Enamel vs Emulsion Paint (Are They The Same?)

When picking a paint type to cover walls, DIYers are commonly advised to either go for enamel or emulsion paint. Why? Because both paint types are very durable, moisture-resistant, and when dry, produce a beautiful finish.

So which of these paints is the best? And how do you know which one to go for? The answers to these questions and more will be revealed in this article.

Let’s dive in. First, let’s check out Enamel paint and its uses.

What is Enamel Paint?

Enamel paint is an oil-based paint. Though there are a few water-based versions, they aren’t very common. Enamel Paint is also known as slow-dry paint.

The paint due to the oil-based nature of the solvent takes a while to become dry. Enamel paints can remain tacky for hours hence the name; slow-dry.

When dry, enamel paint produces a glossy film as the top layer. This film makes the enamel coating reflective and shiny when exposed to light.

The glossy film is also a thick layer that is super durable and moisture-resistant. The thickness of the coating prevents the material and finish from damages. The glossy layer is also easy to clean and tough stains can be easily wiped off with white spirit.

Enamel paint is common on building exteriors, walls, and outdoor furniture. This is because the paint’s glossy layer makes it thrive in harsh conditions.

However, enamel paint has a flaw. The paint contains a high volume of VOCs (or volatile organic compounds) and paint chemicals that release an offensive odor when exposed to the atmosphere.

Now, let’s check out emulsion paint and its uses.

What is Emulsion?

What is Emulsion Paint?

Emulsion paint is a water-based paint. The paint when dry produces a dry textured matte finish that is very accommodating and can be finished by being sealed with any sealant.

Emulsion paint is commonly used to cover building interior walls. Emulsion paint is also common on plastered surfaces like ceilings. The water-based nature of emulsion paint makes it stick to several types of surfaces including concrete and metal.

Also, emulsion paint has a very low level of VOCs and chemicals so it doesn’t produce any offensive odor or fume.

But, emulsion paint has a flaw. The paint is not as water-resistant as oil-based paints. This is because of its water-based solvent. This means emulsion paint is not washable. The finish should only be wiped and cleaned. Washing emulsion paint can blur the finish.

Emulsion paint is a very bright and vibrant finish. But how good is the finish when compared to enamel paint? Let’s find out by comparing both paint types.

Enamel vs Emulsion Paint?

To compare both paints, we’ll use their features and finishes. Let’s start at the beginning, the paint base.

The Paint Base

The paint base refers to the solvent used in the paint. Every paint type has a solvent, paint pigment, and binder in the paint coating. The paint base or solvent is what makes it easy to apply the paint. The solvent also keeps the paint from curing inside the paint container.

For emulsion paint, the paint base or solvent is water. For enamel paints, it’s either natural or synthetic oil.

The Paint Drying Time

The paint base determines how long it takes for the paint to dry. For paint to dry, the solvent has to be completely evaporated from the paint coating. Since emulsion paints are water-based, the paint coating dries faster than enamel paints. This is because water evaporates faster than oils.

Paint Strength and Durability

Paint strength and durability determine how long the paint will last on the material. In terms of strength, enamel paints are stronger than emulsion paint. Again, this is because of the paint base.

Since enamel paints are oil-based, the paint coating dries to form a thick and hard layer. This layer is chip and water-resistant. Enamel paints can last over 15 years if applied correctly.

Emulsion paints on the other hand have a stain life of about 12 years. Emulsion paints don’t usually retain quality for more than 10 years.

This is because the paint is water-based. So when it dries, it’s not very durable. Though emulsion paint is also strong and water-resistant, it’s not as durable as enamel paints. This is why painters advise sealing emulsion paint.

Paint Preparation

Before you can apply paint, you need to prepare it first. In terms of paint prep, emulsion paints are easier and quicker to prep than enamel paint.

This is because you usually need to thin enamel paint before using it especially if you want to spray the enamel.

Emulsion paints don’t need to be thinned. But, enamel paints have to be thinned with turpentine or mineral spirits.

The Paint Binder

The paint binder is what holds the paint pigments together. The binder also helps the paint coating adhere to the material. For enamel paints, the paint binder is usually oil. Most enamel paints use linseed oil, poppy oil, or nut oil.

Emulsion paints on the other hand use acrylic resins. However, some enamel paints also contain alkyd resins which improve the paint bonding. Speaking of paint bonding, let’s check that out.

Paint Bonding

Enamel paints bond to material better than emulsion paints. This isn’t a surprise though since enamel paints contain oils, chemicals, and sometimes alkyd resins. All of which improve the enamel paint bonding. The improved paint bonding also helps the enamel paint in terms of durability since the coating will be chip-resistant.

