When Should I Use Oil-Based Primer vs. Water-Based Primer?

Oil based Primer vs Water based primer

Have you ever wondered if you should use oil-based or water-based paint primer? In this article, I will go over the important differences between these two primers. 

Oil-based primer is typically used for projects that require a tight seal. Water-based primer works well for indoor areas that are less likely to contact water. Oil-based paint off-gases more VOCs than water-based paint, making oil-based less idea for indoor use. 

In the past, water-based primers were thought to be less robust than oil-based primers. However, water-based primers have improved over the years. 

Below, I’ll share some general guidelines when choosing between oil and water-based paint. Know that there is no substitute for researching your specific brand and type of primer

Let’s jump in. 

Differences Between Oil and Water-based Primer 

We begin with a list of differences between oil and water-based paint.

Here are some of the differences: 

  • Water-based primer is easier to clean up. A water-base means that you can clean the primer with water. This eliminates the need to have special solutions on hand. 
  • Water-based primer typically dries faster than an oil-based primer. However, this can vary based on the brand and type. 
  • Oil-based primer is better to apply to wood. The oil seals the grains of the wood and prevents the paint from bubbling due to water damage. 
  • Oil-based paint releases a higher number of Volatile organic compounds (VOCs). This means that oil-based primer isn’t the first choice for indoor use, as the VOCs can be harmful when inhale routinely. 

Now, let’s talk more about the specifics of each of these paints.  

What is Oil-Based Paint Primer? 

Oil-based primer means that the base of the primer is oil. This primer can be used in combination with oil-based paint. 

Oil-based primer is better at sealing in stains and tannins. So, if you have a nasty smoke stain or smell that you’d like to cover, oil-based primer is ideal. 


Well, the oil-based primer seals to a harder texture than a water-based primer. As a result, it does a better job of locking everything into place and preventing moisture and humidity from damaging the primer. 

In the next section, we discuss the best times to use an oil-based primer. 

When Should I Use Oil-Based Paint Primer? 

While oil-based primer does have some downsides, there are several instances where it is still the best option. 

Here is a list of times to use oil-based primer: 

  1. On fresh wood 
  2. To seal stains
  3. When using oil-based paint 

Let’s explore these in more depth. 

Oil-based Primer on Fresh Wood 

It’s hard to buy perfectly dry wood. While this isn’t a huge issue for most projects, it can affect the type of primer you use. 

If you use water-based primer on fresh wood, the moisture in the wood will still try to evaporate. As the water evaporates, it will push through the water-based primer, causing flaking and peeling. 

For this reason, many suggest using oil-based primer on fresh wood, as it tends to have more resistance to the effects of water. 

Sealing a Stain with Oil-based Primer 

Like sealing the wood, an oil-based primer does a good job of sealing stains on a wall. While water-based primer can seal a stain, it may take more coats.

Oil-based primer is a popular choice when painting over old smoke stains. Unlike water-based primer, where the smoky smell can still penetrate, an oil-based primer will help cover up the smell. 

Using Oil-based Paint with Oil-Based Primer 

Finally, you may want to use oil-based paint when using oil-based primer. Though you can use water-based paint over oil-based primer, you may want to stay consistent and use a similar paint and primer. 

In some instances, using the same base for primer and paint will be advantageous – especially in outdoor projects, where you need a strong seal.

In the next section, we discuss how to use and apply oil-based primer. 

How Do I Use Oil-Based Paint Primer? 

Now, let’s talk about some guidelines for using oil-based primers. 

Here are several steps to using oil-based primer:

  1. Remember to protect yourself – oil-based products have stronger fumes than water-based. Make sure you have good ventilation when handling oil-based paint. 
  2. Be prepared for clean up – if you accidentally spill oil-based primer, it’s not as easy to clean, so be sure to have some mineral spirits on hand to clean up spills.
  3. Prepare the surface – sand old flaking paint, and be sure your surface is ready for the primer. If you apply primer over a surface that isn’t ready, you’ll end up working against yourself. 
  4. Stir your primer – like paint, primer usually needs to be stirred before it is applied. 
  5. Apply the primer – multiple thin coats are better than one thick coat. Take your time and do the job correctly the first time. 

Always read the instructions on your primer. You don’t want to mess this up! Each primer can be different. 

Now, let’s discuss water-based primer.

