What is Enamel Paint?

Airfix Enamel paint

Enamel paint is tough, which makes it popular among homeowners aiming to kill two birds with one stone: cosmetic appeal and durability. Enamel paint refreshes and preserves practically any surface – from indoor wood trims to outdoor metals. Despite being a really excellent coating, however, enamel is still a mystery to many people. But not to you. Keep reading for an in-depth explanation of enamel paint, its strengths, and its best uses.

Introduction to Enamel Paint

Enamel paint is the strongest paint type that gives you a lacquered, long-lasting, and glossy finish. It’s essentially an umbrella term that covers any type of paint that cures to a glass-like, hard shell. 

By definition, enamel means an opaque or semi-transparent glassy substance that is applied to surfaces as a protective or ornamental coating. The opaque film comes from a strong combination of pigment, resin, solvent, and other additives. It provides both protective and aesthetic qualities to any surface. 

Simply put, enamel paint is a durable coating that dries to an opaque, hard, and shiny finish. It’s compatible with most building materials and is resistant to stains, heat, moisture, and abrasion, making this paint a great choice both for interior and exterior paint jobs. Enamel-painted surfaces are also super easy to clean and strong enough to withstand frequent cleanings. 

A little enamel history: Enamel paint came to the market right after the end of World War II as a baked enamel alternative. Baked enamel left a hardened shell over an object’s surface just like enamel paints and was used in factories on products like tubs and ovens. It was an expensive item and not suitable for DIY. 

Types of Enamel Paint

Mostly, irrespective of the brand you choose, enamel paints are oil-based. However, you can find a few exceptions that are water-based. The main difference between the two lies in the type of solvent present. Oil-based paints have alkyd resin or mineral turpentine and water-based enamels primarily contain water. 

The solvent evaporates as the paint dries, and these different chemical and physical changes generate different paint finishes and characteristics. 

Water-Based Enamel PaintOil-Based Enamel Paint
Available in a variety of colorsLimited color options
Not great for doors and window framesHighly protective coating for doors and window frames
Comes in gloss and semi-gloss finishesLarge variety of gloss finishes
Very flexible Less flexible and hardens up
Low-sheen levelGives a super high gloss paint finish
Dries in 1-hour minimumDries in 8 hours minimum
Ready for a second coat after four or five hoursReady for a second coat after 24 hours
Suitable for interior and exterior wallsSuitable for interior walls
Resistant to all zinc-rich metals and alkalis in woodGood for zinc-rich metals and alkalis in wood
UV-resistantLow UV resistance
Low VOC emissionsHigh VOC emissions
Needs just water to cleanNeeds a paint remover or thinner for cleaning

*VOCs stand for Volatile Organic Compounds. These are a group of skin, nose, and throat irritating chemicals that evaporate into the air at room temperature. They negatively impact the environment as well.

Best Uses For Enamel Paint

A painter paints a wooden post with alkyd enamel on a children's playground
Photo Credit: Aleksandr Bushkov / Canva Pro / License

This paint type is versatile in its applications. You can use it for small DIY paint jobs as well as those extended exterior painting projects. Enamel paints are your best choice for projects that require either a glassy, glossy look or ultra-durability. If we have to put it in one sentence, it’d be: 

Use enamel paints in areas where you need a high gloss finish and ease of cleaning. Or, in other words, if you want to protect a surface and make it look pretty, pick enamel paints. 

Enamel paints are popularly used for:

Outdoor Furniture

Be it wood or metal, exposure to elements outdoors will dim the charms of your outdoor furniture, even on hardy resin outdoor furniture items. Enamel paint forms a hard coating that will keep your tables and chairs safe from the extremities of nature and make them classier. These paints also provide UV protection and lend their bright color to perk up your backyard. 

Kitchen Appliances

Enamel paint is perfect if you want to touch up minor chips and scratches you see on kitchen appliances. Or, if you want to change the color theme or look of the space. The smooth and shiny enamel finish also protects against heat and moisture damage in such applications.

Door and Window Casings

Coating your window and door casings and baseboard trims will make them last longer as the hard shell protects the trims from daily wear and tear. There’s a wide variety of colors available so you can easily match the paint with your home’s theme. Simply clean the casings with trisodium phosphate (TSP), mask the surrounding areas, and apply two coats of enamel paint. 

Barbecue Grills

Enamel paint is perfect for a weather-resistant coating for your barbecue grill. All you have to do is thoroughly clean up the barbecue grill, remove the grill rack, and coat it twice with spray paint in a can. 

Exterior Walls

Going for a glossy, fresh look on the home exterior? Enamel paints stand up well to harsh sunlight, fluctuating temperatures, rain, wind, and other elements without fading or chipping. This makes them a great choice for exterior walls. 

Floors

You can also spruce up your porch or garage with a coat of enamel paint. Its high gloss paint not only makes your garage look cool but also keeps it protected for years to come. Plus, enamel-painted floors are super easy to clean. Enamel works well with wood and concrete so it’s a great pick for coating outdoor flooring. 

