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What is linseed oil paint?

photograph of tins of linseed oil paint Well, it is paint made primarily of linseed oil (squeezed from the seeds of flax) with a bit of colour thrown in and boiled. It disappeared about sixty years ago with the invention of synthetic paints generally known as alkyd resin paints, the base of which is still natural oils (linseed, sunflower, safflower, soya and even fish!) from which the fatty acids are extracted. And I still refer to them as oil paints (not gloss paints), as I did in my youth. Alkyd resin paints have been on the wane for two decades as acrylic (plastic) paints have taken over as the most popular paint for woodwork. Although new production processes can make alkyd resin into an emulsion, suspended in water, commercially the oils are heading for extinction.
  Our present greener generation, with more disposable income than ever, has helped promote the growth of small businesses committed to making more natural paints. We are just one of at least three manufacturers of natural oil paints. By a cruel irony of fate, while I trade under the name "Linseed Oil Paint", it is my competitors who make pure linseed oil paint. I, on the other hand, make a much more traditional oil paint using natural plant oils and resins. Linseed oil happens to be the dominant ingredient, but the other oils and resins make the paint much better. But more of that later.

Why should you use natural plant oil paint?

Because it is good for the planet. It is made from natural materials. Far less energy is expended to produce it than conventional paints and it is made without fossil fuels. Linseed oil paints scarcely contributes to global warming compared to conventional paints.
  You should use natural oil paint because it lasts longer than conventional exterior paints, easily lasting ten or fifteen years. Theoretically, it should last a generation. While it is more expensive to buy, it works out cheaper in the long run, especially if scaffolding is required.
  I won't hide from you that linseed oil paints have drawbacks. They aren't as easy to use as conventional paints. The surface coating they produce, while longer lasting, isn't as tough (the elasticity is part of the key to its longevity), so they scratch a bit more easily. And they don't come in anything like the range of colours offered by a mixing system offered by most of the multinational paint corporations.

Available colours?

Theoretically, all colours are available. The colour comes from pigments added to the oil and resin and a rainbow of pigments are commercially available. Natural pigments mean natural colours: black is just carbon, some of the yellows and browns and reddish versions thereof come from clay (traditional sienna, burnt umber, raw ochre, etcetera). Many of the pigments are not natural. These inorganic, synthetic colours are created by applying various processes to commonplace metals. These pigments are often largely made of industrial waste, so those monitoring the ecological credentials of paints commend the synthetic colours as more environmentally friendly than natural pigments, which often involve a great deal of energy in the course of mining.
  Nothing is less environmentally friendly than Titanium Dioxide, or white. It is the only pigment that is monitored for environmental creditation. Bad for the planet, it is almost as if karma punishes me when I come to use it. TiO2 does not produce good opacity. White and off-whites do not give good colour coverage.
  Mixing pigments to achieve a desired colour and even the physical use of pigments as a colour source are not without problems. Our page devoted entirely to colours will give you more information, but here let me stress that there are a good number of colours that come as standard, but I simply have never managed to come up with a way of displaying them well on the computer screen. Here is a photograph of two sample series I made when a customer wanted a certain shade of blue.
photo of some blue paint samples   Where we score over our competitors is that we offer a colour mixing service. It isn't backed by a computer-driven Dulux mixing machine, more like me with a measuring spoon and a large, filthy notebook. It is not exact science, but the range of colours offered far exceeds our linseed oil paint rivals.

How do you use natural oil paint and what are the problems?

In short, apply very thinly and go back over painted surfaces looking for dribbles and pooling of the paint and work them out. Leave two days or more between coats. Apply two coats, sometimes three depending on the colour and the original surface preparation. Simples.
   Or is it? Our paint is thinner than conventional paints and thus drips more. It has to be painted on very thinly or it wrinkles when dry, so being thin is not a bad thing, except you really have to watch for dribbles and pooling in corners. By painting it very thinly, the paint also dries in a day, which is a rare thing for linseed oil paint. It can take days, if not a week, for our rivals' linseed oil paints to dry.
  It needs more stirring than conventional paint because the pigments sink to the bottom.
  When the first coat goes on, it doesn't look anything like as good as you probably hoped it would, the colour is not as opaque as you might hope, since the natural oils don't hold as much pigment as conventional paints.
  When stored, it will form a thin surface skin in the tin faster than you ever expected. With care, it can be removed without breaking up and contaminating the paint.
  There will be tiny bumps in the gloss finish, largely due to the very active way the surface of the paint dries. It will creep over the minutes particle of dust that land on the painted surface and will creep over it. An ultra fine sieve is provided. This will help remove any lumps in the paint coming from a surface film.
  Because of its imperfections and lack of toughness, we recommend the paint for exterior use only. Otherwise it's pretty straightforward.
  For more details on using our paint and recommendations for internal use, please go to our page on the subject.