What is Water-based Paint Primer? 

Water-based primer is used to prime a surface before painting. Primer helps the main coat of paint bind and creates a smoother, cleaner finish. 

As the name implies, water-based primer is made with water. This also means that you can clean the primer with water. 

Water-based primer is also known as latex primer. Any time you hear the term latex with paint or primer, it usually refers to being water-based. Oddly, there is no real latex used in latex paints and primers. 

Water-based primers are often chosen because they are easier to clean and release fewer VOCs. You don’t need to worry about as many harmful chemicals when using water-based primer. 

In the next section, I discuss the best times to use water-based primer.

When Should I Use Water-Based Primers? 

In recent times, the water-based primer has become more and more useful for a host of projects. Modern engineering has made it possible to have water-based paint while still providing the benefits of oil-based paint. 

Not all water-based primers are created equal. Some are cheaper than others, and they don’t all share the same level of quality. Be sure to do your research about the best water-based primer for your project. 

Water-based primer is great for everything indoors, furniture, walls, toys; water-based primer can do it all! In the next section, we’ll explore this idea in more depth. 

Indoor Projects for Water-based Primer 

For anything indoors, water-based primer is the go-to choice. The mild fumes and the fast drying time make water-based paint popular. 

When you’re painting indoors, there is a high likelihood that something will come into contact with that painted surface: pets, children, these things will inevitably contact the paint and primer.

Water-based primer will dry relatively fast, ensuring nothing messes up the surface before you have time to finish the job. 

The second reason water-based paint is used indoors is due to low VOCs. Creating a peaceful home is all about fostering a safe environment. Knowing your family is at decreased risk of exposure to dangerous chemicals makes water-based primer a great choice. 

Now, let’s talk about how to apply a water-based primer. 

How Do I Use Water-Based Paint? 

In this section, I’ll share some general guidelines for applying water-based primers. Remember to research your specific type of primer, as each brand will have a little different process. 

Here is how you use water-based primer: 

  1. Safety – though water-based primer is safer, it still can have some harmful effects. You don’t want to get it in your mouth or eyes. Prepare your area with good ventilation, and wear a mask and eye protection. 
  2. Prepare your surface – like oil-based primer, you still need to ensure your surface is ready. Clear off any old paint and try to sand the surface as flat as you can. 
  3. Stir your primer – some people think you don’t need to stir primer. This is not the case. Be sure to stir it like you would a can of paint. Sometimes, you should thin the primer with water, depending on how many coats you need to apply and your surface texture. 
  4. Apply the primer – using a brush or roller, apply the primer to your surface. Don’t just slop it on. If anything, you should be just as careful as applying a finishing coat of paint. 
  5. Apply another coat – if you have a lot of stains or you’re trying to paint a rougher surface, apply several thin coats of primer. 

Remember, priming and painting are important. Many people think of painting as a hassle, and they don’t dedicate the time it deserves. A well-painted wall, fence, or furniture can raise the value of your home.

Note: Generally, you can use water-based paint over oil-based primer; however, you shouldn’t routinely use oil-based paint over a water-based primer. 


A well-painted wall, fence, or furniture can raise the value of your home. Water-based and oil-based paint both have their advantages. Many people enjoy the fast drying, low fumes of water-based paint. 

However, there are times when you may need the sealing power of oil-based paint. 

Either way, do your research, take your time, and have fun! 

Frequently Asked Questions

When do you use an oil-based primer?

Oil-based primers are ideal for high-traffic areas or surfaces that are more likely to become dirty or grimy over time. They create a durable barrier that will help to protect your paint job and make it last longer.

When do you use a water-based primer?

Water-based primers are typically used on surfaces that don’t need as much durability, such as walls that aren’t likely to get dirty or scuffed. They’re also a good choice for painting over existing paint jobs, since they won’t react with the old paint the way an oil-based primer would.

What are the benefits of using an oil-based primer?

Oil-based primers create a very strong barrier between the surface and the paint, making it ideal for high-traffic areas or surfaces that are likely to become dirty over time. They also tend to be more resistant to mildew and mold growth.

Are there any drawbacks to using an oil-based primer?

One of the main drawbacks of using an oil-based primer is that it can be tricky to apply evenly. It’s also important to note that oil-based primers are not recommended for use on surfaces that have already been painted with a water-based paint, as the two can react together and cause problems.