Polyurethane vs Enamel Paint (Which One Do You Need?)

Are you stuck deciding between polyurethane and enamel paint? Well, you aren’t alone. Luckily, the difference between both paints is revealed below.

The difference between polyurethane and enamel paint is that polyurethane is a clear sealant commonly used over porous surfaces and other paints including enamel paint. Enamel paint on the other hand is a regular oil-based paint commonly used on furniture and building exterior.

Both paints are strong and moisture-resistant. But, polyurethane offers superior strength, moisture resistance, and durability.

You should also know that polyurethane paint is easier to apply than enamel paint since polyurethane also comes in spray-on containers. However, polyurethane is costlier than enamel paint.

What is Polyurethane Paint?

What is polyurethane paint?

Polyurethane is a clear coat that can be either oil-based or water-based. However, you should know that oil-based polyurethane is the more common option. Polyurethane is a synthetic finish that is gotten by mixing paint chemicals, urethane, solvents, and resins together.

The term polyurethane comes from the word ‘urethane’ which is a compound with plastic features. Urethane is the main ingredient in polyurethane paint which is why polyurethane finishes usually have plastic features.

Polyurethane is very common among DIYers because the finish is strong, durable, and moisture resistant. The finish of polyurethane is strong enough to withstand dents and scratches. Polyurethane being plastic is also able to contract and expand based on temperature changes. This gives the finish improved heat resistance. So what is polyurethane used for? Let’s find out.

What is Polyurethane Used For?

  • To make porous surfaces like wood water-resistant
  • Polyurethane is used as a sealant over other paints and stains
  • To achieve a glossy finish
  • Polyurethane is also used for heat resistance
  • Polyurethane is used to protect wood
  • Polyurethane is used to reveal wood grain since it’s transparent

Related Read: Can You Apply Polyurethane Over Enamel?

What is Enamel Paint?

What is enamel paint?

Enamel paint is usually an oil-based finish that is gotten from the combination of petroleum spirits and resinous compounds. Enamel paint is thick and it comes in basic colors such as white, ash, black, brown, and gold. The thick and oil-based nature of enamel paints makes the paint somewhat difficult to apply.

Asides from being difficult to apply, enamel paints also dry slower than other paints. On average, an enamel paint coating will take about 3 hours to dry but this is for when the paint is thinned.

If you apply enamel paint directly from the container and without thinning it first, the paint will take at least 2 days to dry. However, this long dry time gives the paint particles more time to harden and cure. This is why enamel finishes are strong.

So what is enamel paint used for? Let’s find out.

What is Enamel Paint Used For?

  • Enamel paint is used to cover buildings exterior and walls
  • Enamel paint is common over high traffic areas like countertops and slabs
  • Enamel paint gives color to wood
  • Enamel paint is also used over water-based and flat paints
  • Enamel paint is commonly used on wooden floors and walkways.

Polyurethane vs Enamel Paint

To compare polyurethane and enamel paint, we’ll use the features of each paint and see which is superior.

Here is a chart that shows the major differences between polyurethane and enamel paint:

Strength and DurabilityPolyurethane is stronger and more durable than enamelEnamel paint is not as strong or durable as polyurethane
Moisture ResistanceGreatGood
ApplicationEasy as polyurethane also comes in ready to spray cans.Tedious
Wood ProtectionGreatGreat
Paint CostCostlier than enamel paintCheaper than polyurethane
UsageFor protectionFor painting building exterior
The FinishA glossy and clear finishA glossy and colored finish

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

Strength and Durability

Polyurethane is stronger and usually more durable than enamel paints. Though enamel paints are also strong and durable, the finish can’t compare to polyurethane.

Polyurethane paint is reinforced with solvents to make the finish withstand dents and damages better than enamel paint. On average, a polyurethane finish will last about 15 years if properly maintained while enamel paints last about 10 years.

Paint Color

Enamel paint has more color than polyurethane. Enamel paints come in basic colors like white, brown, and gold. So you have a list of colors to pick from.

Polyurethane on the other hand doesn’t come in any color. Polyurethane is a transparent and clear coat meaning that you don’t get any color. However, you should know that polyurethane can be tinted by mixing the paint with flat paint.

Moisture Resistance

Polyurethane and enamel paint offer moisture resistance because both finishes are glossy and the glossy layer helps to repel moisture, stains, oils, and solvents. However, polyurethane usually offers superior moisture resistance to enamel paint.

