Refinishing with Oil Based Primer & Paint

By Kate Riley October 24, 2009

Over the course of our remodel, we hired a dear friend Mike to handle some of the larger painting projects.  Mike is a professional painter with 20 years experience, and a wealth of information when it comes to choosing paint products.  Mike has taught me a lot about painting, and is always available when I have questions about what products I should use.

So when I picked up a buffet and hutch back in August at the local St. Vincent de Paul thrift store, I knew I wanted to give it a fresh coat of white paint.  Most of the time, when I’m brushing or rolling paint on walls or furniture, I choose latex for its quick drying time and easy cleanup.  For this hutch, I wanted a paint job that was extremely durable with a very hard shell glossy finish.  Oil based primer and paint was the answer.

Here’s the Before and After:

hutch b and a

When choosing primer, it’s easy to get lost in the sea of available products out there.  I’ve used most of them, oil and water based, and in both spray and brush application.


Choosing the right primer really depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.

For stain blocking or bonding to a non-sanded surface, oil will cover better than latex.  I’ve learned that porous surfaces like raw wood soak up an oil based primer much better than a water based primer.  Oil based primers will resist shrinkage over time.  Most spray primers are oil based, so I’ve often chosen the spray version for quick application.

However, water based primers have come a long way, and can often do what oils can do.  Zinsser’s Bulls Eye in the blue can is very good at doing what its oil based partner does:  sticking to glossy surfaces, stain blocking, and inhibiting rust.  And the water based formula cleans up with water, which is a big advantage in my book.  Cleaning up oil based brush on products is a hassle – it requires the use of mineral spirits or paint thinner.  The best advice I can give in choosing a primer is to simply take the time to read the back of the product you’re considering and ask a lot of questions.

For my buffet and hutch, I knew I would be finishing in oil based paint, so that requires an oil based primer.  Note, you can use latex paint over oil primer, but the reverse is not a good idea.  Most paint professionals will tell you it is not advisable to use oil based paint over water based primer.   I chose to use my favorite bonding and sealing primer: Zinsser’s oil based in the brown can.  (Zinsser has not paid me to say this.  I’ve used this product over the years with great satisfaction so I’m a big fan.)  Note that primers are always tintable, so if your final paint color will be a medium to dark shade, you can always have your paint department tint the primer gray or brown.

primer and brush

Tip for Lessening Brush Strokes: When it’s time to paint, one of my biggest frustrations is when the paint starts to dry too fast and starts to drag on the surface.  Visible brush strokes are maddening.   So here’s the big secret I’ve picked up from my professional painter friend Mike. When applying an oil based primer or paint, the best thing you can do to increase paint adhesion and eliminate brush strokes is to invest in an additive called Penetrol.  It’s like conditioner for paint.  When you mix a few tablespoons of this product into your paint, it extends your working time and creates better flow across your painted surface, greatly decreasing your brush strokes.  This product really helps achieve a smooth glossy surface, which is especially important when refinishing furniture.

Penetrol is only for oil based primer and paint.  You can find a similar product for latex paint called Flotrol.

Be gone vile brush strokes – Penetrol to the rescue !

penetrol additive

Why did this project take me a month to finish?  The hutch was really challenging because the side glass panels could not be removed, so I was twisting and turning in all sorts of awkward ways to try to get my primer and two coats of paint applied inside the cabinet and on the shelves.  Since oil take forevah to dry (well more like 24 to 36 hours), I did the primer one week, the first coat of paint the second week, entertained family the third week, and applied the second coat of paint the fourth week.  Then it had to dry and I had to muscle it into my house and up a flight of stairs.  Whew  !

Here’s one final observation.  When painting next to glass panels, I’ve decided not to bother with painter’s tape anymore.  I used tape on the outside panels, but not the inside and I’ve come to this conclusion:  It’s so much easier and cleaner to be old school and use a razor blade to scrape off paint.  And after a month of painter’s tape and a few layers of primer and paint, the tape did NOT come off clean despite all of my efforts.

razor blade

But if you use a blade, PLEASE don’t do what I did and hack at it with a small blade.   Please do as I say, and NOT as I do.  I have a tool that I couldn’t find that has a blade on the end of a very sturdy handle.  Thank goodness I didn’t injure myself with just this little ol’ rusty blade !