However, enamel paints don’t bond to non-porous materials like plastic and glass. Emulsion bonds to virtually any type of material.

Paint Odor

Paint odor determines how soon you can sleep in or use a room that has just been painted. Emulsion paints have a very low odor.

The odor from emulsion paints is weak and it clears out in minutes. Enamel paints however have a strong paint odor. The odor from enamel paint is produced as the chemicals in the paint react to the atmosphere.

When the paint is applied, the active chemicals in the paint coating are exposed to the environment. The reaction of these chemicals to the atmosphere produces a strong odor that can turn toxic if inhaled.

Interior or Exterior Use

Another way to compare both paints is to compare their uses on exterior and interior material. Both paints can be used on interior and exterior materials but emulsion paints are more ideal for interior use. This is because emulsion paints dry quickly and the paint doesn’t produce fumes when applied.

Emulsion paint can also be used on exterior material or outdoor furniture but the paint has should be sealed with a clear or glossy top coat to prevent the paint color from wearing off. Also, if emulsion paint is used outdoors, it can be easily affected by moss and mildew especially if it is exposed to water or rain.

Enamel paints however are more suited to outdoor use. The paint produces odor when applied so it’s better to use it outdoors where the odor can be dispersed quickly. Also, enamel paints are thicker and stronger making the paint thrive in the harsh exterior environment.

Paint Clean-up and Maintenance

If you don’t clean and maintain a finish, it will turn dark. In terms of maintenance, emulsion paints are easier to clean and maintain. You can wipe off any stain from the emulsion finish with a damp rag. Tougher stains will require small dish soap and a wipe.

For enamel paints, you can’t clean with just water. You’ll need a mild solvent like white spirit to clean enamel paints.

Paint Primer

Emulsion paints require latex or water-based primer while enamel paints require oil-based primer. Also, you can paint emulsion over material without priming first.

Though the paint coating may not come out smooth, it will stick. Enamel paints however will need a primer, especially on porous materials.

Paint Flexibility

Emulsion paints are more flexible than enamel paints. This is because the paint can expand or move based on temperature variations. Since emulsion paints are more flexible, the paint wouldn’t crack or split.

Paint Cost

Emulsion paints are costlier than enamel paints.

Paint Coverage

Paint coverage refers to the size of the material or canvass that can be covered with the paint. One liter of enamel paint will cover about 130 square feet of material.

One liter of emulsion paint however will cover about 160 square feet of material. With emulsion paints, you can cover more areas and complete re-coats easily.

The Finish

The paints are also different in the type of finish they give. Emulsion paints produce a dry matte finish while enamel paints produce a glossy thick finish. But remember, emulsion paints can be sealed to give a glossy, satin, or clear finish. Let’s look at the color of the finish.

Paint Color

Emulsion paints are usually more colorful than enamel paints. This is because emulsion paints contain a high level of paint pigments or coloring materials. These pigments add more color and vibrancy to the finish.

Enamel paints are also colorful but not as colorful as emulsion paints. However, there is a hack. Sometimes, enamel paints are mixed with acrylic paint powder to give the enamel coating more color and sheen.

Now that you know the difference between these paints, which one do you need? The answer to this question depends on a few factors. Let’s take a closer look.

Should I Buy Enamel or Emulsion Paint?

Here are a few factors to consider before making that decision:

Exterior or Interior Use

If you want to paint outdoor furniture or exterior wall, enamel paint is your pick. The improved durability of enamel paints make it more ideal for outdoor use. Emulsion paint is better suited for indoor use.

Material to Be Painted

Emulsion paints can be used on virtually any material including concrete, wood, and plaster. Enamel paints have limited application. Enamel paints aren’t great on plastic and glass but can be used on wood, concrete, and metal.

Paint Clean-up

Emulsion paint is easy to clean. As such it’s perfect for surfaces that will need frequent cleaning. Enamel paints on the other hand will require a solvent which will cost more money. So it’s not the best for surfaces that will need frequent cleaning if not you’ll spend a lot on solvents.

Fire Hazard

Emulsion paints are great for painting kitchen walls, cabinets, and slabs. This is because the paint doesn’t contain many chemicals and it is water-based. So it’s not a fire hazard. Enamel paints however shouldn’t be used near fire or heat. This is because the oils and active chemicals in the paint coating make enamel paint very flammable.

Your budget

If you want a pocket-friendly paint type, you should go for enamel paint since emulsion paints are costlier than enamel.

Final Words

Overall, enamel and emulsion are both good paints. The best one for you ultimately depends on your taste and the material to be painted.

I know firsthand how difficult it can be to pick one of the two paints but I hope the comparison above has made your decision easier.

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