One of the biggest questions in home improvement or craft projects is understanding which paints to use for certain projects. Each type comes with pros and cons that make them ideal for specific uses. When it comes to the two most common household paints, you may wonder about the difference between acrylic paint vs. enamel. What’s the right one to use, anyway?
The primary difference between acrylic and enamel paints is the base and how they’re used. Acrylic is water-based, while enamel is oil-based. Both paint types have advantages and disadvantages and are highly versatile, so the choice typically comes down to your project.
In this article, we’ll show you what you can use each paint type for and explain the differences between the paints. Look for our top picks in acrylic and enamel paint at the end of the article as well.
- Acrylic Paint Vs. Enamel: Quick Summary
- What is Acrylic Paint?
- What is Enamel Paint?
- What is the Real Difference Between Acrylic and Enamel Paint?
- Do You Need to Prime or Seal Acrylic and Enamel Paints?
- Which Paint is Better for Painting Models?
- Can You Mix Acrylic and Enamel Paints?
- Can You Paint Enamel Over Acrylic?
- Can You Paint Acrylic Over Enamel?
- Best Acrylic and Enamel Paints for Your Project
Acrylic Paint Vs. Enamel: Quick Summary
Acrylic paint and enamel vary in many ways, such as:
- Paint type: Acrylics are water-based paints, while enamels can vary.
- Primary uses: Enamel is highly durable, making it great for metal. Acrylic paint is much more versatile. You can use it for nearly any surface.
- Durability: Enamel paint is much more durable and long-lasting, especially in high moisture settings.
- Cost: Price-wise, acrylic paint is the more affordable option.
What is Acrylic Paint?
Acrylic is a water-based paint, which is typically non-toxic. The paint dries quickly and has a matte finish. It won’t crack or fade easily, making it perfect for both indoor and outdoor items. You can use it on:
A huge upside to acrylic paint is that you can paint over it as much as you want, so it’s easier to correct mistakes or add paint layers.
The paint is also resistant to ultra-violet rays, so it holds up well in the sunlight. This makes it great for outdoor walls.
However, acrylic paint is not waterproof. Most brands are somewhat water-resistant, but the porous paint does not hold up well in a damp environment. You’ll most likely need to seal the paint to help protect it.
Another downside is that acrylic paint often requires a primer. You could have to take additional steps to get the surface ready before adding the acrylic paint, depending on your project. Any item you use outdoors will probably require a primer.
- Dries quickly
- Matte finish
- Water-based paints tend to be safe and non-toxic
- Easy to clean
- You can paint over it
- The most flexible medium
- Super affordable
- Lots of vibrant colors and shades
- Fast dry times mean you need to work quicker
- You can see brush marks on the surface
- Requires more layers for the best color depth
- Somewhat water-resistance, but not waterproof
- Provides less coverage
- Not great at adhering to smooth surfaces
- Some projects require a primer, such as outdoor items and plastic
- Difficult to remove after it dries
- May peel over time without a sealant
Types of Acrylics
Most acrylic paints are water-based except for Tamiya paints. There are many acrylic types, such as exterior acrylics to withstand harsh weather conditions or spray paint. Some brands even offer acrylics with an enamel finish, which are more eco-friendly than traditional enamels.
The type of acrylic paint you buy depends on your project.
The common types of acrylics include:
What is Enamel Paint?
Enamel is an opaque paint with a high gloss finish that dries hard. This paint is long-lasting and durable, so it’s typically used for metal surfaces or painting indoors.
The only paint as tough as enamel is a lacquer, which is much more toxic. Studies show that exposure to the lacquer can increase your risk of cancer in the aero-digestive tract. Many people opt for enamel over lacquer for this reason.
Enamel is suitable for painting:
- Some plastics
Most people choose enamel paint for indoor walls, particularly in bathrooms and kitchens. Some enamels are moisture-resistant, making them excellent for humid rooms and surfaces that need frequent washing.
But there are also negatives to painting indoor walls with enamel. Enamels tend to come in fewer colors, and the paint can turn from white to yellow over time with little sun exposure. Enamel also shows bumps and flaws in your walls. Acrylic won’t reflect the sunlight, making it a better paint choice for bright rooms.
