Enamel vs Emulsion Paint (What’s The Difference?)

When picking a paint type to cover surfaces, enamel and emulsion are on top of the list. Why? Because both paint types are durable, moisture-resistant, and when dry, produce a beautiful finish. But, what’s the difference between them? 

Enamel Paint

Enamel is an oil-based paint. Though there are a few water-based versions, they aren’t very common. It is also known as a slow-drying paint. Due to its oil-based nature, it takes a while to dry and can remain tacky for several hours. 

When dry, it forms s a glossy film as the top layer. This film makes the finish reflective and shiny when exposed to light. The glossy film also makes it durable and moisture-resistant.

The paint can be cleaned easily because the dust and dirt slide off its glossy finish. Since the finish is durable, it protects the paint from scratches and damage. It is used for building exteriors, walls, and outdoor furniture. The paint’s glossy layer makes it thrive in harsh conditions.

Emulsion Paint

What is Emulsion Paint?

Emulsion is a water-based paint. When dry, it produces a dry textured matte finish that is very flexible. The finish can be sealed with any sealant.

It is used over building interior walls and plastered surfaces like ceilings. Due to its water-based nature, the paint can stick to different surfaces, including concrete and metal.

But, emulsion paint has one flaw — it’s not water-resistant as it uses water as its solvent.

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 natural or synthetic oil.

Drying Time

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

Enamel paint takes 8-24 hours to dry, while emulsion paint dries within 2 hours. 

Related Read: Enamel Dry Time and Speed Up Tips

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 water-resistant thick and glossy layer. It can last over 15 years if applied correctly.

Since emulsion is water-based, it doesn’t last more than 10 years, 12 years being the maximum. When it dries, it’s not durable. To make it waterproof and durable you have to seal it. 

Paint Preparation

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

You have to thin enamel paint with turpentine or mineral spirits before applying it, especially if you want to spray it. However, emulsion paint doesn’t need thinning.

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, such as linseed oil, poppy oil, or nut oil. However, some types also contain alkyd resins which improve their bonding. 

Emulsion paints use acrylic resins as a paint binder.

Paint Bonding

Enamel paint sticks to surfaces better than emulsion paint. That’s because it contains oils, chemicals, and sometimes alkyd resins. All of which improve its bonding.

The improved paint bonding also helps it 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 all types of material.

Interior or Exterior Use

Both paints can be used on interior and exterior materials, but emulsion paints are better for interior use. This is because they dry fast, and doesn’t have UV protection additives.

You can use enamel paint outdoors too, but the paint should be sealed with a topcoat such as polyurethane. If you don’t seal it, it will be washed off if exposed to rain. 

Enamel paints are more suited for outdoor use. Their glossy finish protects the finish from scratches and rain. The paint can be sealed too, but it’s not mandatory. 

Primer

Emulsion paints require a water-based primer, while enamel paints require an 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.

Flexibility

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

Paint Cost

Emulsion paints are costlier than enamel paints.

Paint Coverage

One liter of enamel paint will cover about 130 square feet of material. One liter of emulsion paint will cover about 160 square feet of material.

Paint Color

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

Enamel paints are colorful too, but not as colorful. You can mix them with acrylic paint power to give it more color and sheen. 

Which One Do You Need?

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

  1. Exterior or Interior Use – If you need paint for outdoor surfaces, use enamel paint. Its improved durability makes it ideal for outdoor use. Emulsion paint is better for indoor use.
  2. Material to Be Painted – Emulsion paints can be used on any material, including concrete, wood, and plaster. Enamel paint has limited application — it isn’t great on plastic and glass, but can be used on wood, concrete, and metal.
  3. Budget – If you are on a low budget, use emulsion paint as it costs less. 
Tony Adams
Tony Adams

Tony is a professional painter and an author of DIY Geeks. Tony has completed over 1,000 painting projects for his clients. It's safe to say he knows what he Is talking about,

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