The enamel vs latex paint debate is common among woodworkers, especially beginners and DIYers. The difference is obvious after you finish painting. However, choosing the right one at the beginning of the project is a nightmare. 

This guide explores key differences between the two paint types to help you make an informed choice.

Enamel vs Latex Paint

The main difference between enamel and latex paint is the paint base. Enamel is an oil-based paint, while latex is a water-based paint. The base is critical as it determines the paint’s characteristics, indirectly impacting where you can use it. 

What is Enamel Paint?

Enamel paint is oil-based or solvent-based. Remember that the name doesn’t imply that the paint contains enamel. It merely means it dries to a hard, enamel-like surface.

Unfortunately, some latex paints are marketed as “enamel,” further complicating matters. But don’t be confused.

When used to describe latex paints, the term “enamel” only means the latex paint dries to a hard, durable, water-resistant finish. It’s a marketing ploy to appeal to customers. 

What is Latex Paint?

Commonly known as acrylic paint, latex paints are water-based. You may already guess it’s called “latex” because it’s elastic, like rubber –  which is partly true. However, there’s more. The main reason is that latex paints are made with a water-soluble synthetic latex base. 

Latex is a type of rubber. So, synthetic latex refers to artificial rubber derived from petroleum by-products. Synthetic latex is a binder that keeps paint pigment (color) glued to metal surfaces and other painting surfaces.

9 Key Differences Between Enamel and Latex Paint

If you’re trying to choose the best option between enamel and latex paints, the following head-to-head comparison makes your work much easier. 

1. Finish 

Both enamel and latex paints have satin finishes. So, either is a good choice for a middleground between flat and semi-glosss. However, that’s where the similarities end.

For instance, latex, the more sophisticated of the two, offers more modern finishes. These include eggshell, matte, and flat finishes. Moreover, the finishes are durable, easily withstanding high traffic.

Meanwhile, enamel paint finishes are glossy or semi-gloss. However, they are extremely durable, lasting many years more than latex paints. They are also less likely to stain. 

Note that glossy paint has a low binder concentration, thus highly reflective or shiny. The opposite is true for flat paints.

2. Interior vs exterior use

Modern interior decor utilizes less shiny paints, making latex paints the preferred choice. Eggshell and flat paints are particularly common, especially in spacious areas with plenty of lighting.

Flat paints are perfect for ceilings, while eggshell does a great job on walls. The furthest most people go indoors is satin.

On the other hand, enamel paints look harsh and dated over large spaces indoors. So, they’re ill-suited for interior walls and ceilings. But they’re perfect for the outdoor weather.

They don’t fade as much as water-based paints and are easier to clean. Unfortunately, latex paints are permanently flexible, thus ill-suited for outdoor weather. They also stain more easily. 

3. Paint fumes and VOCs

Paint fumes and Volatile Organic Compounds(VOCs) are harmful. For instance, fumes can cause lightheadedness and nausea. Meanwhile, VOCs cause nasal, eye and skin irritation and breathing difficulty.

The good news is most manufacturers do everything they can to minimize the fume and VOC content. But you must be careful, nonetheless. 

Latex paints have fewer VOCs and produce fewer fumes. This makes them the best choice for large projects and interior surfaces. Meanwhile, enamel paints produce significant fumes and contain substantial VOCs, making them best suited for outdoor projects. 

However, the lower VOC content and fewer fumes don’t make latex paints completely safe. So, be cautious. Closely read the label and read reviews before committing your money.

4. Drying time/cure time

Drying time is the duration between painting and when the paint becomes dry to the touch. Meanwhile, cure time is the period it takes for the paint to lose all water or solvent, becoming completely dry.

As you’d imagine, latex paint dries faster. Standard latex paints dry in about an hour, whereas enamel paint dries in 6-8 hours.

However, enamel paint cures faster. So while latex paint takes up to 14 days to dry fully, enamel paint completely dries in 24 hours. 

Note that a longer drying time provides room for error, allowing you to fix blemishes and brush strokes for a more even finish. Unfortunately, enamel paints don’t offer this luxury. 

5. Ease of cleanup

Ease of cleanup is important for two reasons. First, every painter wishes to quickly wash the paint off their skin and clean up any spillovers after painting.

Similarly, homeowners rest easier knowing they can easily wipe stains off painted walls or furniture. Each paint type excels in one area but flops in the other.

Latex paint is easy to wash off immediately after painting. You only need water to wash the paintbrushes and a towel to wipe the paint off unintended surfaces. However, cleaning stains on surfaces painted with latex paint is a nightmare. 

Meanwhile, it’s super easy to wipe off snails from a glossy surface covered in enamel paint. But you need thinners and solvents to wash solvent-based paint from brushes or unintended surfaces. 

6. Durability 

All paints wear off eventually. For instance, ongoing oxidation eventually results in reduced color intensity/concentration.

At the same time, wear and tear from everyday use can cause the paint to peel off. Nonetheless, we want durable paints that can resist adverse conditions for many years.

Again, both enamel and latex paints are very durable. Indeed, longevity often comes down to the manufacturer and paint quality rather than the base material (water or solvent). 

But generally, enamel paint is more durable. Although it scratches and peels readily from sharp objects, it’s weather resilient and thus lasts much longer with proper maintenance. Meanwhile, latex paints fade quickly in sunny areas and shrivel as quickly in cold conditions. 