- Consistent coverage in a few coats
- The most durable paint besides lacquer
- Excellent for painting bathrooms or kitchens
- Great for metal
- Glossy, durable finish
- Doesn’t require you to apply primer first
- Must use safety precautions and ensure proper ventilation
- Strong odor
- Requires paint thinner for cleaning
- Sometimes toxic
- Take longer to dry
- Fewer color options available
Types of Enamels
Most types of enamel paint are oil-based. However, there are also newer water-based enamel brands on the market.
The main difference between oil-based and water-based enamels is how long they take to dry. Dry times range from eight to 24 hours for oil-based, while water-based enamels typically dry all the way in less than eight hours.
The downside is that oil-based enamels produce a strong odor, so it’s crucial for you to provide plenty of ventilation. Oil-based paint poisoning can take place if enamel paint fumes get into your lungs.
Many brands recommend you wear protective gloves to handle the paint due to the glossy finish. You should also clean your brushes and work area with paint thinner to break down the paint.
Water-based enamels, on the other hand, are easier to clean. All you need is soap and water. Water-based paints are typically considered safer to use. However, they may lack the durability you see with oil enamels.
What is the Real Difference Between Acrylic and Enamel Paint?
Understanding the differences between the paints helps you make an educated decision the next time you purchase paint for a project. Let’s dive into the difference between the two household paints in more depth.
To understand why paints act the way they do, we first need to talk more about paint chemistry. The four main paint properties you should know include:
- Pigment: A powder that provides opacity and color.
- Binder: Provides adhesion and holds pigment particles.
- Solvent: A medium like oil or water that disperses the other properties.
- Additive: This ingredient modifies the paint’s natural properties, such as flow control agents, driers, etc.
The main difference between the paints comes down to the solvent. Most acrylic paints use water for the base, while enamels tend to use oil. However, there are exceptions. Some brands produce water-based enamels. Others make acrylics with an enamel finish.
Although there are many ways you can use both paints, some applications are better than others. The chemical makeup of each paint determines the primary use.
Enamel paint is more waterproof, making it ideal for your home’s outdoor items or areas where moisture is prevalent, like on kitchen and bathroom cabinets or walls.
Enamel paint is primarily used for:
- Outdoor walls
Where enamels perform well for outdoor furniture and metal, acrylics thrive on indoor furniture or porous surfaces. Acrylic also does better at smaller indoor projects.
Acrylic paint is best for:
- Outdoor signages
- Indoor walls
- Public murals
- Arts and crafts
In arts and crafts, acrylic is often the paint of choice. It’s safer for children to use as well.
Acrylic paints dry much faster than enamel, no matter what type. You can expect acrylic paint to feel dry to the touch within a few hours and fully dry around eight hours. Enamels take a minimum of eight hours to dry, with some types requiring closer to 24 hours of dry time.
However, acrylics also require a primer in most cases. Using enamel paint could be quicker for your overall project because it doesn’t need primer or sealant.
Enamel paint provides a gloss finish, while acrylics are matte. You can always paint over acrylic after it dries with another paint to add a glossy finish. Each paint type also comes with exceptions, as brands offer a wide range of modifications. You can buy enamels in varying finishes, including matte, satin, and semi-gloss.
The finish is mostly due to the paint. Enamels are sprayed, rolled, or brushed on. You probably won’t see the brush marks on the paint surface. Expect consistent coverage with enamels. Acrylics show brush marks.
Although the durability of acrylic paints varies, enamels tend to be the more durable option. The reason is that the brush marks the paint leaves at the surface, which can crack and peel if you don’t seal it.
Enamels form a hard and durable topcoat. It’s rust-resistant and waterproof. These features don’t come with acrylics.
Some people like to use acrylic for painting models because you can complete simple touch-ups, it’s easy to clean, and the paint is widely available at craft stores. But acrylic modeling paint is also not as durable as enamel.
Acrylic paint offers more color variations due to the powder pigmentation added to the paint. The water base helps the paint last too. Enamels may turn yellow over time.
Professional-grade acrylics are the most expensive option because they’re the best. They have vibrant, long-lasting colors due to the higher color pigment levels in the paint.
However, go with enamel for your model paint. Enamel model paint offers more vibrant colors and durability. Plus, you don’t need to use a primer.
Levels of VOCs
Most oil-based paints are more toxic than their water-based counterparts. Enamel paint contains a high amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are carbon-based chemicals. VOCs are toxic for personal health and harmful to the environment.
