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

Enamel and polyurethane have both a glossy finish. But, what’s the difference between them?

The main difference is that enamel is a regular oil-based paint, while polyurethane is a sealant used to protect the surface underneath. Both finishes are durable and moisture-resistant. But, polyurethane offers superior strength, moisture resistance, and durability.

Applying polyurethane is easier than applying enamel paint because it comes in spray-on containers. However, polyurethane is costlier than enamel paint.


What is polyurethane paint?

Polyurethane is a clear coat sealant used to protect the surface underneath. When dry, it forms a glossy layer that prevents moisture and water from penetrating its surface. Its glossy layer is moisture, water, and scratch-resistant.

The term polyurethane comes from the word ‘urethane’, a compound with plastic features. Urethane is the main ingredient, which is why its finishes usually have plastic features. So polyurethane is gotten by mixing paint, urethane, solvents, and resins.

Since it has plastic-like features, the finish can contract and expand based on temperature changes. There are two types of polyurethane; oil-based and water-based.

You can use polyurethane:

  • To make porous surfaces like wood water-resistant.
  • As a sealant over other paints and stains.
  • To get a glossy finish.
  • To protect the wood.
  • It can reveal the wood grain since it has a transparent finish.

Related Read: Can You Apply Polyurethane Over Enamel?


What is enamel paint?

Enamel paint is an oil-based finish gotten from a combination of petroleum spirits and resinous compounds. It has a thicker flow than most paints, so applying it is harder.

Since it is thicker, the paint will dry slower than most paint. On average, enamel paint dries enough for a re-coat in 24 hours. But, the slow dry rate increases the durability of the finish. That’s because the paint particles of have more time to harden and cure.

You can use enamel paint:

  1. To cover exterior buildings and walls.
  2. For high-traffic areas such as countertops and slabs.
  3. To give color to wood.
  4. For wooden floors and walkways.

Enamel Paint vs Polyurethane

To compare these two paints, we’ll use the features of each paint and see which is better.

Next, let’s check out these differences in detail.

Strength and Durability

Polyurethane is stronger and more durable because it is reinforced with additives that make the finish withstand dents and damage better. Enamel paints are also strong and durable, but the finish won’t last long if exposed to water or other damage.

On average, a polyurethane finish lasts 15 years, while an enamel paint finish lasts 10 years.

Paint Color

Enamel paint has color, while polyurethane doesn’t. Enamel paint is formulated with paint pigments and comes in white, brown, and gold color. You can also mix different colors and get a unique finish.

Polyurethane is a transparent (clear coat) finish because it doesn’t have paint pigments on its formula. However, you can tint it with flat or acrylic paint.

Moisture Resistance

Both of these two finishes are moisture-resistant. That’s because they have a glossy finish that repels moisture, stains, and water.

However, polyurethane is more water-resistant because its paint particles are flexible, so moisture can’t penetrate its coating. For instance, exterior polyurethane can withstand constant rainfall.

Wood Protection

They both offer impressive wood protection. Both finishes protect the wood from scratches, dents, and moisture. But, they protect the wood differently. Enamel paint needs to penetrate the wood pores to stick and form a glossy layer.

In comparison, polyurethane doesn’t need to penetrate the wood to stick or form a glossy layer. It can be applied over stained and painted wood and form its layer over them without having to penetrate a surface.

Enamel paint can’t offer wood protection if the wood is painted or sealed. So, the paint is more suited for fresh and unsealed wood, while polyurethane protects sealed and unsealed wood.


Polyurethane is more expensive than enamel because offers more protection and is more durable.

Usage and Purpose

Polyurethane is used to protect and seal high-traffic painted surfaces from moisture, water, dents, and scratches. While enamel paint is used to beautify and protect a surface low-traffic bare surfaces.

The Finish

Polyurethane offers a glossy transparent finish because it doesn’t have paint pigments to give the finish color. Its glossy finish reflects light and gives the finish a bright and vibrant look. However, it shows imperfections when dry.

On the other hand, enamel offers a glossy colored finish. The paint is used to beautify and protect surfaces at the same time. Its finish reflects light too, but since it is colored, the finish hides imperfections on the surface.

Which One Do You Need:

If you are still stuck with your decision, here are a few factors that will make the decision easier:

  • Budget – If your budget is low, use enamel paint as it costs less.
  • Maintenance – Polyurethane is easier to clean and maintain because its finish doesn’t attract dust and filth. So, use it if you have a low-maintenance finish.
  • Dry Time – Polyurethane takes longer to dry, so it will take you longer to complete a painting project if you use it.
  • Durability – Polyurethane is more durable than enamel paint. So, if you are painting high-traffic surfaces, use it.
  • Surface Type – Use polyurethane for high-traffic outdoor surfaces. Use enamel paint for medium-traffic surfaces.

Final Words

Polyurethane and enamel are great finishes. However, polyurethane is a sealant (sealer) that offers more protection, while enamel is a paint that offers a more colored finish.

You can apply enamel paint and then seal it with polyurethane to get a colored and durable finish.

Tony Adams

Tony Adams

Woodworker, Interior and Exterior Painter, Flooring Specialist

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.

Eral Kadrija

Eral Kadrija

Lead Editor, Home Renovator

Eral has a passion for home renovation and repair. Over the years, he has bought, renovated, and sold 7 old homes. Using his experience from different DIY projects he created DIY Geeks.

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