7. Brushes 

First off, you can use any paintbrush for any paint type. So, don’t worry if you have already purchased synthetic or natural-bristled brushes for the upcoming project. You’re fine as long as you’re attentive and patient. 

That said, you’ll have an easier time with natural-bristle brushes when using enamel paint and synthetic-bristled bushes when using latex paint. Why? Because natural bristles soak up water, potentially damaging the finish.

Natural hairs become saturated with water after a few rounds of painting, swelling up. Swollen bristles can damage your project. 

Synthetic brushes work equally well for enamel paints. But natural bristles provide a more even finish with fewer brush strokes. 

8. Uses

The uses of acrylic enamel and acrylic latex paints overlap. However, suitability depends on many factors, from durability to personal preferences.

For instance, latex paints are better suited for indoor projects as eggshell and flat finishes blend wonderfully with interior textures. Meanwhile, enamel paints perform excellently outdoors because they are more weather-resistant. 

Another major consideration is what you’re painting. For instance, enamel paint excellently adheres to glass, steel, aluminum, and wood.

It also performs well on caulk, plastic, ceramic, and porcelain. However, it performs poorly on fiber cement and concrete.

On the other hand, latex paints bond exceptionally with concrete and fiber cement surfaces but don’t stick strongly to glass and plastic. 

9. Cost

Finally, who doesn’t think about prices when shopping? No one. It’s one of the most critical factors. Indeed, the cost can force you to pick one paint type over the other.

The good news is that enamel and latex paints are available in so many grades and qualities that the cost is rarely a stumbling block.

Moreover, you can always shop across brands to take advantage of lower prices and discounts. That way, you can get the desired look and quality within your budget.

That said, latex paints are more affordable than enamel paints in two ways. First, a gallon of latex paint costs less to make, thus lower shelf prices.

Secondly, you need thinners to dilute and wash solvent-based paints. Meanwhile, you only need water for latex paints. 

Key Differences Between Enamel and Latex Paint

Pros and Cons of Enamel Paint 

The main advantage of enamel paint is its durability. Enamel paint is resistant to weather elements. Therefore, it stays put for a long time with good maintenance.

Additionally, enamel paints cure into a hard, protective “enamel,” shielding the underlying surface. This makes it the perfect choice for high-traffic areas like decks. Also, enamel paint cures fast. 

On the other hand, enamel paints are disadvantageous for their strong odors and high VOC content. The odors linger for days, especially indoors, causing lightheadedness, nausea, and potential breathing issues.  

Above all, the surface must be completely dry before applying enamel paint. Otherwise, the paint won’t adhere properly, leading to surface imperfections and premature deterioration. 

Pros and Cons of Latex Paint

Most people who choose latex over enamel paint do so for reasons related to the sheen. For all its advantages, enamel paint offers only glossy and semi-gloss sheens, both unsuited for high-light indoor applications, such as walls and ceilings.

You must use latex paint for a flatter sheen.

Latex paint also stands out for its environment-friendliness. It produces fewer fumes and VOCs, thus friendlier to the user and the environment. 

Unfortunately, latex paints dry to the touch quickly, leaving no time to correct mistakes like brush marks. So, you may end with an uneven project.

Worse still, it takes ages to cure fully, increasing the risk of accidental stains and weather damage. 

FAQs

Is enamel paint latex?

No. Enamel and latex paints are different. Enamel paint is solvent-based, while latex paint is water-based. Moreover, enamel paints dry to a hard, smooth finish, while latex paints cure into an elastic textured finish. That said, latex paints that dry to a hard protective finish are sometimes called enamel paints. 

What is latex enamel paint used for?

You can use latex enamel paint anywhere, indoors or outdoors. It offers the perfect balance of protection and texture, making it suited for most applications. For instance, low-sheen enamel latex paints are perfect for interior walls if you pick the right colors. Meanwhile, higher sheens are great for furniture and outdoor applications. 

Is enamel paint waterproof?

Yes, enamel oil paint is waterproof. It contains dammar, which is highly water-resistant. This is why enamel paints are very common in the woodworking industry. They protect wooden surfaces from moisture and accidental spills. But note that oil-based enamel paint only sticks to uncoated wood without preparation.

Can you mix latex and enamel paint?

No, you cannot mix enamel and latex paint. You can try. But the results are so bad you’ll regret doing it. The main reason is that oil (the base component of enamel paints) doesn’t mix with water (the primary ingredient of latex paints. However, after thorough surface preparation, you can apply enamel paint over latex paint. 

Interesting read: How to remove latex paint from wood.

Verdict

The main difference between enamel and latex paints is that enamel paints are solvent/oil-based while latex paints are water-based. But the two differ in many other aspects, including sheen, durability, ease of cleaning, ease of use, and price. 

When to Use Enamel Paint: We recommend enamel paints for outdoor projects. For instance, enamel paints are perfect for this work. Alternatively, consider enamel paints for glass, plastic, and outdoor furniture.

When to Use Latex Paint: We recommend latex paint for interior walls and ceilings. It’s particularly suited for modern decor if you wish to add texture to your rooms. However, it’s also perfect for indoor furniture.

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