This is because the particles in polyurethane are flexible. Also, these particles are more compact than enamel paint. As such, moisture can’t penetrate the polyurethane coating. Exterior polyurethane for instance is known to handle rainfall.

Wood Protection

Both finishes offer impressive wood protection. Polyurethane and enamel paint protect wood from scratches, dents, and moisture brilliantly. However, the way both paints do this is different. Enamel paint on one hand needs to penetrate the wood pores to soak into the wood and form a very hard barrier.

So if there is a previous stain on the wood or if the wood has been sealed, enamel paint will not offer good wood protection because the paint can’t penetrate the wood pores in such conditions.

However, polyurethane doesn’t need to penetrate the wood to protect it. Polyurethane being a clear sealant can be used over sealed, stained, or even painted wood without any problems. The polyurethane coating will stick to the wood and protect it.

Enamel paint is more suited to fresh and unsealed wood while polyurethane will protect sealed and unsealed wood.


The extra protection and durability that polyurethane offers come at an increased cost. Enamel paint is not as costly as polyurethane. A type of enamel paint known as acrylic enamel costs about half the price of regular oil-based polyurethane.


You should know that polyurethane and enamel paint won’t harm you. However, polyurethane is known to contain more additives and solvents than enamel paint. This makes polyurethane a bit more toxic than enamel paint since enamel paint doesn’t contain as many solvents or additives.

You’ll notice a stronger chemical smell from the polyurethane paint indicating a higher level of paint chemicals and solvents.

Before applying either polyurethane or enamel, you should put on a pair of gloves and breathing protection to protect yourself.

Usage and Purpose

Polyurethane is commonly used for protection and sealing surfaces. The finish is more common on flat and small surfaces like tables, desks, and countertops. This is because these surfaces experience food and drink spills, stains, and ink.

Since polyurethane is hard and moisture resistant, it is commonly used over these surfaces to protect them. Polyurethane is also used over other paints and stains as a sealant.

Enamel paint on the other hand is commonly used to paint broad surfaces like exterior walls and walls. Enamel paint is also common on buildings exterior. Though enamel paint is also strong and moisture-resistant, it is rarely used as a sealant.

The Finish

Polyurethane offers a glossy but clear finish. Since polyurethane is a clear coat, the finish from the paint is usually transparent. This is why polyurethane is used to reveal the texture and grain of the wood. Polyurethane finish also reflects light giving the finish a bright and vibrant finish. Since polyurethane is a clear finish, the paint is very poor at hiding imperfections and spots on the surface.

Enamel paint is also glossy but the finish is not clear or transparent. This is because enamel paint is usually designed with color pigments. So with enamel paints, you get a glossy but colored finish. The finish will also reflect light as well as polyurethane but the color in the paint means it will hide imperfections and spots on the surface

Should You Buy Polyurethane or Enamel Paint?

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

The Price Tag

If you want a pocket-friendly alternative, enamel paint is your choice because it is cheaper than polyurethane.

Cleaning and Maintenance

Polyurethane is easier to clean and maintain. The finish doesn’t attract dust and filth either. So if you have kids or pets at home, polyurethane will be easier to clean and maintain as pencil marks and food spills can be easily wiped off.

Dry Time

There isn’t much difference in the dry time of both paints but polyurethane takes longer to fully harden or cure. This means you’ll have to leave the painted surface unused for a few days to allow the polyurethane to cure.

So if you are in a hurry or can’t leave the surface unused for the required time, you should go for enamel paint that will get hard faster.

Strength and Durability

Since polyurethane is stronger and more durable than enamel paint, it will serve as a better option on surfaces that require a strong and durable finish.

What Do You Want to Paint?

The surface you want to paint determines which paint you can go for. Since enamel paints are ideal for large surfaces, the paint will be a great choice over walls.

Polyurethane however is more suited to protect surfaces. So if you want to paint a kitchen slab or countertop, polyurethane will be a good fit as it will protect the surface from moisture and damage.

Final Words

In summary, polyurethane and enamel paint are both great finishes. Your choice between both paints depends on your budget, needs, and the surface that you want to paint.

You should remember that polyurethane is ideal for protecting surfaces like wood while enamel paint is ideal for painting building exterior and other broad surfaces.

Also, polyurethane is easier to apply but costlier while enamel paint gives more color but is more difficult to apply than polyurethane.

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