Learn from my mistakes: Never paint latex over oil!

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Okay, so time to share another big painting mistake. When we ripped out the carpet in the living and dining rooms to make room for my new painted subfloors, a big gap was left between the bottom of the molding and the floor. We quickly saw that we would need to add shoe molding around the bottom of the existing trim.

But an even bigger problem also became quickly apparent. The paint on the current trim was peeling off – a lot.

peeling trim paint

When we moved into this house three years ago, the walls were painted dingy pastel colors and all of the trim was painted to match the walls. These rooms were painted bright yellow with yellowish trim. I quickly painted the walls blue and the trim a nice crisp white.

Unfortunately, I didn’t bother to check what kind of paint the trim had been painted with previously – I just got myself a nice can of semi-gloss white paint and blissfully painted away.

peeling paint

Which brings me to the present and the badly peeling paint. If you so much as scratch the trim with your fingernail, the nice white paint peels right off. And that is what led me to realize that I had made a colossal mistake – I painted latex paint over oil-based paint with no primer in between.The latex paint did not really bond to the oil paint at all. Big problem.

I, of course, turned to the knowledge of the world wide web to find solutions to this problem and none of them sound very fun. These are the suggestions I found

  1. Sand off all of the latex paint and then prime with an oil-based primer and repaint.
  2. Strip off all of the latex paint using a chemical stripper and then prime with an oil-based primer and repaint.
  3. Replace all of the trim.

Well, #3 is out for sure.  And I’m not a big fan of chemical strippers – especially not in such close proximity to my newly painted floors, so sanding it is. Boooo. After sanding I will use my favorite oil-based primer before repainting.

latex or oil

Now to save you from making this same mistake. Almost all trim in older homes is painted using oil-based paints and a good portion of the trim in newer homes as well. Before you repaint any woodwork, there is an easy test you can do to determine what type of paint was used in your home.

Pour a small amount of denatured alcohol on a rag and gently rub the painted surface. If the paint is softened or color comes off on the rag, it is latex paint. If the paint appears unaffected, it is an oil paint. Be sure to use a dark rag for light paint and vice versa so it will be easy to tell if the paint is coming off on the rag.

Anyone else make this mistake before?  Any tips on removing latex paint or other tests to see what kind of paint you are dealing with to begin with?

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  1. says

    we have wood trim and i have been working on painting it- i sanded it lightly and the primer adhered well to all but the quarter round at the bottom- UGH. if it gets hit it gets nicked! so frustrating! it is only done in a couple rooms, but the rest will get the quarter round treated with deglosser i think first- what a pain! i feel ya!

  2. says

    we have wood trim and i have been working on painting it- i sanded it lightly and the primer adhered well to all but the quarter round at the bottom- UGH. if it gets hit it gets nicked! so frustrating! it is only done in a couple rooms, but the rest will get the quarter round treated with deglosser i think first- what a pain! i feel ya!

  3. says

    Um… that’s probably what happened in our house. We rent, but when we moved in all of our trims & doors were pretty white. They have been peeling steadily since then to reveal a tanish-yellowish layer beneath the white. Lovely.

  4. Anonymous says

    Oh so sorry that happened to you. It is very sweet of you to pass this info along to us. I reallly appreciate you doing that. Good luck with your sanding.

  5. says

    Oh dear….I did the same thing many years ago with a door in our very first house. It took me awhile to figure out why the new paint was peeling off the door. Not the kind of thing you repeat! None of us really need ‘make work’ projects!

  6. says

    Yes…been there…done that. We live in an old, old farmhouse and I found that I always have to prime everything FIRST. I’ve found my best friend is a little palm sander…they are GREAT and not that big of an expense…will help you make the sanding job a LOT easier! I always cut several pieces of sandpaper to fit the Palm sander so they are ready when I need a new sheet. It’ll go quicker than you realize once you just start. I counted it as a good learning experience!

  7. AnnoyedHomeOwner says

    We just recently bought a house that was built in 1969. Its in great shape for a 43 year old home. Then I noticed everything painted with this beautiful white color (trim, doors, windows) is peeling!! It is so irritating. I started looking up ways to fix this and now I’m starting to wonder if its cheaper to just replace everything. This is 1800 sq house with white trim peeling in every direction. I don’t even know what I will do next.. URG.

  8. June Casale says

    Same thing is happening in my house…..do you need to prime with an oil-based primer or can you use a latex-based primer? I usually sand that oil based layer and then wash, prime and paint….but both primer and paint are latex. Is that okay??

    • Carrie says

      Oh no – sorry you have the same problem. It is really better to use an oil-based primer. That way you can avoid this happening again in the future. I sanded off all of the loose flaking paint and then primed with oil based primer followed by latex paint. That method works great.

      • Holly says

        Thanks for sharing. I’m a little confused though. If you’re using an oil-based primer and painting with a latex-based paint, how will this prevent the same thing from happening again? You’re putting latex over oil again. We are dealing with the peeling of latex paint over oil paint and not sure if a primer was used in between. Don’t want to make the same mistake the previous owners did!

        • Carrie says

          It is very confusing. I don’t know the mechanics of why, but either oil or latex paint can be painted over oil primer. I often use latex paint over oil primer (and so do others – I didn’t make this up, I did research!) And oil primer can of course be used over oil paint. So the oil primer acts as a buffer between the two paints. If you are concerned, you can double check on your oil primer can that it says it can be top coated with water or oil-based paints.

  9. Jessica says

    I’m so glad to come across this! We PAID professionals to paint our Den that had dark woodwork everywhere, including wainscoting and built ins, and they made the same mistake. I started doing our eat in kitchen the same way when one of the painters stopped and told me he’d realized the mistake.

    I had just primed all the crown molding with a latex primer. My question is, how well do I have to sand it off? Is it ok for some of it to still be there? Some of the molding has a lot of curves so it’s hard to get everything (and taking forever!) I just want to make sure the oil based will stick, I don’t want to do this again. :)

    Leaving the den for now and crossing our fingers it wears slowly. The contractor of course won’t return our calls. :)

    • Carrie says

      Wow, that is horrible! When you pay someone for a job, you expect them to know what they are doing. And definitely to fix any mistakes they make.

      I sanded my trim, re-primed with oil based primer, and then repainted. When I sanded off the latex paint, I did not sand off every speck. I sanded everything but only made sure to completely remove anything loose and flaky. I cannot guarantee that my method will work forever – but I redid my trim a year and a half ago with zero problems so far.

  10. Meghan says

    I just had a professional come in and paint the majority of the trim and doors in my entire house. (He also did the walls). I paid him in full, had brand new carpet installed…. Then, the abrasive backing on the carpet unraveled a terribly stressful situation for a 6 month pregnant woman who has spent all of her money- the “professional” painted latex paint over oil paint on every piece of trim and door/closet door in the majority of the house! It’s peeling EVERYWHERE. I have taken the day off today to remove the latex paint and sand the original down but it is extremely overwhelming!!

    • Carrie says

      Oh Meghan, that is terrible! Sometimes professionals really aren’t very professional at all! Have you tried contacting him to fix it? Wish I could come help you – no pregnant woman should have to deal with that mess.

  11. terilynn says

    Your floor totally rocks! Awesome job! We are in the process of starting a project very similar to yours.thank you for sealing our thoughts.

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