Some background on linseed oil paint

Natural oils have quite different characteristics compared to the gloss alkyd resin (oil) paints you will be familiar with. Modern paints go on thick and the liquid they are dissolved in (their solvent), whether white spirit or water, evaporates leaving a thinner film. Natural oils go on thin and get thicker as they dry! There is little if any solvents, but as the oil oxidises, it captures oxygen from the air, thickening until solid. They last much longer once painted. You would think that that alone would make them highly desirable. But they dry slowly, are not so easy to use, and do not form such a hard surface and they quickly disappeared after WWII when chemistry found ways to make these oil paints quicker drying, easier to apply and harder, by modifying the fatty acids in the oil and making a synthetic resin.
   Long before natural oils stopped being the main base for paint mixtures, all manner of additives were used to improve the drying speed and the opacity of the colour. And a century ago, lead was the single most important. Primarily used to block out whatever was being painted so it didn't show through (increase the opacity of the paint), lead made paint last a very long time, it acted as a fungicide, and it increased drying speed. Today most linseed paint manufacturers trade on the environmentally friendly aspects of the paint (pure oil, natural pigments). However, faced with the same problems, other additives have replaced lead. Metal driers were discovered to act as catalysts in the oxidation process over a century ago, and manganese and cobalt are still used today by myself and my rivals.
  The Swedish company, Allbäck makes linseed oil paint. It has been sold in the UK for over a decade under the name of Holkham Paint. In 2012 it changed its name to Linseed Paint and Wax Co. Since that is almost exactly our name, I take it they are trying to confuse buyers. Their product is almost pure linseed oil, with a tiny amount of metal driers added. It takes longer to dry than our own and is not free from the scourge of mildew. Ottosson also makes linseed oil paint that appears to be of almost identical composition to Allbäck. The German company Aglaia sells a natural oil paint, which is a concoction of linseed and other plant oils and terpenes (natural solvents) and metal driers. It is more industrially manufactured and it is not clear how much chemical modification of the oils occurs. My paint is much more a "traditional" paint rather than linseed oil paint. The key is that I add resin to the oil. For the moment, we simply use resin from pine trees, the sticky stuff that oozes from the tree that people often call sap (although technically that's incorrect). Traditionally, only the poor paints got pine resin. The best paints got fossil resins (amber) or exotic resins, such as semi-fossilised kauri pine resin from New Zealand. The resin adds a bit of hardness to the paint and it speeds up the drying process, slightly. And while drying, it makes the paint sticky. But that stickiness is good for adhesion, so our paint is better at sticking to a previously painted surface than pure linseed oil. Also, pine trees exude this resin when damaged. The role of resin is to seal the wound and prevent infections. It kills. It is a disinfectant. That's why so many cleaning products have that pine fresh smell.
photograph of house trim and windows painted with linseed oil paint   Because of the thickness of our oil and resin, we add small quantities of natural solvent extracted from grapefruit and orange peel. It is used in small quantities (not more than 15% by weight and generally under 10%) and should pose no health hazard (some people seem to fear hydrocarbons as if they were lethal -- see our page on solvents for more information). Not to people at least, but certainly to mildew.

Death to mildew?

