Acrylic paint and enamel paint are two popular selections for both indoor and outdoor projects.
While both types of paint come in several different colors and are readily available for purchase at your local paint store, that is where the similarities end.
What’s the difference between acrylic and enamel paint? Acrylic paint is water based and generally nontoxic, can be used for a variety of crafts, and comes in an assortment of consistencies. Enamel paint is oil based, requires ventilation due to its solvent content, dries to a hard shell, and comes primarily in liquid or spray paint formulas.
Acrylic paint and enamel paint can both be used for a variety of purposes, but each is better suited for specific tasks.
In this article you will learn which paints are more appropriate for certain projects and how best to use each individual paint for particular artistic intentions.
Acrylic vs. Enamel Paint: Key Differences
Many people use acrylic paint and enamel paint for similar purposes, including painting furniture and appliances and decorating models.
Knowing the differences between them and the pros and cons of acrylic and enamel paint can help immensely when it comes to efficiently creating your desired results.
Acrylic Paint Characteristics & Uses
Acrylic paint was invented in the early 1900s and wasn’t used by mainstream painters until the 1940s.
This fairly new paint has grown to be utilized for a wide range of activities and purposes.
Makeup & Consistency
Acrylic paint is a water-based medium comprised primarily of pigment, the substance that gives it color, and acrylic polymer.
There are many options when it comes to acrylic paint consistency.
Choices can range from thick heavy-body acrylic paints to more malleable soft-body acrylics to the popular fluid acrylics.
High-flow acrylics are low viscosity and are excellent for paint pouring projects.
Acrylic paint mediums can also be used to transform the consistency of the paint. I explain the different types and when to use them here.
Ease of Use
Acrylic paint is fairly simple to use, and practical techniques can easily be learned by beginners.
Color Mixing & Thinning
Acrylic paints are versatile and easy to use.
Combining colors to create new ones using the basic principles of color mixing is a fun and reasonably straightforward process.
(You’ll find an complete explanation of how to use a color wheel for mixing and creating colors in my article here.)
Acrylic paint mediums can be used to thin out acrylic paints, as can water. Be aware that while using water to thin acrylic paints can create a cool watercolor effect, it will also affect the intensity of the colors.
Acrylic paint has a quick drying time and is permanent once dry.
When using acrylic paint for outdoor projects, it is important to remember that weather and moisture can cause the paint to crack and fade over time.
Using primer and a high-quality varnish as a top coat are essential when looking to create long-lasting acrylic projects outdoors.
Acrylic paints are a popular choice for artists, and are often applied to canvases and paper made specifically for acrylic use.
Acrylic paints can also be used on wood, fabric, metal, glass, and ceramic materials.
Toxicity & Safety Precautions
Acrylic paint is generally nontoxic, but it can include many additives, including surfactants and anti-foaming agents.
It can also contain manganese, cadmium, and chromium, among other harsh chemicals. Be sure to check the label before using acrylic paints indoors or around children.
It’s always a good idea to use acrylic paints in a well-ventilated area, regardless of toxicity levels.
Acrylic paint is a water-based, washable paint, but it becomes increasingly difficult to remove as drying time progresses.
If the paint is still wet, spills can be cleaned up or the paint can be removed from skin and clothing with soap and water.
(Is acrylic paint safe for use as face paint? Find the answer here.)
Once acrylic paint has dried, it requires a little bit of elbow grease for proper removal.
Use baby oil followed by rubbing alcohol to remove acrylic paint from the skin, or apply rubbing alcohol to remove paint stains from clothing.
Rubbing alcohol or acetone can be used to clean dried acrylic paint from floors or counters, but make sure to open windows to air out the fumes.
Acrylic Paint Pros & Cons
|Short drying time||Can often see brush and roller marks once dry|
|Can be used on many different surfaces||Quick drying time|
|Water resistant once dry||May require primer and two coats of paint for desired results|
|Many color options|
Enamel Paint Characteristics & Uses
Enamel paint is an oil-based, slow-drying paint that dries to a hard, durable shell. While it is known for its glossy appearance, it can also come in matte and satin finishes.
Makeup & Consistency
Enamel paint is a long-lasting paint that can be used indoors, outdoors, and on a multitude of surfaces.
Lacquer paint is the only paint that is more durable than enamel paint but is used less often due to its toxicity.
Ease of Use
Enamel paint is simple to use, although there can be many steps involved in its appropriate application depending on the project.
When repainting a surface, it is important to first remove old paint and to either use an enamel paint with a built-in primer or to apply an oil-based primer to the surface before painting.
Some enamel paints are water based, which means that they have faster drying times and are easier to remove.
However, oil-based enamel paints are more durable and are a better choice for long-lasting wear.
Color Mixing & Thinning
Enamel paints can be mixed at the store, but they can also be hand-mixed at home.
Use a paint stick to stir the enamel paint for approximately five minutes. You can also pour the paint between two cans to mix it.
After mixing, add a reducer and continue stirring until your paint is the desired consistency.
Reducers are an excellent additive for enamel paint projects involving large areas as they increase the amount of paint without dulling the color or finish.
When choosing a reducer, be sure to pick one that comes from the same company as the enamel paint, and follow the manufacturer guidelines for proper ratios.
Once the reducer is completely mixed in, you can add a hardener to the mix, which will make the finish tougher and can help it to dry faster.
It is important to thin enamel paint in a well-ventilated area. Wearing a respirator is recommended.
Choose the appropriate thinner for the type of enamel paint you are using; make sure you use paint thinner specifically made for oil-based, water-based, or spray-paint type enamel paint.
Follow the recommended ratios when mixing paint thinner with enamel paint, and never use water to thin oil-based enamel paint!
