How Waterborne Paints Work

Written by on June 8, 2014 in Finishing, Uncategorized with 2 Comments

Ok, so the topic of waterborne paints generates lots of inquiries here at the site, through our social media network, and at the many live events and training workshops where we demonstrate them. There is much confusion, frustration and downright fear about how waterborne paints work. This is compounded at times by the general misinformation on the topic that swirls around the internet. 

This article addresses some of the frequently asked questions we receive about waterborne paints, as it appeared in my “From the Field” column in the May 2014 issue of American Painting Contractor magazine. It is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher.

Practical Strategies for Using Waterborne Paints

Now that waterborne paints have officially assumed control of the supply chain in our industry, I want to dedicate this month’s column to sharing the intel on best strategies for using waterbornes to create the finer finishes that we all used oils for in the past.

There seems to be confusion among painters, especially around the internet, about how paints work these days. Some experts over complicate it, others over simplify it. The bottom line is that while the products are changing frequently, painting is still a subjective discipline.

Whenever I read home and garden experts talking about how you should “never” do this, or “always” do that with paints, it is a red flag. There is very little about the painting process that can be all that prescriptive. There are too many variables to objectify process in that extreme or absolute of a manner.

Work habits can be more regimented, and that is a good thing for daily efficiency, organization and productivity. But, the steps in your process of actually preparing surfaces and painting them – especially in the new world of waterbornes – need to have some flex to them.

Things to Know

waterborne paintsWaterbornes are pretty much the opposite in behavior from traditional oils. Oils stayed wet for a very long time. You could brush and brush and brush with little risk of flash. During the drying stage, it would stay wet and level itself out, eliminating brush marks, to a smooth laid finish. While slow drying, the cure times were generally quick. We used to use the term “kick” during the drying process with oils. As in, “when this kicks, it is going to be glass…”

I have trained and advised enough painters in the past few years to understand well the confusion and counter-intuitive nature of relearning how to paint with waterbornes. The psychology of changing from oil to waterborne comes with stages of resistance, denial, frustration, anger and finally acceptance.

It is possible to accelerate these stages for yourself and the employees that you probably have to train to work with the new era of paint products. The basic premise is that if you try to paint with waterbornes the way you always painted with oil enamels, the results will not be desirable. That is a great reason to consider alternate strategies.

Change the Way You Brush

This is so easy to say, and so not easy to do…at least initially. To summarize in the simplest way, to get good brushed results with waterbornes, it is best to lay it on heavily, resisting the temptation to overbrush. Because waterbornes tack up much more quickly than oils, if you apply more, it will stay wet longer and therefore level out better. That is the concept. That is how you control the paint instead of letting the paint control you.

waterborne paintsI also frequently recommend that painters control the micro climate they are working in. Waterbornes seem happiest in a slow lay down at no more than 60* in my experience. So, there is a big difference between over brushing a thin coat at 70* and liberally laying down a heavier coat in cooler temps – huge performance difference just by playing with those two variables.

On the backend of the process, the drying stage…no matter how heavily you apply waterbornes, they will generally tack up much quicker than oils ever did. Personally, I like this trait because it minimizes contamination risk during the dry stage.

However, while waterbornes tack and dry fairly quickly, they are usually slow curing products. Meaning, they can be dry enough to handle, and even lightly sand and recoat, but they usually take a significant amount of time to fully cure to the point that they lose that “sticky” feeling. Especially in the case, for instance, of cabinet shelves or doors that you might want to stack on top of each other. Once the finish has tacked, I find it best to turn up the heat and move air over the surface with a low speed fan to induce curing.

Change the Way You Spray

Spraying with waterbornes is also a different experience than with oils. Historically, oils often called for a “tack coat” technique in building finishes, which was terribly time consuming, given dry times. You could “wet on wet” to the point where you knew it would hang on, but then you were pretty much shut down for at least a day before continuing.

waterborne paintsWaterbornes, on the other hand, can be sprayed more liberally because they are built with more “tooth” for adhesion, to hang onto the primer underneath and to hang onto itself, with lower risk of runs, sags or curtains. By taking advantage of the ability to spray thicker coats in each session, finishers can manipulate the leveling characteristics of waterborne to their advantage.

One cabinet finisher recently reported back to me the following feedback after spraying waterborne on paint grade cabinets for the first time with HVLP in a shop environment:

“I was surprised a little…scared, actually. The satin sheen seemed really flat to me as it first tacked up, but as it dried, the orange peel laid down and melded, almost like it needed to fully flash off, and then the sheen could rise to the top. It took a while for it to fully dry, and I was nervous the whole time, but it came out great…”

This sums up very well the fear and discomfort that comes with completely changing product technology and application style. The first time is the hardest, but usually when people experience favorable results, they are able to make wholesale changes in habits and strategies.

The Good News

Once you retrain yourself, waterborne processes and habits transfer very well across the different types of formulations. Primers, paints and clear finishes, both interior and exterior, share many of the same working properties, so your process can be dialed for repetition, efficiency and quality results, just keeping an eye to situational variables such as micro climate as you go.




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  1. Brian Sullivan says:

    good input Scott, I was sceptical in the transition from Alkyd to H2O where it was typicaly an Oil Enamel brush application ie; trim or wood built ins. Once I trusted the Acrylic to flow and level and not brush it to death I found it to be more efficient being faster and of course clean up and odor. I used to be able to tell the difference with out touching the finish but now with the advances in technology I some times have to feel before I can tell the difference.

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