For those of you not familiar with linseed oil paint, this might seem an awfully strange heading to get such prominence. But the simple fact is, linseed oil is notorious for growing fungus (and since cold-pressed linseed oil is sold as a salad dressing, this is perhaps not so surprising: what would you expect to find on your window cill if you painted it with olive oil?). If you search this phenomenon on the internet, you will find many strange claims and stranger people. The strangest are the fine artists who make their own oil paints and subject flax seed oil to all manner of secret traditional cleansing processes in an attempt to recreate the paints of the ancient masters. The goal is to create a paint (and thus a painting) that will easily last a millenium, presumably because they believe their own daubs are worth it. You will also find the utterly ignorant who assume that all products based on linseed oil will encourage mildew and thus eschew alkyd resin varnishes in favour of hateful acrylics for fear of miniature mushrooms. The cruel irony is, of course, that you'll never find a mould growing inside a tin on the liquid surface of an alkyd resin varnish, but you will find it on acrylic varnishes that have been sitting about for many years. Ignorance may be bliss, but it is also stupid.
  The simple fact is: linseed oil is notorious for growing mould. Linseed oil is or has been used extensively in the world of log cabins. And log cabins tend, geographically, to be most common in cool areas of higher rainfall (north American west coast, Scotland, Scandinavia, Estonia). Trawl the log cabin forums and you will find discussions about the curse of blackness forming on logs. While Allbäck/Holkham paints have claimed that the dark fungal menace is no match for their especially good strains of flax, timber treated with their paint does sometimes come over all mouldy. And because of complaints (which they rarely answer), they have started offering zinc oxide at an additional cost when purchasing their paint. Whatever the underlying problems the timber may have, whatever the local environmental situation, there is no escaping this: when mould grows on surfaces treated with linseed oil, the fungus is eating the oil.
  Here is a photograph of the inside of my workshop back door. I painted a section with cream emulsion, then sought to create a grain effect by overpainting with scumble. The reason for this experiment was to find the easiest and cheapest way of painting faux oak grain, which is how we treat white radiators. Over the radiator goes one of our Arts & Crafts radiator cabinets. On the door, I used a coloured polyurethane varnish (which isn't streaky enough to create grain-like patterns), Ratcliffe's oil scumble, which we still use for this graining process, although now no longer available, having been replaced by a water-based product, and my own linseed oil and pigment mixture. This was before I started making linseed oil paint, but represents some early steps towards it. Despite the horrific damp – this door gets lashed by rain – neither of the conventional products induced any fungal growth. The section treated with linseed oil turned black within a year.

When does the woodwork need repainting?

In Scotland, the conventional wisdom for architectural maintenance was that woodwork should be repainted with gloss "oil" paint every five years (not that many bother to). Conventional wisdom on linseed oil paint websites is that it lasts 15 years without further treatment. Moreover, it then only needs repainted with a coat of linseed oil, which costs very little. With our inclusion of wood oil, we are aiming for a quarter of a century, a lifespan quoted by some traditional Swedish builder/painters. But the success or failure of painted surfaces depends on many variables quite independent of the paint itself, primarily the surface taking the paint (raw wood, planed timber, and what type of wood at that and its ambient moisture content, old paint, linseed putty, silicone, and its exposure to sunlight). Like any other paint, linseed paints on north-east facing surfaces, out of the sun and rain, do better than paint on south-west facing surfaces (sorry for not taking you antipodeans into consideration here). Like any other paint, linseed paints tend to fail on timbers that get very wet and have an average moisture content well above 15%, as window sills often do. And like any other paint, linseed paint does better on rough, "off-saw" timber than on a planed, smooth surface. Indeed, the paint will do so much better that it is well worth specifying rough unplaned timber if you are building anew. This will add years and years onto the repainting cycle.
  Traditional gloss oil paints and modern acrylic paints both suffer structural disintegration primarily from a pounding from ultraviolet light. Linseed oil paint appears to suffer structural disintegration primarily from organic and inorganic decomposition. Because mould and pollution, which are in turn affected by moisture and local geography, play an even larger part in the long-term disintegration of linseed oil paint than ultraviolet light, it is harder to predict how long its life expectancy is in your specific situation.

So, is it worth it?

The paint is expensive. The painting programme will take longer and is more drawn out than usual. That makes the labour expensive too. But once on, there is little and only inexpensive maintenance for the next three or four decades. By that time, the "maintenance free" uPVC windows next door will probably have been ripped out, plastic or metal parts having failed and being impossible to maintain. So, yes, in the long term it is value for money. But it also offers things that can't be valued in monetary terms: a good environmental conscience, a sense of standing apart from the crowd, and an excellent talking point at your next dinner party.

Who are we?

photograph of Ross outside Gamble House, click to go to www.samsons.joinery.co.uk We are me, a cabinet maker cum architectural joiner based in Glasgow, with a PhD in archaeology. A love of the past and a passion for extending my range of unprofitable labour led me to try mixing my own linseed paints. To my wife's considerable surprise, the experiment was successful and the product looks financially viable. She'll be in charge soon.


Ross Samson or Valerie Lyon
0141 632 8681 or 07985 046827

28 Riverside Road, Glasgow G43 2EF