What Is Paint Thinner? Everything You Need to Know

You’ve probably heard the words ‘paint thinner’ thrown around during any household painting project. However, even compounds with familiar names, like turpentine and isopropyl alcohol, are referred to as paint thinners. So what exactly is a paint thinner?

A paint thinner is any solution you can use to thin or dilute oil-based paints. Paint thinners as a dissolving agent to remove paint from certain surfaces, as a diluting agent added to paints to create specific finishes, and as a solution to remove paint from painting apparatus.

This article will explore what a paint thinner is, its composition, and how you may use these solvents.

What Is Paint Thinner Made Of?

As mentioned, paint thinner is a solvent used to dilute paints. However, you can use it in other industrial applications, such as cleaning paint spills or removing grease. Considering you can use these solvents in so many ways — how is paint thinner made?

Paint thinner is any solvent that can dilute oil-based paints, and different thinners comprise various compounds. Some paint thinners may contain only one chemical, like acetone, turpentine, naphtha, or toluene. Other thinners may be a mix of multiple substances.

You’ve probably realized by now that the term’ paint thinner’ refers to a wide variety of solvents that you may use to dilute and dissolve oil-based paints. As such, there isn’t a specific list of ingredients to create a paint thinner. Instead, many liquids come under the category of paint thinner.

Types of Paint Thinner

As mentioned in the previous section, there isn’t one specific liquid called paint thinner. Instead, several solvents can be considered paint thinners in their own right. We’ve provided a list of household and industry’s most common paint thinners.

You may use all the following to dilute paint — and explore further applications.

  • Acetone: Acetone is a liquid most commonly referred to as paint thinner. Acetone works as an excellent paint thinner and is also great for removing glue, nail polish, and ink stains.
  • Turpentine: Turpentine is a popular paint thinner used heavily by various industries. Aside from thinning, you may use turpentine as a varnish for cleaning specific surfaces.
  • Mineral Spirits: Another extremely popular paint thinner, mineral spirits are also incredibly effective at removing grease from car parts.
  • Toluene: Toluene is an industry-grade paint thinner, ideal for diluting print ink, adhesives, and rubbers. Some industries use toluene as combustion fuel in certain vehicles.
  • Naphtha: Naphtha is another common paint thinner used to dilute regular paints. However, naphtha is more popularly used in crude oil production to make it easier for the oil to move through pipelines.
  • Mineral Spirits: Mineral spirits are so often used as paint thinners that most people call it ‘paint thinner’ and assume every paint thinner is a mineral spirit. This solvent is also known as white spirit and is best for household purposes, like cleaning brushes and removing paint from surfaces.
  • Isopropyl Alcohol: While isopropyl alcohol is effective at thinning paint, it also causes the paint to harden quickly on application. This characteristic can leave brush marks behind on the painted surface.
  • Methyl Ethyl Ketone (MEK): Popularly known as butanol, MEK is used primarily in industrial processes, like diluting gums and resins.

These are the most common paint thinners available today, and people refer to them collectively as paint thinners. As such, while you can use any of them for painting, some varieties are better suited to household purposes.

So before you invest in any one, it’s crucial to figure out which one best suits your purposes. And for that, it’s best to learn what functions these solvents perform. 

What Is Paint Thinner Used For?

As you noticed in the previous section, some compounds go beyond traditional paint thinning, and people use them for industry-grade purposes, like diluting crude oil or resin. However, for this article, we’ll stick to the use of paint thinners only.

People use paint thinner primarily to dilute paint, making it easier to use in spray cans or with a brush. You may also use these solutions to clean up spilled paint, create particular finishes, and remove underlying paint from specific surfaces.

While paint thinner typically refers to diluting paint, you may use the solvent in various ways.

Clean Painting Apparatus

Many elements are involved in painting — whether your surface is a cupboard door, cabinet, or canvas. It would help if you had paintbrushes, rollers, and a tin for the paint while painting. These items are pretty easy to procure. However, once finished painting, the color will harden on the brush, roller, and tin surface.

If you clean the brushes or roller, it will be possible to use them again with another color. But with paint thinner, you can get rid of the paint and dry out your apparatus for the next round.

Here’s how you go about it.

  • Get a tin container and pour paint thinner into it. Ensure there is only a little paint thinner, as you won’t need much.
  • Dip your brushes or rollers into the container, covering the surface with paint thinner. You may leave these tools in the container for about 5 minutes.
  • Get a dry cloth. Pull out the paintbrushes and forcefully wipe away the paint on the surface of these brushes.
  • Wash off the paintbrushes with warm water. It’s best to use soap when washing these brushes.

When you use paint thinners for cleaning your painting apparatus, such as paint brushes, you can only use these solvents while the paint is still wet. Once the paint hardens, you will require a more potent solvent, such as acetone.

However, you should avoid using paint thinners with latex and shellac/lacquer paints as it will affect the medium’s integrity.

