Turpentine and paint thinners are both strong solvents, which are substances that dissolve other substances. Solvents are used for various tasks, including thinning paint and cleaning stubborn marks from paints and varnish.
Of course, matching the right solvent with the right task will make a huge difference, as not every type of solvent will work with a particular paint, varnish, or material, so you may end up frustrated or even damaging your project.
So, what’s the difference between turpentine and paint thinner? Paint thinners are solvents used specifically for thinning out paint. Turpentine is technically considered a type of paint thinner but is used for many other purposes. It is a toxic but eco-friendly solvent made from pine sap that is best used for alkyd-based paint or oil paints.
Many DIYers have heard of paint thinners, but not turpentine. Today, let’s learn about these two types of solvents and how you can best utilize them in your project.
What Is Paint Thinner?
Paint thinner is a solvent often used to thin out paint. A paint thinner can actually be anything that thins paint; the name itself indicates its function, not its composition.
You can find paint thinners made from naphtha and mineral spirits. Turpentine is technically a kind of paint thinner.
Mineral spirits, or white spirits, are petroleum-based liquids that are commonly used as paint thinners. When used as paint thinners, mineral spirits can be blended with additives such as trimethoxy benzene to improve its performance.
Naphtha is another common substance used in paint thinners. It is a liquid that can be made from various chemicals, such as petroleum distillation or coal tar distillable. This makes the substance highly flammable, and it is a lot stronger than mineral spirits.
The paint thinners that you can find in most stores are commonly blended mineral spirits (like this one). Paint thinners are a must-have for anyone regularly working with paint since they are not only effective at thinning paint but also cleaning brushes and stubborn spots.
What Is Turpentine?
Turpentine is a solvent that’s made from the sap of pine trees. It’s commonly known as turps or pure gum spirits (like this one) and is one of the only solvents that are not petroleum-based.
Despite this natural origin, turpentine is actually a very strong solvent, even more effective than mineral spirits. It’s best used as a thinner for oil or alkyd-based paint. Turpentine is also technically a paint thinner, although it’s not commonly used for that purpose, mainly because of the higher cost of turpentine.
Although this is a natural and environmentally friendly substance, it still has some negative traits that make many people opt for other types of paint thinners instead. Now that we know what paint thinners and turpentine are, let’s take a look at the main differences between these two solvents.
Turpentine Vs. Paint Thinner
Generally, a paint thinner is a substance that thins or cuts paint, and it can be made from petroleum-based solvents or “natural” solvents like turpentine. Of course, there are some key differences when you want to compare the two products. Let’s take a look at them below.
Paint thinner is a name that can mean anything that thins paint. It can be mineral spirits (pure or blended), naphtha, turpentine, or even things that you can find around the house like isopropyl alcohol or acetone. The paint thinners that are often sold in stores are usually a mineral spirits/benzene blend, which performs well as a thinner and has a tolerable smell.
Turpentine is produced by steam distillation of resin from live pine trees. It is considered an environmentally friendly product and is also often used as a paint thinner.
2. Drying Time
When used to thin paint, both paint thinners and turpentine can affect the drying time (although it also depends on the type of paint you use and the surface material).
Compared to paint thinners and most other solvents, turpentine has a very quick drying time, regardless of the type of paint and the surface you’re working with. It dries up in about 15 minutes, but 2 hours is a safe time to leave between each coat when you work with turpentine.
The drying time for paint thinner is a lot slower, and it also varies with the type of thinner and the type of paint you have. Some thinners require you to wait anywhere from 12-24 hours before applying the next coat.
3. Oil Paint Compatibility
Thinning oil paint is particularly fussy, and both paint thinner and turpentine can actually work to thin oil paint. However, many painters prefer turpentine over paint thinners when working with oil paint because the solvent’s natural texture makes it blend well with the oil-based paint.
Since turpentine is a natural solvent, it also doesn’t react harshly to the paint or the surface you’re working with. On the other hand, paint thinner also works with oil paint, but the performance varies depending on the type of paint thinner.
Depending on the type of paint that you use, you may or may not experience a thinner residue on your artwork. Petroleum-based paint thinners can leave a slight oily residue on the surface of the paint, which can affect the overall look of the artwork.
For artists, turpentine is a better choice since it can provide a smooth and clean finish. Thanks to its natural origin, it doesn’t leave residue behind.
This is not necessarily true for all types of turpentine since mineral turpentines don’t perform as well in this case. High-quality distilled turpentine, the most expensive kind, is usually the one with the most consistent performance in this regard.
Mineral spirits-based paint thinners have an odor similar to camping lantern oil. Mineral spirits-based paint thinners also have a very mild odor compared to other types of paint thinner. You can also find odorless mineral spirits in some stores, which are suitable for indoor use.
If you expect turpentine to smell like essential oil, then you’ll be disappointed. Turpentine has a very strong odor, which is why people often opt for other paint thinners with milder smells. The pungent smell means that it’s more recommended to use outdoors instead of indoors, and inhaling the fumes of turpentine can cause negative consequences for your health.
As strong solvents, both paint thinners and turpentine can be highly toxic. Being exposed to high levels of these solvents for a long time may affect your health. This is why it’s important that you always work in a well-ventilated area when using any kind of solvent.
Pure mineral spirits and blended mineral spirits have the same safety rating, but benzene in blended mineral spirits can cause drowsiness when inhaled. Safety masks are highly recommended when working with paint thinners, especially blended mineral spirits.
Although turpentine used to be used in medicinal treatments, and it is indeed less toxic than mineral spirits, it is still not as “safe” as you might expect. There are harmful elements found in certain pine species, which can cause allergic reactions and skin irritations when you touch them.
Inhaling or ingesting the strong fumes can also be harmful to your health, so safety precautions and PPE are highly recommended. That’s why you should always wear gloves and a mask and work in a well-ventilated area when working with turpentine.
Paint thinners can be found in almost every hardware or paint store; it’s a popular product for commercial use. Since it has a mild and tolerable odor, it’s preferred for indoor use. Because of the product’s popularity, the cost of paint thinner is actually quite reasonable.
On the other hand, turpentine can be very expensive compared to other solvents. It’s difficult to find turpentine in a lot of stores because of this, and when you do, you can expect to find the pricy high-quality distilled turpentine kind.
The high cost is part of the reason why turpentine is not very popular for everyday use, and only artists who really love the look and performance of turpentine will opt for this solvent. Depending on the type of paint, the cost of turpentine may not be worth it for you to use it as a paint thinner. Turpentine is most commonly used for oil paint.
Paint thinners and turpentine, in particular, are often used to thin paint, clean stained surfaces and paintbrushes, and degrease surfaces.
If you are working with thick oil paint, these thinners are very much necessary to achieve the desired paint consistency to work with the paint. Airbrushing, for example, is a common technique that requires you to use paint thinners.
Cleaning up and degreasing is pretty easy with these strong solvents. In addition, they can be used to remove wax from wood surfaces, clean oily tools, remove adhesives, and smooth out heel marks from wooden flooring.
Neither paint thinners nor turpentine can remove paint that is completely dry. In most cases, you will have to use sandpaper to remove paint that is already cured.
They won’t work well with latex paint, and these solvents can damage some surfaces, such as asphalt. In addition, these are highly flammable substances that need to be handled with caution; they should not be used as fire starters in any case.