I bought this cabinet not for any dining space, but to house my stepdaughter’s collectibles in her bedroom.  Sadly, the lass is off to college next year, so I’m trying to swankify a space that’s looked too tween for a little too long.  For her final year at home, we are upgrading her room to a more ladylike space with a romantic cottage feel.  This cabinet suits our needs perfectly.  Since it will eventually be a guest room (** sigh sniffle **) it needs to be more adult like.  Plus I love the idea of her having a special place to keep her childhood memories behind glass.

Years ago, we chose a color for her walls that in my humble opinion is a watered down version of Tiffany Blue.  My girl loves turquoise and white, so we painted her walls ‘Blue Green Gem’ by Kelly Moore.  I applied the same paint color to the back of the hutch.

tiffany color comparison

From left to right:  ‘Blue Green Gem’, the Tiffany Box, and the Tiffany Blue color.  Paint swatch images by My Perfect Color, Tiffany Box image from Flickr.

Here’s the final buffet and hutch in her room.

buffet hutch final

Some Before and After shots:

hutch b and a

hutch before 2

Ooooh that glossy shine.  It’s worth all the trouble for a piece as pretty as this.

oil based paint finish

oil based semil gloss

inside b and a

leg before and after

Her room will be finished after a few more upgrades and DIY projects.  Look for them in the upcoming weeks.

The debate goes on between the use of oil based versus latex paint.  There are several helpful articles online.  This one from Home Additions Plus weighing the pros and cons.  EHow has another brief article on advantages and disadvantages.  For a great blog post on latex versus oil, visit Jenny at  Little Green Notebook for her smart observations.

What are your experiences with priming and painting furniture?  Got any tips to share?  Let’s discuss !


  1. Kate, that is a gorgeous finish. I’m too lazy to use oil based paint & pretty much refuse to do it, so latex for me. My sister followed some directions from someone at the big box stores & primed her beautiful pine hutch with oil-based primer and then painted it black with a latex AND the black is now coming off. Can’t figure out why that happened, but it did. I would have told her to just use a regular latex primer and paint with latex. But, now she’s going to have to deal with chipping paint on top of the primer. I’ve never had a problem with my latex chipping off either, but your finish definitely looks PRO!

  2. We just moved to Indiana and we have the St. Vincent de Paul thrift stores here too. I’m wondering if it’s a chain or if you live near me. Hmmm….if you live near me maybe that’s why I haven’t been able to find some of the things I’m looking for in the thrift stores – you’re getting them first! ha! =) I’ve actually been looking for a hutch like that. You did good!

  3. GORGEOUS GORGEOUS GORGEOUS!! Thanks for the tutorial on primer/paint. I always go for the latex b/c it’s easy but i can see that oil based gives you the “pro” finish.

    The new white color really brings out the details, esp. those lovely provencal legs. And I LOVE your take on the Tiffany blue!

  4. Wow! What a great tutorial! Thanks for all the extra details. I know I have lots of furniture refinishing in my future, so this will be very helpful. I actually refinished two nightstands, a vanity, and a bookshelf two summers ago which you can see here: I didn’t know all of these tips, however, and definitely had to learn on my own. It’s definitely something I enjoy doing, though, and love to see how others can transform things with paint into something spectacular (like your hutch). I bet the room is going to look incredible – I can’t wait for the reveal!

  5. The hutch is absolutely gorgeous. I love it painted white with the beautiful blue inside. Thanks for the great information also. It really helps to have some professional tips. Thank you also for the gracious comments you always leave on my blog. I so appreciate your visits. Hugs, Marty

  6. I love everything you do! I am subscribed to you in my google reader, but for some reason, your’s is the only one that shows just a paragraph of each of your posts… do you know why? I love your blog but its a pain to have to switch over from my reader for each post! Love the hutch!!

  7. Beautiful. Thank you for all the tips, but I have a question regarding brush strokes. Can’t you just paint with a roller? I have been using small foam rollers for furniture and the finish looks great. No brush strokes, even pain and a smooth finish. Either latex or oil based work for me, but I would never use a brush; I just wouldn’t know how to use it properly.

