What’s the difference between water-based and oil-based paint pens, and which one should I use for my project?
This is, hands down, theeeeee most common question I get about paint pens (also called paint markers).
So in this post, I broke it down for you– which one is better, which one you should use for which projects, how to remove them, and all the things.
First Things First…
The links below may be affiliate links where appropriate. This means that your purchase through these links may result in a few cents in payment to me, to support creating further resources like this one! That being said, I will never suggest supplies that I do not personally use and fully recommend.
Rather watch than read? No problem! You can watch me test out an oil-based paint pen and a water-based paint pen (and share my thoughts on them) in real-time by clicking the video below!
Let’s Get Started!
Alright for the purposes of this post, I used a Sharpie oil-based paint marker and a Sharpie water-based paint marker (but there are other brands out there). Essentially I just talk about the properties of oil-based paint vs water-based paint in paint pens, so it’s great to compare two of the same brand. And I also used a piece of glass to use to show you the differences.
For those of you who are brand new to this stuff, paint pens are what you’d use on surfaces like glass, mirrors, wood, etc… unconventional surfaces. They’re not pens you’d typically be using on paper. For example, I use these for people’s seating charts or welcome signs for their weddings, or for big window displays for businesses, etc.
In this post, I touch on the 3 most important properties of each of these types of paint pens. These are the three most common things people wonder about.
- 1. How are they to actually use? (ie. are they streaky, do they dry quickly, are they easy to use or hard to use, etc.)
- 2. How durable are they? (ie. how well do they stand up to being scratched or touched or brushed up against if people walk by, etc.)
- 3. How hard are they to remove from the surfaces? And how do you actually remove them?
So to test that, I started from the beginning…
How Are They To Actually Use? – Setting Them Up
These were both brand new paint pens – still in the packaging. Oil-based paint pens (Sharpie brand) are pink, and the water-based (Sharpie brand) ones are blue. It’s easy to remember – water is blue. 🙂
When I took the caps off, you could see the tips looked the exact same. They were the same shape, but neither had any paint on them.
They work the exact same way. First, I shook them (I made sure the cap was on). Shake shake shake.
Then I started to depress the tip until the paint started to flow. You can hold or push down on the tips; I just pushed down until the paint flowed.
When depressing them, you can tap up and down a few times and/or hold it down a bit to help get the paint to flow. I did this too. I also recommend rotating your pen a bit as you go.
I did both paint pens at the exact same time, so I could see which one started quicker. The water-based paint pen definitely started faster than the oil-based one. The oil-based one took quite a bit longer to get started.
How Are They To Actually Use? – Writing With Them
Next I wrote a word using each type of paint pen, in faux calligraphy, so I could talk about any differences in the way they actually write.
First up was the water-based paint pen, and I wrote “welcome” since that’s a super common word I write with paint pens for wedding signage.
With paint pens, you need to thicken the strokes as you go. The paint dries pretty quickly, so you need to thicken your lines while the paint is still wet to avoid chipping the dried paint.
As I wrote welcome with the water-based paint pen, I immediately noticed a bit of streakiness. It’s totally normal for a paint pen to have some streakiness. It’s just not realistic to not have any.
I didn’t have to press down for more paint a single time as I wrote “welcome.” The water-based pen flowed so well the entire time. There was some mild streakiness, but it truly was not bad at all.
Next I switched to the oil-based paint pen and wrote the exact same word: “welcome”
Right off the bat there was less streakiness. There was still a little bit – with paint pens, you will never not see streaks at least a little bit.
About halfway through my word, I noticed I needed to shake the oil-based paint pen again and depress the tip again to get the ink flowing a bit better. Once I did that, it flowed great again.
The oil-based paint pen dried a lot faster than the water-based one.
You can even see in this photo how fast it dried – you can see where I paused to shake my pen. The first half of the word is much more dry than the second half.
Ideally it will always dry to look the same, but it’s something to keep in mind if you have to stop during a project. You may be able to see where you stop and start due to the super quick dry time.
Comparing The Writing Between The Two
Overall, water-based paint pens run a little better and are a little bit juicer.
Oil-based paint pens are slightly less streaky but dry faster, which means you have to work faster.
To compare the two, the water-based is a little bit whiter – it’s more opaque than the oil-based.
I added some black paper behind my glass to give you a better idea. This shows the opacity a bit better. The water-based is a brighter white while the oil-based is a bit lighter white. In terms of colour and opacity, the water-based one wins a bit.