Always spot test a small area of the surface to be painted before applying the thinned paint to the entire project.
Enamel paint is a long-lasting, permanent paint.
While enamel paint will stick to most surfaces, some materials may need to be primed before painting in order for the enamel paint to adequately adhere.
It’s always a good idea to use a primer and a topcoat when applying enamel paint to any high-use or outdoor surfaces.
Oil-based enamel paint can take 8-24 hours to fully dry. Enamel paints have strong odors while drying, so it’s important to make sure the drying area is ventilated sufficiently.
Water-based enamels dry faster than oil-based enamels, with a roughly estimated 8 hour drying time.
Low temperatures and high humidity can affect drying times for enamel paints, so it’s always best to allow several days after painting before testing the surface.
Enamel paint is good for painting metals, wood, appliances, glass, and some plastics.
They are water resistant, making them excellent choices for high-moisture areas such as kitchens or bathrooms.
Enamel paints are also good for touching up smaller projects, such as model cars, or giving a nice finish to items like bicycles, grills, or washers and dryers.
Enamel paint can be a prime choice for outdoor projects as it is moisture resistant and can come in weather-resistant forms.
Floor enamel paints are great for floors, concrete, stairs, and porches.
There are also fast-drying enamel paints that can dry in just 15 minutes and can be used for small touch-up projects.
Enamel paints can come in a heat-resistant version, which is good for extreme climates or any material that gets hot, such as auto parts or grills.
Toxicity & Safety Precautions
Due to its toxicity, it is crucial to take proper precautions when using enamel paint.
Painting in a well-ventilated area and using a respirator can help to reduce the effect of fumes on your health.
Enamel paint can contain toxic solvents that include benzenes, xylenes, and mineral spirits.
Enamel paint contains harsh chemicals, so it is best to wear gloves and protective gear while painting.
If you do happen to get enamel paint on your skin, apply glycerin to the area, then wipe it with turpentine to remove the paint.
Make sure to thoroughly wash the paint and solvents from your skin using soap and water.
It’s important to keep the paint off of your skin in the first place and to avoid using solvents to remove paint from your body, as long-term exposure to turpentine can cause lung cancer.
To clean brushes or spilled paint, you will need to use paint thinners, which also require ventilation.
White spirit brush cleaners or turpentine can be used to clean the brushes.
Brushes must be thoroughly cleaned after use; if any paint remains on the brushes, they will become too stiff to use.
Water-based enamels are much easier to clean than oil-based enamels, and brushes and spills can be cleaned using water.
Enamel Paint Pros & Cons
|Can choose high-gloss, matte, or satin finishes||Long drying time|
|Some versions are weather resistant, which are great for outdoor projects||Limited color options|
|Can come in spray-paint form, which is helpful for furniture||Requires solvents for cleanup|
|Floor enamel can be used on floors, concrete, and window trim||Can contain toxic chemicals|
|Can serve as a protectant||Once dry it is very hard, so not good for items that need to retain flexibility|
|Can be costly for larger scale projects|
How To Decide Between Acrylic and Enamel Paint
Acrylic and enamel paint are often used for similar projects, but there are times when one is definitely more suitable for a specific task than the other.
Acrylic vs. Enamel Paint
Acrylic Paint Is Best For:
Enamel Paint Is Best For:
|Fine art, use on canvases||Auto painting|
|Larger scale projects requiring a shorter dry time||Detailing appliances|
|Indoor walls, siding, drywall, shutters||Painting outdoor furniture|
|Beginner model painting projects||Floors, basements, porches, stairs|
When To Use Acrylic Paint
Use acrylic paint when you have a larger scale project that requires shorter drying time. Acrylic dries faster and is also much more cost effective.
Although enamel paint has been used for artistic paintings, acrylic is the paint of choice for fine artists and painting scenes and subjects on canvas.
When To Use Enamel Paint
Enamel paint is great for touch-ups on smaller projects, such as appliances. Floor enamel is the best choice for painting floors, concrete, and basements.
Due to its durability, enamel paint is also an effective choice when it comes to painting outdoor furniture.
Tips for Using Acrylic Paints
- Prep your painting surface as needed by sanding and priming the material before painting.
- When painting a surface that will be exposed to the elements, be sure to use a high-quality varnish.
- Choose specially crafted acrylic airbrush paints for use with an airbrush, and thin as needed.
Tips for Using Enamel Paints
- Enamel paint can be applied to many different surfaces, but you may need to remove old paint before applying.
- Some enamel paints have built-in primer; otherwise it may be necessary to apply primer to the surface before painting.
- Most enamels dry with a high gloss finish, but you can also find enamel paints with satin or matte finishes.
- Enamel paints can be used with an airbrush, but they must be properly thinned first.
Is Acrylic Paint Better Than Enamels for Models?
Enamel paint dries hard and glossy, making it an attractive choice for models.
Due to its longer drying time and easier cleanup process, acrylic is a great option for beginners. Both acrylic and enamel paint can be used for effectively painting models.
Can You Paint Acrylic Paint Over Enamel Paint?
Most enamel paint is oil based, while acrylic paints are water based. Painting acrylic paint over enamel paint is ineffective due to the difference in their constitutions.
However, with a little prior preparation, it is not impossible to paint acrylic paint over enamel paint.
You will want to first sand down and remove the enamel paint. You can then use primer to create a smooth surface for the acrylic paint to adhere.
Wrapping It Up
Acrylic paint and enamel paint are both high quality, opaque paints that are suitable for a wide range of projects.
When you’re looking for a nontoxic paint with a fast drying time, acrylic is your best bet.
For projects that will see a lot of wear and tear and require durability and a high-gloss finish, enamel paint is the clear choice.