What Type of Paint Should You Use on Doors?

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You've decided to paint your front door -- that's the easy part. Now you've got to decide which paint is best for the job. Choose either latex water-based paint or alkyd oil-based paint. Oil-based paint leaves fewer brush strokes, but latex paint dries faster and has lower volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which have been identified as cancer-causing agents. Consider these factors to help determine what type of paint you should use.


Oil-based vs. Water-based

Oil-based paint:

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  • Dries smoother
  • Wears longer
  • Flows better
  • Penetrates and adheres to the surface better
  • Cleans up with turpentine, acetone or mineral spirits
  • Takes 8 to 24 hours to dry

Water-based paint:

  • Dries faster
  • Smells less
  • Is nonflammable
  • Better color retention
  • Expands and contracts for less peeling
  • Cleans up with soap and water
  • Takes 1 to 6 hours to dry


Given the dry-time alone, DIYers may immediately choose water-based paint, but the surface of the door, previous paint and desired sheen should also be considered.

Door Surfaces

Doors may be wood, metal or fiberglass. Oil-based paints work better on stained surfaces, "bleeding" woods that drip sap or tannin, such as cedar, cypress or redwood. Oil-based paints are better than water-based at preventing rust on metal doors, such as steel storm doors. Fiberglass doors are good candidates for water-based paint.


Previous Paint

If your door is in good shape, with no cracking or peeling paint, you may be able to paint over the door with very little preparation. If this is the case, you must know the base of the last layer of paint applied to the door. Do not apply oil-based paint over a layer of water-based paint. You can, however, paint water-based over oil-based paint.


To determine what kind of paint was previously used on the door, pour a small amount of rubbing alcohol on a clean white rag or cotton ball; then rub the damp rag back and forth on a small, less-exposed section of the door. If you see paint on the rag, the last paint used was water-based. If you don't see any paint on the rag, it was oil-based.


Painting a door with water-based paint that has four or more previous coats of oil-based paint may cause the paint to crack. In this case, stick with oil-based paint.

Indoor/Outdoor and Sheens

After selecting your paint base, you need to determine whether to buy indoor or outdoor paint -- or an indoor/outdoor combo -- and the sheen you want for your door. Indoor vs. outdoor is an easy decision; if you're painting an exterior --outside -- door, use exterior paint. Inside doors can be painted with interior paint. If you want to paint an entry door the same color inside and outside, you don't have to buy two different kinds of paint. Just use an interior/exterior combo.


Some homeowners love a shiny red door, while others prefer a muted green. For this reason, sheen is a matter of personal choice.

Consider these facts to help you determine which is best for your door:

  • Flat/matte finish is good for hiding imperfections in low-traffic areas.
  • Eggshell is basically flat with just a little luster. It is recommended for medium-traffic areas.
  • Satin has a light shine and is tough enough to endure high-traffic areas and survives repeated cleanings.
  • Semi-gloss has a high durability finish and is often recommended for trim.
  • High-gloss is highly durable and recommended for doors because of its tough enamel-like finish.

Based on these traits, exterior doors should be painted with semi-gloss or high-gloss paint. Paint your door frame in either high-gloss or semi-gloss.