quality paint job

Q: Is oil paint OK to use in the bathroom? Or is there another paint that is better? How long does it take to dry?

A: We think that while oil-based paint remains an excellent choice for bathrooms, today’s latex products are worthy of strong consideration, especially if you live in California.

When Kevin made his living as a painter in Alameda, Calif., he always used oil-based gloss enamel in kitchens and bathrooms. It’s more difficult to work with and costs more, but when applied properly, oil-based paint provides a durable, washable finish for these heavily used rooms.

Times have changed. When it comes to what goes into paint, California has some of the strictest laws in the nation. The goal of these laws, which on Jan. 1 got even tougher, is to prevent off-gassing of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

We’ll leave the environmental debate to others, but suffice it to say that most pre-2005 alkyd (oil-based) paint was formulated using solvents, oils and dryers that no longer comply with the new rules. Consequently, the oil-based paint you buy in California today is not the same rich, smooth-flowing, strong-smelling stuff that Kevin used in the 1980s.

During this time, acrylic latex (water-based) enamels were getting better and better. In fact, Bill believes today’s top-of-the line latex paints perform nearly as well as their oil-based counterparts. It’s a bonus that they cost less, are easier to apply, dry faster, and clean up with soap and water.

Kevin is not so easily convinced. He’s been carping for years about the "softness" of the latex finish on his kitchen cabinets and, as part of a larger remodel, will switch to an oil-based product formulated outside California.

So if Bill were to paint his bathroom in Walnut Creek, Calif., he would use semigloss acrylic latex. If Kevin were to paint his bathroom in Eagle, Idaho, his choice would be an "old style" gloss oil-based enamel, formulated outside California.

To help you make your decision, we suggest you visit a couple of paint stores that cater to the trade. We particularly recommend Kelly-Moore, Sherwin-Williams and Benjamin Moore. All three companies make excellent paint, and their salespeople will be very helpful.

Also spend some time on the Paint Quality Institute’s Web site: www.paintquality.com. There you will find everything you’ll ever want to know about paint.

Finally, paint is not a place to pinch pennies. Whether you go with oil or latex, buy top-of-the-line material. The extra dollars will be repaid in a uniform finish that hides better, cleans more easily and lasts much longer than bargain paint.

How to do the job

As with all paint jobs, preparation is key. Here are the steps to do a first-class job, no matter what type of paint you use: …CONTINUED

1. Clean the surfaces that will be painted. Wash the walls and wood with a solution of one cup of trisodium phosphate (TSP) to a gallon of warm water. Use a sponge and wear rubber gloves and eye protection. Rinse with clean water.

2. Use plastic sheeting and masking tape to cover the toilet, tile, tub and other surfaces that are not going to be painted. Put a drop cloth on the floor.

3. Patch cracks and fill holes. Spackle works well for small repairs. When the Spackle is dry, sand it smooth. Remove the dust with a damp cloth or tack rag.

4. Now it’s time to paint. Count on doing a two-coat job. The first coat should be a primer tinted a shade or two lighter than your finished color. Use a 2-inch trim brush to paint (or "cut in") the corners and to paint any trim. We like the angled type. Use a natural fiber (China bristle) brush for oil and a synthetic (polyester) brush for latex. For flat wall surfaces, use a 9-inch short-nap paint roller (mohair or lamb’s wool for oil, synthetic fiber for latex).

5. Paint the ceiling, then the walls, and finally the trim. Start by cutting in the corners where the wall meets the ceiling. Then roll the ceiling. Choose one wall and cut in the corners and roll out that wall. Repeat the process with the other walls. Paint the trim.

6. Let oil-based primer dry for a day. With latex, your wait is only about four hours. Whether using oil or latex, take care not to put too much paint on the wall at one time. If you do, the paint will sag and run. Go slow and put on a uniform finish coat.

7. Clean up oil-based paint with paint thinner. Use soap and water for latex. Clean your tools well so you can reuse them.

8. If you use oil-based paint, give the bathroom a couple of days to dry. After a few hours, the paint will be dry to the touch, but it will take days to completely cure. Latex will be good to go in six to eight hours.

9. Open a window for cross ventilation that will promote drying. Keep the door ajar and any cabinet doors and drawers open to prevent them from sticking.

10. Follow these steps and you’ll have a Cadillac job.

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