White paint can be notoriously tricky. It’s a great base for future colors, as well as for creating a clean and crisp appearance that is popular with modern styles. But the preparation and application of white paint need care so that a color shift doesn’t happen.
A common problem with white paint applications is that they can take on a yellow appearance. Either in the form of yellow spots randomly appearing or the entire wall/object taking on a yellow hue.
Each issue has a specific cause and can be fixed – or, better yet, prevented.
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Small Yellow Spots/Stains
Little circular spots or multiple, small, yellow stains are called “bleed through” and are most common on wood that has been painted. Items such as cabinets, stools, and refurbished furniture are prone to bleed through when they are painted with white paint.
Tannins in wood are to blame for yellow stains coming through the white paint. This naturally occurring compound is found in most wood and goes through chemical changes when it comes into contact with water.
There are two very important aspects to preventing bleed-through on wood surfaces you are painting: sealing the wood and using an oil-based primer.
Sealant – To seal the wood and prevent the tannins from leaching through, you’ll need a Shellac-based or Synthetic Shellac primer.
In my experience, BIN Zinsser Primer has the best quality for your money. Opt for this primer/sealant if you are painting a large surface area, like cabinets.
Zinsser Bullseye Seal Coat is another great option that is more cost-effective if you are working with smaller wood objects such as furniture or frames.
One thing to note about any shellac-based primer is that it is very noxious. It’s important to apply them in a well-ventilated area – preferably outside if possible. Then allow ample time for the fumes to dissipate and cure before you apply your paint.
Oil-based Paint – Since tannins in wood react with water, use an oil-based paint instead of a water-based one to double up on protecting your paint from getting those unsightly yellow stains.
There’s a variety of oil-based paints you can choose from different manufacturers, but my tried, and true brand is always Rust-Oleum. They have a Protective Enamel Paint that looks beautiful once it’s dried and applies very easily.
If you find yourself in the unfortunate position of having already painted without using a sealant first, you can spot-prime the yellow areas with a sealant and paint over them. But if you chose water-based paint instead of an oil-based one, your best bet is to strip the item and start over.
Overall Yellow Hue
While an even yellow hue can occur on wood items as well (even if you primed correctly), it’s more common to see this on walls in an entire room. This is usually a sign of an environmental reason as opposed to the underlying material.
Smoking – If the occupants of a house are or were heavy smokers, the nicotine and tar present in cigarette smoke will settle onto the walls and cause a dingy yellow hue over time.
Oil-based Paint – While it’s the paint of choice for wood items, oil-based paint on walls has the disadvantage of yellowing over time simply due to age. Water-based paint can do this too, but it’s not as common and usually associated with a lack of light.
Light – Most paint colors shift over time and get lighter. This isn’t an issue for white walls because you want them to stay white, but if they don’t receive enough light, they can develop a yellow/brown tinge over time.
To fix residue left behind from cigarette smoke, a heavy-duty cleaner, and some elbow grease is needed. Trisodium Phosphate (TSP) is a popular industrial strength cleaner that can really help eliminate deeply set stains from smoke.
If you paint with oil-based paint before and you notice it yellowing, simply applying a fresh coat can help to lighten things up. Or you can switch to water-based paint for your walls in order to prevent the yellow hue in the future.
As far as lack of light exposure, it doesn’t need to be natural light – artificial light sources will still “lighten up” your paint. So if the yellow tinge is barely noticeable, try changing the bulbs in the room to something a little brighter.
It’s actually fairly easy to determine the cause of the yellow stains suddenly appearing on your white paint. Knowing what was painted and how long ago it was painted will help you narrow down the issue.
Take care to prep any objects you paint correctly to avoid the headache of having to redo your project in the future. Also, spend a little bit of extra money at the beginning on the right products so you can get the job done correctly.