Remove Paint From Surfaces or Spills

Let’s say you want to repaint certain surfaces in your house with a different color. You may need more than simply painting to give you the tone you’re looking for; the previous layer of paint will interfere with it.

Fortunately, you can use a paint thinner to remove the last layer of paint and add a new layer.

  • Find the perfect thinner. Not all paint thinners are created equal; some may be abrasive to certain surfaces. So examine the surface you’re working with and choose a thinner accordingly.
  • Use a tin can. Pour a decent portion of the paint thinner you will use into a tin can you can easily access. You want to avoid pouring paint thinner into a plastic container as it may damage the container.
  • Paint over the surface. Take a cheap brush, dip it into the paint thinner, and paint the surface you plan to peel. Ensure you’re not laying it on too thick, as paint thinner is toxic and can damage your painting project if you aren’t careful.
  • Get a paint scraper. Slowly but firmly, use a scraper to remove the paint from the surface you’ve covered with thinner paint. Ensure you take time with this part, as you may scrape off more than necessary.
  • Wipe off the paint thinner. Gently remove the paint thinner using a clean rag, and you can even wipe the surface down with a wet cloth afterward.

Create Specific Finishes

When painting a surface, you look for a specific tone, thickness, and appearance. Most industrial paints are typically thick and deeply colored.

Using a paint thinner can help you thin out the color, allowing you to adjust the tone and making it easier to spread the paint.

  • Use a separate can. It’s best to get an individual can and mix the paint and thinner in it instead of pouring the thinner into the pain can. This process ensures you get the right mix.
  • Mix the proper ratio. Mix thinners in a specific proportion with regular paints, and each manufacturer will recommend a different number. Typically, the balance is 4:1, paint to thinner, but the numbers may change depending on the type of thinner you use.
  • Test out the mix. Once you’ve created a paint-thinner blend, it’s best to test it using a paintbrush or spray can and notice the paint’s tone, thickness, and viscosity. Keep adding thinner in small quantities till you’re satisfied with the mix.

These are the most common uses of paint thinners in both households and specific industries. It’s important to remember that each type of thinner is suited to a particular purpose, and it’s best to figure out which one works best for the kind of work you intend to perform.

Paint Thinner Alternatives

The paint thinners mentioned in this article comprise chemicals that can be harmful if you expose yourself to them for too long. Everything should be fine as long as you limit your use of these chemicals and ensure you’re in a well-ventilated area while painting.

However, if you’re worried about toxic fumes or hazardous substances, here are a few safer alternatives to traditional paint thinners.

Lemon and Linseed

The best alternative to conventional paint thinners is lemon oil and linseed oil, the ideal solution for those looking for a safe paint thinner. Additionally, you can buy this oil blend from most conventional supermarkets.

All you need is a tin (even plastic will do), a stirring stick, and two types of oil.

  1. Mix the ratio of 4:1 lemon oil with one part linseed oil and stir the mixture for about five minutes before adding it to your paint.
  2. When you start painting, add the thinner gradually and stir the solution continuously—then allow it to sit for five minutes.
  3. After five minutes, test the paint and add thinner if required.


While it’s not the best choice or even the most effective, water can work if you’re looking for a safe thinner, but you’re out of options and strapped for time. However, remember that water only works with acrylic and latex paints. Avoid using water for oil-based paints, or you risk ruining the paint.

Thinning paint with water is straightforward, but you must process it cautiously to avoid overdiluting the color. You can always add more water if necessary, but you can’t thicken the paint if it gets too diluted.


Vinegar is another unconventional kitchen thinner that works remarkably well even with oil-based paints.

  • You’ll need clear vinegar, a container, and a stirring stick.
  • Get roughly one cup of vinegar for every gallon of paint you use.
  • Add half a cup of vinegar to the paint solution and keep stirring while you add the vinegar.
  • Once half a cup is done, let the solution sit for five minutes before adding the other half.
  • Let the final solution sit for five more minutes before testing the paint.
  • You can always add more vinegar if the color is too thin. However, as with the water, be careful how much you add.

Baby Oil

Baby oil is another excellent thinner for oil-based paints, and many artists use this liquid to create colors of the ideal consistency.

  • To use baby oil as a thinner, you’ll need to find one that’s free from other chemicals or compounds. Natural baby oil is your best bet.
  • Pour the baby oil slowly into the can of paint while continuously stirring the mix.
  • You can test the paint out once you feel it has significantly thinned.
  • You can always add more oil if you need to but be careful to do it sparingly, as the solution may become too dense.

Baby oil is the ideal natural paint thinner. However, it increases the sheen of oil-based paints. Additionally, baby oil is also oil; mixing it with oil-based paints can make the color take longer to dry.

Final Thoughts

Paint thinner is a substance with a wide range of applications, from producing works of art to cleaning up the slippery floors of a factory building. If you’re planning to use paint thinner for your household chores, it’s best to find out which one suits your purposes.

Not all thinners are ideal for every surface, and some compounds can degrade and damage certain surfaces if you use them. So before you paint any surface, please research to decide which thinner suits it best.