Paint projects can quickly become overwhelming if you have little knowledge of paint types and the suitable materials for your climate. The surface you want to paint may require a particular paint type for the best results. With latex and enamel paints among the most common options for home improvement projects, learning how to use latex vs. enamel paint is a crucial tool.
The main difference between latex and enamel is that latex paint is water-based and enamel is oil-based. The paint’s base determines other characteristics, directly affecting how you use the paints, the surfaces you can paint, and the overall result of your paint job.
In this article, we’ll explain the primary similarities and differences between these two paints so you can make an informed decision for your project. First, let’s dive into facts about the paints.
What Is Enamel Paint?
What do you think of when enamel paint comes to mind? Durable? Long-lasting?
Enamel is an oil-based or solvent-based paint that’s sometimes called a hard-surface paint because it dries slow and hard, making it ideal for painting a hard surface. Although we call it enamel paint, it does not contain any enamel. The name refers to the paint’s ability to dry into a hard, shell-like surface.
In comparison, true enamel is a glass coating that you paint onto ceramics or metal and bake at extremely high temperatures to cure, usually in a kiln. The enamel paints you see today have no glass content and typically air-dry. They’re much softer than true enamels.
However, some paint manufacturers use enamel to describe water-based paints, making the terminology even more confusing.
For example, you may find synthetic latex paints marketed as enamel. These options use enamel to describe a durable, tough, or water-resistant result rather than the solvent-based ingredient. Some companies may also print the word enamel on the label to mark their product as high-end. This marketing tactic makes the product seem more appealing to consumers.
What Is Latex Paint?
Latex is a water-based paint, so it’s fast-drying and more malleable than oil-based options. This paint type is appropriate for painting surfaces that expand or use in locations where flexibility and movement are necessary. Water-based paints are the most common option. They’re also highly environmentally friendly because they produce fewer odors and toxic fumes.
However, latex paint also does not contain actual latex or any rubber. Similar to acrylic paint, latex contains acrylic resin. The word latex indicates the versatility and malleability of the paint particles more than describe the ingredients. You will most likely see the word latex on interior and exterior paints as an appealing descriptive word for the paint’s versatility.
Latex vs. Enamel Paint: Key Points
The paint’s base may not seem like it matters. However, oil and water bases affect many other factors. These elements extend to how you use the paint and what paint is best for specific projects.
Here’s a quick overview of the primary differences between latex and enamel paints:
|Finish||Gloss or satin||Matte, flat, eggshell, or satin|
|Durability||Hard, shell-like surface that resists yellowing over time||Flexible surface|
|Drying time||6 to 8 hours||1 hour - 2 days|
|Cure time||8 to 24 hours||14 days|
|Odor||Strong, pungent odor||Low odor|
|Brushes||Synthetic or natural animal hair brushes||Synthetic brushes|
|Clean-up||Difficult cleaning process that requires solvents||Easy to clean with water|
|Uses||Sticks to various surfaces, but best for exterior||Ideal for interior projects|
What is the Difference Between Latex and Enamel Paint?
The varying bases mean the paints carry the paint pigments differently. Where latex paint is an emulsion suspended in water, enamel carries the pigments in a solvent. A solvent is similar to paint thinner. Therefore, many differences span from this primary characteristic. We’ll explain each of these distinctions more in-depth below.
The finish you want for your project may help determine the paint you choose. For example, matte, flat, or eggshell finishes are available in latex paints, while enamel has a hard, glossy finish.
Between the two paints, latex is often considered more sophisticated and modern. It has a durable finish so that it can withstand the high traffic area of your home. On the other hand, enamel paint is less likely to stain. They both are easy to clean.
Both paint types come with a satin finish option. It’s the only finish they have in common. Enamel paints with satin finishes are a popular choice for trim, cabinets, and high-impact areas due to their durability.
Another primary difference in the finish of both paints is that enamel typically produces a long-lasting, smooth finish.