Because enamels have a strong odor and give off these toxic fumes, you need to work in a well-ventilated area. You’ll also have to protect your work area and be careful about how you dispose of the paint after use.
Acrylic paints are typically less toxic and have fewer VOCs, so you don’t have the same concerns with using them. You may want to use protective clothing to keep the paint from your clothing and skin, though.
With acrylic paint, some surfaces require primer and sealant to help the paint adhere. Metal is the biggest example. The primer needs to completely dry before applying the paint, so there’s more preparation involved in using this paint for certain projects.
Enamel paint is often applied without a primer. However, some situations may require you to apply primer to help it last longer.
Indoor / Outdoor Use
Both acrylics and enamels are recommended for interior or exterior use. Whether or not you can use the paint will depend on your project and the brand, however.
Although acrylic paints are great for use indoors and out, they do not hold up as well over time as enamels can on outside surfaces. Enamel paint is more resistant to moisture. It’s also easier to wash the painted surface later.
Water-based acrylics are the paint of choice in the arts and crafts industry because it’s super easy to clean. Unlike enamel, you don’t need to use solvents or paint thinners to clean your workspace. Soap and water are enough for any mess.
With enamel paint, solvents or paint thinners break down the oil base so you can properly dispose of it. You can also remove enamels with some mineral spirits, a common technique used for model painting.
Anti-fade UV protection
Acrylic paint is more resistant to ultraviolet (UV) rays due to the water base, making it ideal for glass or paint exterior walls. Enamels offer less UV protection unless you prime and seal the topcoat.
However, you may find some industrial enamel paints with UV protection.
Both paints are toxic as they dry, but acrylics are typically safer. Because enamel paint takes a long time to dry and the odor is strong the entire time, so you’ll need to leave the item to dry in a safe location with plenty of ventilation for safety.
Most acrylic brands are considered non-toxic and safe. They don’t produce a strong smell or require you to wear safety equipment in all instances. That said, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says some water-based acrylic paints have levels of formaldehyde and ammonia that irritate if you ingest it.
Cost and Availability
Acrylics are typically cheaper than enamel. Artist and student grade acrylics are much more affordable than professional-grade. You can find acrylics are arts and crafts stores or hardware stores.
Enamels are high-quality paint, so they cost more. They also come in tiny bottles of expensive paint for painting models, while the enamels for walls or metal tend to come in larger, more affordable gallon containers.
Do You Need to Prime or Seal Acrylic and Enamel Paints?
Most projects using acrylic paint will require you to prime and seal the surface, while enamels typically don’t need this step. You could use primer and sealant to help enamels become more weather resistant and last longer, though.
There are also enamel and acrylic spray paints that will require you to thin the paint before you can apply it. Some brands offer pre-thinned options.
Which Paint is Better for Painting Models?
Although enamels are more expensive, they are often the top choice for painting models. That said, you can use either paint. It’s a matter of preference.
Acrylics are ideal for touch-ups because you can layer the paint. They also come in many assorted colors and are highly affordable. However, enamels don’t require you to prime or seal. This could make painting your model faster.
Can You Mix Acrylic and Enamel Paints?
When it comes to combining two paints, it’s best never to mix acrylic and enamel paints. They are completely different in chemical makeup. They do not mix well.
For the best results, avoid mixing the two paints. Remove any paint from the surface and start fresh. You can also paint enamel over acrylic to add a gloss finish if you first sand and prime the surface.
Can You Paint Enamel Over Acrylic?
You can paint enamel over acrylic to provide a gloss finish. However, the chemical makeup of the paints could cause the acrylic coat underneath to rise over time. The underlying paint may start to chip and peel.
Can You Paint Acrylic Over Enamel?
Technically, you could paint acrylic on top of enamel. But it’s not recommended in most scenarios because you would need to prepare the painted surface and sand it down before laying down the first coat of acrylic paint.
Best Acrylic and Enamel Paints for Your Project
Here are a few of the best acrylic and enamel paints. Pick the right one for your project.
When deciding between acrylic paint vs. enamel, the choice often comes down to your project. Oil-based enamels are a much more durable option. However, they require the most precautions when using and cleaning up the paint. Go with enamel if you want a permanent solution and acrylic if you’re painting crafts.
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