    Is there an advantage to using a brush?

    I love your blog, BTW!


  8. I love how it turned out! I am also a fan of Zinsser primer (waterbased) and have used it constantly in my quest to rid our house of all of the honey oak trim and cabinets. Another paint I love is the Ace brand cabinet door and trim paint. It is self-leveling and gives that shell hard look of an oil with the ease a water-based. It is also cheap which makes it even better. I can’t see what you do next!

  9. Thank you so much for this post! Just last week as I was working on my bookcase, I was told by the paint merchandiser at Home Depot that “only old people use oil-based paint.” I disagreed, but by the end he talked me out of using a gallon of the perfect grey that I found on the oops rack. I normally use Kilz, but I think I’m going to try the Zinsser next time. I just bought a sideboard to refinsh today and am debating between oil, latex, or the red spray paint that Jenny @ LGN used. I do have one more question though–I tend to like furniture very glossy, so would you put a polyurethane on top of the oil, or does it come out glossy enough without? Thanks again so much for your thoughts.

  10. What a great piece for her room! All that storage is great, too. I think the downside to using oil {besides the cleaning up afterward} is the drying time. How is it on smell? Can you get oil in a low VOC? I don’t know alot about it firsthand, having always used latex paint.

  11. It looks great! Thanks for the tutorial. I have always been afraid of the oil-based stuff, but I need to start trying new things. Thanks again!

  12. WOW!
    I have got to say that you have done one heck of a great job!
    I love the result, love, love and love…..
    I knew most of what you wrote about oil based paint,
    and have a painter friend too, but just reading your post makes me want to
    break out the drop clothes, and put on my grunge clothes…
    thank you for the peak!

  13. Kate, I love your new piece and finish….. It looks absolutely beautiful. My mama has been rehabbing furniture for about 50 years and SWEARS by oil based primers and paints. In fact, she’s gasped at me many a time for sticking with latex. It just seems like so much TROUBLE to use oil based products. Your piece was worth it though…. I’m in the middle of refinishing a hutch myself. I have the base coat on and am doing the accent color and a light glaze tomorrow…. It was a lucky find. It’s an exact replica of the one my mama has had all of my life except it’s a little bit smaller version. I think she went home and cried in her pillow when I told her I was painting it with latex… ;) Great job as usual!

  14. Hi Izzy, great question. Yep, a roller works wonders and is faster! You’ll notice there are a lot of fine details on this piece that a roller wouldn’t cover. That requires an angled brush. So I took my time with the brush and didn’t bother with a roller this time because I didn’t want to have to clean it up. That’s part of the reason it took me so long to finish – I stuck with just one brush! The Penetrol really minimized the brush strokes so I’m pretty pleased. Also, I used a really high quality brush on this buffet & hutch.

  15. Thanks for the tip about the paint streaks. Not that I’d ever have the patience to try it, but if I do that is good to know!

  16. Nice post. I agree with it all. I have seen first hand how much of a difference it can make to use oil-based primer and paint. It’s amazing. I am kicking myself for using latex for our dining room set, it’s already chipping a little. BUt, it was so cold when we painted I would have had troubles with the fumes. I’ve found that for trim (and our recent wainscoting), using oil-based primer helps a lot. Since I only do one or two coats of primer, I don’t have to deal with the smell as much and it helps absorb into the wood better. I’ve been really satisfied with the finish.

    I also agree that foam brushes are great to use for furniture, but sometimes the spaces needs a brush.

  17. wonderful. thank you for clearing this up for me. I’ve been a latex girl until now with my furniture refinishes. I am trying oils next!

  18. Your hutch is gorgeous! Thanks for all the wonderful tips, as always! Looking forward to reading all the articles. The SW guy told me yesterday that I shouldn’t use Oil on my cabinets, that the kitchen paint is just as good, oh I’m so cofused.

