So, first off, latex paint thins with water. In other words, to thin paint, add water.
“Watering Down” paint is a derogatory term used to describe a poor practice that cheap professional painters do to make their product go further. These painters add too much water to the paint, often as much as half a gallon of water per gallon of paint. This results in a lighter color and lesser quality finish.
However, sometimes adding water to paint can be a good thing! When a little bit of water is added to the paint, it thins the paint slightly, resulting in more workability and longer dry times.
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Three Reasons to Water-Down Paint
As long as you don’t over-thin paint, adding a little bit of water to latex paint can actually result in a better finish. There are a number of things water can actually help!
Extending Dry Time
Paint dries quickly, especially in hot weather. This isn’t ideal for a couple reasons.
First off, latex paint is considered “self-leveling,” meaning that with enough time, the paint levels out, and brushstrokes disappear.
However, if the paint drys before it finishes leveling, brushstrokes remain visible.
Secondly, it’s best if paint remains wet until an entire wall or section is completed. Otherwise, lap marks show in the final product if wet paint is applied on top of paint that has already dried.
Therefore, if we can extend the dry time of the paint, we can improve the workability and reduce visible brushstrokes.
Adding a little bit of water (2-4 cups per gallon) is an easy way to do this!
Using a Paint Sprayer
Paint sprayers save time and produce flawless finishes. However, latex paint as it comes in the can is too thick to go through through the sprayer, and must be thinned before use.
This hamper was the first time I ever used a paint sprayer (and intentionally thinned paint,) but it was pretty easy to figure out.
A Special Technique
White-washing wood using heavily watered-down paint is another way to get an interesting look.
I used it on this Grandfather Clock. (And no, before I get hate mail for antique wood, this was not a fancy heirloom piece. It was veneered.)
Watering down paint to white-wash a piece uses a lot more water than thinning it for other reasons, since you basically want the paint to be transparent. And after watering it down, I still wiped most of it off after, leaving just enough to tint the wood.
Three Easy Ways to Water-Down Paint
Method 1: Misting for a Flawless Finish
Back in the day, I really wanted this thrifted desk to have a perfectly smooth finish, and I didn’t own the paint sprayer yet, so I played around with water to try and reduce brushstrokes.
I tried a bunch of things, but using a spray bottle was by-far my favorite.
It’s really as simple as it sounds. Fill a spray bottle with water, then as you paint, mist the paint with water, brushing it in as you go.
One spray per section really is enough; you don’t want to water-down the paint too much.
That little spray of water is enough to extend the dry-time of the paint, so that the brushstrokes have enough time to flatten before the paint dries.
Method 2: Mix in Water Before Starting
I find this method a little bit trickier, since you need to make sure you have the water to paint ratio consistent if you need to mix up multiple batches.
Also, if you’re working with a full can of paint, you really don’t have room to mix in the can, so you have to find and clean out a bigger bucket, and that’s just annoying (first world problems, I know.)
But it’s what you need to do if you’re using a paint sprayer, or maybe just want a bit more efficiency than the misting method (which is probably best for furniture and smaller things that are being painted with a brush.)
The amount of water added per gallon is usually provided by the paint manufacturer. For example, Behr’s Ultra Scuff Defense interior paint recommends adding 1/2 pint of water per gallon of paint to thin the paint for a sprayer.
(Also, pints Behr? Really?)
Whereas, Benjamin Moore’s Aura interior paint recommends adding a maximum of 8 fluid ounces of water to one gallon of paint.
Moral of the story: each paint is different, so be sure to check the label for the maximum amount of water to add. You can always add less, if you’re worried about reducing the durability of the paint.
The actual mixing instructions are as straightforward as you’d think. Take a gallon of paint and the recommended amount of water, and mix thoroughly.
I try to be on the safe side here, and usually set a timer for 3-4 minutes if I’m mixing a whole gallon, just to make sure it’s well-mixed.
If you don’t need to use a whole gallon, scale down the paint/water measurements appropriately.
Method 3: Watering Down Paint to Use as Stain
The grandfather clock I showed above was an example of why you might want to water down paint to use as a white-wash.
But white-washing isn’t the only thing you can do. You can also water down colored paints and use it to stain wood different colors.
I’ve only done this with white, but it should work for other colors too, given you’re staining the wood a darker color than it started.
Start with a 1 to 1 mixture of water and paint. The mixture should be thin, and if you spilled it, you should be able to clean it up easily with a rag or paper towel. However, it should not be transparent.
Then paint the mixture onto your piece. Let it sit for 30 seconds, then wipe it up with a rag.
Note that because you wiped up most of the paint, the “stain” remaining really isn’t protective enough to act as wood finish. If you’re whitewashing or staining a piece with paint, you’ll need another type of finish to go on top of the piece.