Where the oil-based one starts to win is in terms of being touched and smudged and removed. Let’s get into that some more…
I let my lettering dry for another five minutes or so and then started the next steps. (Realistically I probably could have swiped my finger across both of them before allowing them extra dry time. The oil-based paint probably wouldn’t have smudged at all since they tend to dry so quickly. The water-based paint might have still been a bit wet since the water-based paint pens tend to be a bit juicier and runnier. I waited five minutes just in case.)
I wanted to see what would happen if I wiped, touched, scratched, etc.
First, I just ran my finger across each one. I wasn’t super gentle – I pushed down on each one. And…. no worries! Neither were impacted at all.
The real test comes with scratching it though!
When I used my fingernail and to scratch across the lettering, the water-based came off instantly pretty easily.
But when I did the same thing on the oil-based, it didn’t budge. (In the video, I scratched over it at least five times, and nothing happened.)
This is one of the key differences between the two, especially on a window. Oil-based is much more durable than water-based even though it’s not quite as bright white. It’s kind of a trade off.
Dry Paper Towel
Next, I used a dry paper towel and wiped the lettering. Water-based came off pretty easily. I got the “w” off completely by pushing a bit harder. When I didn’t push as hard, all the lettering was still pretty scratched.
When I did the same (wiping pretty hard and then less hard with a dry paper towel), absolutely nothing happened.
If you’re working on a project that uses glass, like a window or a mirror, and your hand is going to rest on the glass, it’s going to have smudges. It’s so annoying. This is when using an oil-based paint pen is a lot more convenient. You can go over all your lettering to remove smudges and fingerprints without worrying about wiping off your lettering. If you use a water-based paint pen, you’ll have to be super careful and won’t be able to wipe smudges away as easily and might damage your lettering. Wiping away smudges easily is definitely a big benefit to oil-based paint pens.
How Hard Are They To Remove From The Surfaces? And How Do You Actually Remove Them?
For removal, first I tried just a paper towel with water.
The lettering from the water-based paint pen came off really easily – like super super super easily – with the water and paper towel.
The lettering from the oil-based paint pen didn’t budge with the water and paper towel. Literally nothing happened, and I went over it a bunch of times.
This is another big benefit of the oil-based paint pens.
Next I tried with a paper towel and Windex.
The lettering from the water-based paint pen came off instantly with Windex, which I expected. Water-based can be removed super easily by scratching, with a dry paper towel, with water, and with Windex. Super easy to remove.
I used the same paper towel with Windex on it and went over the oil-based lettering. Again, nothing happened.
So if you’re working on glass or a window or a mirror with an oil-based paint pen and get smudges on it, you can wipe it off with anything (including Windex), and it won’t damage your writing. STILL BE CAREFUL WITH THIS. It’s not permanent and will come off if you scrub hard enough. But in general, you can wipe off smudges without damaging your lettering if you wipe pretty lightly. 🙂
So… How the heck do you get the oil-based paint off?
Or acetone (which is essentially nail polish remover). I’ve also heard coconut oil for those who want to go the all-natural route. It doesn’t work super great for me, but it likely will if you scrub really hard and work on it for a while. You can also use a straight blade and just chip the paint off (it won’t hurt the glass or mirror). I typically use a combination of alcohol and a straight blade, especially if it’s a big area I’m removing (it would take a long time with alcohol alone).
I put some alcohol on a paper towel and wiped off the oil-based lettering. It came off pretty easily. Alcohol can leave some streakiness, so I typically use Windex after I get everything off with alcohol.
So… Which One Is The winner: WATER-Based Or OIL-Based Paint Markers?
There really isn’t an answer since they both have their pros and cons.
Water-based is really juicy and really easy to use. It’s really opaque and the paint runs really well.
Oil-based is less opaque and less easy to use because it dries faster, but it stays on longer.
So let’s say you had a client who had a window/glass storefront and were worried people might go up to it and scratch it. You wouldn’t want to use water-based paint pens because the paint will scratch off easily. You’d want to use oil-based paint pens in this situation.
But if you were doing a sign for someone that will be super up high and won’t get touched at all once it’s hung up, water-based paint pens would be totally fine. They’re more opaque and are a little easier to work with. And a lot easier to remove if your client is worried about it.
Now that you know the pros and cons of each one, you can make an informed decision on which one to use based on what the client wants, how durable it needs to be, how easily it needs to be removed, etc.
And That’s A Wrap!
So there you have it – the quick facts on water-based and oil-based paint pens.
The last thing I’ll say is that if you’re interested in tips and tricks for signage projects (for example, tools like we talked about today but also everything from HOW to make the signs to how to run a BUSINESS making signage for clients), I have a course all about signage! You can find out more at www.signingupcourse.com.
That’s it for now, but I’ll link you next to another signage-related post I think you’ll like!
And finally, your dad joke…
How do painters fight?
They challenge their rivals to a doodle.