  19. It’s beautiful, Kate! A piece of furniture to cherish. :) I had no idea there were so many different choices when it comes to paints and primers. What you chose to go with sure looks like it works…I would have thought you bought the hutch in a showroom! I also really like the way you all styled it. I wasn’t sure how it would look in a bedroom, but I love what you did. :) Can’t wait to see the rest of the room…don’t even want to think about how I’ll feel when my kids go off to college—you’re making me weepy!

  20. Hi Kate.
    As usual, your tips are wonderful. The hutch is amazing! So, so pretty. What a wonderful addition to your home.
    Thank you for sharing your knowledge and talents with us.


  21. I LOVE the pictures, info, and tips. I might have missed it, but did you tell the name of the white you used? My whites seem to come out a little dingy. This white is so crisp and clean. I love it. Please share the color and brand. THANKS!

  22. Beautiful job! Love the colors! What brand and color of white is used on this piece? My whites seem to come out a little dingy and this one is so crisp and clean! Please do share! Thanks!

  23. I’m totally bookmarking this post. I never know what paint to use, especially to get around all that sanding business. Thanks for the tips!

  24. Such great information, Kate, thanks for sharing you know-how. I’m usually a latex gal, but that beautiful finish you’ve achieved, is inspiration to try oil based paint.

  25. Kate, Excellent tips and very helpful details. I’m in the middle of finding and “fixing” some furniture, so this is very timely for me. I appreciate the veteran sharing her experience!! Your work is always wonderful.

  26. Hello. This was a very interesting post. I have gone back and forth about oil based vs. Latex. I constantly feel the texture of professional pieces of furniture and tap on it with my fingernails. I love the look of oil based paints and deep down I want to use it. But I’m usually trying to keep my projects to as little money as I can. I used oil based paint on a little pot I had and I love the finish but the clean up is so annoying. I have found that if I am working on something with a smooth finish, I use a foam roller and a brush in the details parts. But this is the process I do and it turns our Really good. Prime, Sand, Paint 1st coat, sand, Paint 2nd coat, Sand with very fine paper, then give it a coat or two of polyeurathane. With that process I don’t have to wait the 24 hours between coats.
    Thanks for the tutorial. It really answered some questions I’ve had.

  27. Thank you for all the explanation of latex vs. oil. I stay away from oil based anything if I can, honestly because I knew it was hard to clean. I still don’t know if I’ll ever take a shot at it (other than spray paint, of course), but at least I’m not so scared of it anymore!

  28. Again, I LOVE this piece. It is amazing! I know how hard oil based paint can be to work with but it reallyis worth it in the end, especially for furniture. I also use it for crown and door trim. NOTHING looks as good or ages as well. I also use a skinny, short foam roller for the larger areas which really helps cut down on the brush strokes. My Dad is a painter with 35+ yrs experience and his thinking is that there is no primer necessary with oil based paint. I tend to agree just based on personal experience but I’m sure it doesn’t hurt (especially if you lightly sand first). A good quality oil based paint should adhere and cover almost anything (according to him).

    I can’t wait to see the rest of the room and be inspired over and over again! Have a beautiful day!

  29. I have to say this piece is gorgeous. I think I already told you that but I have to say it again. I have a couple of pieces that I want to redo when I get settled in our new home and I am going to follow your instructions. I will post them on my blog when they are finished. It could be a while though;)

  30. I used oil based paint once and clean up was such a pain that I use water based whenever I can.

    Since you’re a paint guru, have you heard anything about the durability of using low or no VOC paint? I read an article in the New York Times Home section several years ago that professional painters say that a paint job with no/low VOC paint only lasts 2 years before it has to be repainted. That was before more paint companies came out with no/low VOC paint lines. do you know if that’s still true? I can’t find info either way.

  31. this is very helpful. I’m painting a bookcase black and thinks are not going well. my paint is bubbly, ugh and it is not smooth. I wonder if I should do a light sanding before I apply a NEW paint that I’m going to go buy to day (my paint is old and I’m thinking that’s why its bubbly?)

    Your hutchis gorgeous!

  32. Hi- new to your site…and I love your tips. I’m in the process of refinishing some chairs for my living room and went with oil because of the pro finish it offers. It’s been a true labor of love so far, but hopefully will be worth it!