Cabinets

Cabinets, whether they’re in the kitchen, bedroom, storage room, or bathroom, take a lot of abuse. They get scratched, scuffed, and bashed. A coat of protective enamel paint will make your cabinets better able to withstand frequent cleaning and enhance the appearance. All you’ll have to do to refresh your cabinets is to wipe them down. 

Check out our guide on painting cabinets for more information.

Handrails

Handrails are often ignored in home makeovers. A coat of high gloss enamel paint will free your handrails from dust and dirt, especially in high-traffic areas. Painted handrails will also become easy to clean and prevent contamination. 

Materials Compatible With Enamel Paint

One outstanding quality of enamel paint is that its resins will adhere to a wide range of surfaces. Here’s a quick list of materials enamel paint will stick well to:

  • Aluminum
  • Glass
  • Stainless steel
  • Caulking
  • Galvanized steel
  • Porcelain
  • Plastic
  • Ceramic
  • Wood

Enamel Paint Do’s and Don’ts

Here are a few useful tips to remember when dealing with enamel paints:

Do’s 

  • Always wear a safety mask, safety goggles, neoprene gloves, and a leather apron when handling enamel paint.
  • If you’re using a spray gun, use a spray booth that is fitted with an exhaust system.
  • Always prep the surface. For some surfaces it just involves cleaning up, for others, such as metal, you will have to sand the surface too to improve adhesion.
  • Use a high-quality brush to paint smaller surfaces. 
  • Clean your hands thoroughly after your paint job.

Don’ts 

  • Most enamel paints are flammable, so do not use the paint near a heat source or smoke around the paint.
  • Don’t rush between coats. Allow adequate time for the paint to dry before you put on a second coat. Oil-based paints may take up to 8 to 24 hours to completely dry while water-based paints may dry in 6 to 18 hours. 

Pros and Cons of Enamel Paint

Some projects are a perfect fit for the hardy enamel finish while others will fare better with a different type of paint. Some advantages and disadvantages of using enamel paint include:

Pros

  • Easy to apply, goes on smoothly
  • Applies and adheres well to outdoor surfaces including wood and concrete
  • Provides a hard, glass-like, and smooth finish
  • Compatible with numerous surfaces
  • Freedom of choice; they’re available in a variety of sheen levels

Cons

  • Difficult to mix
  • Expensive 
  • Requires paint thinners, mineral spirits, or other professional solvents to clean
  • Gives strong odor (VOCs) that may trigger headaches or nausea
  • Depending on the type of resin used, the drying time is often extensive

Enamel Paint Vs. Acrylic Paint

Both paints differ in their composition and uses. Here’s a quick view of enamel paint vs. acrylic paint for you:

  • Paint Base: Enamel paint is a type of resin and typically has an oil base. You need a lacquer or paint thinner to clean the paint brushes after using it. While acrylic paint, on the other hand, is water-based and is easier to clean.
  • Primer Needs: Enamel paints rarely require a primer coat while most acrylics do. 
  • Drying Time: Enamel takes longer to dry than acrylic paint. 
  • Application Technique: Enamel paints require you to use the right kind of paint brush bristles so you don’t leave visible brush strokes. Whereas acrylic paint flows much more easily and dries faster, therefore requires a different application approach. 
  • Finish: Enamel paint leaves a bump-free, shiny, high-gloss finish while acrylic paint has a matte finish. 
  • Hardiness: Enamel paints dry harder than acrylic and latex paints and are more suited for areas that don’t flex or shift over time. Enamel’s limited flexibility may give you peeled or chipped paint in such areas. Acrylic paints allow more flexibility and are ideal for areas that may flex over time. 
  • VOCs: Enamel paints contain VOCs and acrylics do not.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is enamel paint made of?

Enamel paint contains two components: a pigment or colorant and an enamel base. The pigment gives the paint its color and affects other characteristics such as the drying time and coverage. The enamel base is a type of resin that gives enamel paint its hard and durable finish upon drying. 

Are enamel paints waterproof?

Lacquer- or oil-based enamel paints are waterproof and perfect for application in outdoor and high-traffic areas. Water-based enamel paints are not waterproof but may be water-resistant to some level. Read our waterproof paint guide for more information.

How long does enamel paint last?

For interior walls, expect enamel paint to last 4 to 6 years with moderate use and under normal circumstances. While for exterior applications the life may vary from 3 to 5 years depending on the level of exposure. 

Ready for New Paint?

Although enamel paints are fine for DIY applications, you might still want to hand this task over to a professional. This is because they know how to safely handle high emissions and tricky applications. So, save yourself the headache and call in a pro to color your walls.

Main Photo Credit: Joost J. Bakker / Flickr / CC BY 2.0 DEED

Farah Nauman

Farah Nauman is a freelance writer and an accountant based in Pakistan. She spends most of her time combating the South Asian heat and being a mom to her three fluffy cats and a dozen little Aloe Veras in her house.