Additives, extenders, and conditioners are a popular way to improve your project’s final look. These products can help you thin the paint, extend the drying time, or create a smooth, level finish. You can use paint additives for latex or enamel paints. However, the type of additive your purchase will vary based on your paint type.
Although both paint types are durable, how well the paint holds up over time depends on the conditions. For example, latex paint will not hold up as long in fluctuating climates or exterior uses. Enamel paints are better at withstanding temperature changes and the outdoors.
The drying time of your paint may determine how you use it. For example, latex paints dry quickly, so you have to paint fast and level the paint to dry correctly.
Enamel takes more time to dry. However, you may get a better finish because the oil base allows the surface to absorb the paint. The extended drying time means you can manipulate the paint longer, producing a thick and even coat.
Latex paints dry between a few hours and two days. Most latex options dry in an hour. Enamel paints take at least six to eight hours to dry. You can expect any water-based paint to dry to the touch in a couple of hours, which is when you can apply another layer of paint. Enamel could take longer in thick coats.
However, the drying time of the paint may alter depending on the humidity and temperature of your location.
Latex paint may allow you to use the newly painted object after a couple of days, but the paint does not fully cure for up to 14 days. The paint is not fully dry until it cures. This means you cannot wipe or wash the walls during this time, as the paint is more susceptible to water and chemicals. Enamel paints fully cure in eight to 24 hours.
Both latex and enamel produce paint fumes that can cause headaches, eye irritation, lightheadedness, and trouble breathing. Make sure you have proper ventilation or open windows or doors to create more airflow while working with either latex or enamel paints.
However, the odor is more pungent with enamel paints. Enamel paints also produce more volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than latex. Because these VOCs are common in the paint thinners you need to use with enamels, you must use caution. Exposing yourself to high concentrations of paint could cause issues later.
For this reason, enamel paints are better for small, quick projects. You may want to further protect yourself against the fumes by painting outside as well.
Latex paint has a milder odor and fewer VOCs. You also don’t need to use chemical paint thinners or solvents to clean the paint after your project is complete, so you have more limited exposure. This feature makes latex ideal for indoor and large projects, like walls.
Depending on the manufacturer, you can find both paints in zero or low-VOC formulas. These products minimize the risk of side effects. They’re also safer for children or the elderly, who are more easily affected by paint fumes.
The brush you use for your project may vary based on the paint. If you’re painting using brushes, you have tons of options available at any hardware or craft store.
It’s best to use a natural bristle paintbrush for enamel paints. Look for a natural, animal hair paintbrush, such as a pork hair brush. However, latex paints will soak the water from the natural bristles. For the best results with latex paint, use a synthetic brush. Synthetic brushes are recommended for both enamel and latex paints.
Cleaning after your project is much easier with latex paints, requiring water and a cloth towel. You need to use solvents or paint thinners to clean enamel paints from your brushes and workspace. You also have to be more careful in disposing of latex and enamel paints.
How you use each paint depends on your project. Both paint options come with interior and exterior uses. That said, the flexibility you get with latex paint is less ideal for exterior projects.
The eggshell or flat finish of latex paint produces a modern look for ceilings and interior walls. It’s flexible, durable, and water-resistant, so it’s ideal for many interior projects. Many people choose to use latex in moist rooms of the home, such as bathrooms or kitchens.
Enamel paint’s glossy finish may appear harsh for indoor areas. It’s better suited for the outdoors and metal surfaces. The durability, hard finish, and ability to withstand the elements make it great for exterior projects. The paint also does not tend to fade or yellow over time as much as latex.
Enamel adheres well to the following surfaces:
You can also use latex for a wide array of surfaces, such as:
- Fiber cement
However, the paint you choose may still depend on your project. For example, latex and enamel are both perfect for wood surfaces. But with latex paint, the wood grains may swell and cause you to sand the surface between applying paint coats.
When it comes to price, latex paints are typically more affordable. You are more likely to find latex paints sold in larger quantities, making them the cheaper option long-term. Enamels for modeling tend to come in tiny bottles, while latex paints are often sold in large gallon-sized paint cans.