    I’m curious…what is the white color that you used for this job? I like the look, and am always a little afraid of going to stark white, but hate to choose anything that will end up looking too creamy and give off a yellowed look. Your paint color would be extra helpful!

    Thanks and Be Blessed!

  33. Wow, Very helpful. I needed to organize my office. I priced a white Kathy Ireland desk, hutch and entertainment center at over $4000. That sent me to Craigs list where a few days later I found the same set used for $500.00. Yeah! I thought till after several weeks of research I decided on oil based enamel paint. I painted the hutch last night with primer and penatrol. I still landed with deep paint strokes. Today I will spend the day sanding it down. I think what I did wrong is used too much paint. Just guessing. The paint bushes I used are mohair. I tried the foam brushes too. I liked your idea to use spay paint for the primer. Hence I am off to the store today for that. I am keeping tabs on the cost I am still well below $4000. However, my insistance on perfection is wanning! If I want the finish I will have to slow down and accept the time consumption.

  34. I have a hutch & buffet very similar that I would like to refinish. Im nervous because it is one of my first few projects and looks like a LOT of work. Your tutorials make it seem very ‘do-able’ but I am wondering – did you not sand this particular piece?
    The piece I have is very high gloss – which it sounds like yours was as well. So just primer it twice with oil based and then paint it with a coat or 2???

  35. I FINALLY have the confidence to paint furniture! All due to your tip on using Flowtrol. I used it this past weekend and painted a nightstand for my husband’s side of the bed. NO STROKE MARKS! And it looks fabulous, dahlink! Thank you for the tip.

    Now I am going to move to a large, victorian style dresser and have a couple of further questions. Did you sand between coats on this white buffet? If yes, what grit did you use, and did you sand the final coat.

    Thanks for the tips, I am thoroughly enjoying your adventures!

  36. hej painting lovers , love your stuff , myself furniture painter , I use acrylic art paint and polyurethans after.
    I use sending paper after priming220 .You could add color to your primer if you use deep color.
    Acrylics small botels go long way ,dry fast so once You finish you could start VERY delicate sending -400 paper and than Polyurethan if water base- dry fast no smell could be done inside house ,if oil smelly toxic but looks great on gold metalics !!!,for example top of comode or table that is going to be use a lot .
    I love water base floor semi gloss looks good on pastel oil ters amber polyurethan ,Iput 3,4 times and send betwen 400, last 600 sending paper and sometimes on dark colors wax with minwax paste …
    I love that stuff , like rustic look but “smooth” finish …good painting , put same good music on and paint better than prozac

  37. It’s beautiful, and thank you for all your advices! but… arent you afraid of toxicity of all these products? Almost for a child room?

  38. I am researching painting methods to paint my sons dresser. Is a protective finish needed? The cabinet looks great!

  39. Looks great!!! Found you on pinterest. Thanks for all the helpful hints!!!


  40. I love what you did!!
    But, I have a question.. I see all these projects with the oil based primer, but I am hesitant. Doesn’t the oil based primer take FOREVAHH to dry?!

    • Hi Tara, nope, oil based primer dries quickly, but oil based paint… typically 24 hours between coats.

  41. I LOVE this, and am beginning the exact same project. I have started with the Zinnsers spray primer that is sillicon based, not oil or latex. My question is, should I redo the primer with the oil base if I am going to use oil base paint?? And, should I add the Penetrol to the primer as well? Just love all of your projects. Thank you for sharing them!

    • Hi Wendy, I haven’t heard of a silicon based primer, I use both the spray and brush versions of Zinsser Cover Stain in the brown can.

  42. Thank you Kate! I apparently bought the super expensive primer from It covers easier, and adheres better (according to the paint dept at Lowe’s), but is very comperable to the oil based version. They said they would only recommend it if covering something that had some grease spots/stains. I have already painted my cabinet, with oil based paint and the Penetrol additive, and it is fabulous!! Thank you for all the tips and posting the before/after pictures. Gave me the courage to try the oil based paint. LOVE IT!

  43. Thanks for the post. We have just move into a new home and my old china cabinet is to formal for the space in this house. After putting it on craigslist a million times I have decide to just repaint it. This will help!

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