Paint debate: oil vs. latex

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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.

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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: 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