You also save money using latex paints because you don’t need to purchase paint thinners or solvents to clean the paint. Soap and water are all you need.
Which Paint is Better for Which Surface?
So what surfaces should you paint with each option? When should you use enamel paint?
Enamel paint is hard, glossy, and often used in sparring quantities. The colors appear vivid, and the paint remains durable after it dries. It’s a common choice for modelers, hobbyists, and fingernail polish. Enamel paints are also used for appliances, metal, or any home project where you need reliable protection.
Go with enamel if you plan to roll, brush, or spray the paint. It’s ideal for many home improvement projects where you want to produce a durable, glossy appearance. Some common uses for enamel paint around the home include:
- Kitchen appliances
- Barbecue grills
- Door casings
- Outdoor furniture
- Window trim and sashes
- Crown molding
- Cabinets and cabinet fixtures
- Floors and Decks
- Washers and dryers
Comparatively, latex is ideal for:
- Window frames
- Porch or deck
- Indoor furniture
Latex paint is best for indoor projects and large paint jobs. It’s a popular choice among projects involving home and commercial structures. Go with latex paint for ceilings and walls, especially in moist rooms like the bathroom or kitchen. It’s also great for areas in your home with frequent, rough usage.
Is Enamel Paint Waterproof?
An oil-based or lacquer-based enamel paint is waterproof. They’re ideal for wooden surfaces and exterior projects because they resist water and rot. Recently, water-based enamel paints called acrylic enamels have come out that are not waterproof.
What is Latex Enamel Paint?
You may see a latex enamel paint, which can seem confusing. Enamel used to be synonymous with oil-based paints. But today, latex paints with firmer, smoother finishes are sometimes called latex enamel. Most of these options are still water-based latex paints, but the company adds the term “enamel” to show the formula is more durable than most options on the market.
Can You Paint Latex Over Enamel Paint?
A little-known fact about latex and enamel paints is that you can apply latex directly on top of enamel. However, the process is much more detailed. To paint latex over enamel, you must sand the surface using 100-grit sandpaper to remove the glossy layer. Then, clean and prime the surface before painting on the latex.
Over time, the latex layer may dissolve or peel a bit more than oil-based paint. You may need to re-paint the layer after a few years. Using paints this way is expected for exterior projects.
Alternatively, you can not paint oil-based paints directly over latex. If you want to add enamel over latex, you have to use a water-based primer between each layer.
The Best Latex and Enamel Paints
With many paint options on the market, how do you know which one to buy? Here are our top picks for the best latex and enamel paints today.
Montage Signature Interior/Exterior Eco-Friendly PaintIf you want high-quality, pollutant-free paint, go with Montage Signature. Montage Signature is a well-known brand that produces recycled, eco-friendly latex paints. The brand is affordable, and the less wasteful paints mean you get much more for your money than other brands. They even provide a 10-year warranty.
You can use Montage Signature latex paints for a wide range of uses. It works for interior or exterior uses. The versatile paint offers smooth coverage, while the sealing technology of this formula locks in the color for long-term protection.
Rust-Oleum Stops Rust Protective Enamel PaintRust-Oleum makes a protective enamel paint that stops rust. The oil-based paint is premium quality and super durable. It’s perfect for exterior or interior surfaces, from wood and metal to concrete and masonry. The formula offers additional corrosion and weather-resistant coating to protect against water damage or rust.
You can expect this paint to resist the elements and other flaws over time. It’s resistant to fading, chipping, and abrasion. The glossy finish is fresh. However, the paint is also available in multiple colors and a semi-gloss or difficult-to-find flat finish.
Latex and enamel paints can be confusing because they don’t contain the ingredients they’re named after. Today, many new products on the market fuse characteristics of the two to produce a unique paint formula, such as latex enamels or acrylic enamels.
Keep in mind that latex means the paint is more malleable, while enamel stands for durable. Understanding more about the differences will help you select the right paint for every job.
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