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

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

The main difference between enamel and polyurethane 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 compared to enamel paint.

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

Polyurethane

What is polyurethane paint?

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

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

Since polyurethane 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.
  • You can use polyurethane as a sealant over other paints and stains. 
  • To get a glossy finish. 
  • To protect the wood.
  • Since polyurethane is transparent, it will reveal the wood grain. 

Related Read: Can You Apply Polyurethane Over Enamel?

Enamel

What is enamel paint?

Enamel paint is an oil-based finish gotten from a combination of petroleum spirits and resinous compounds. Compared to other paints, enamel has a thicker flow which makes the paint difficult to apply. 

Since enamel paint 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 enamel paint. That’s because the paint particles of enamel 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. Enamel paint gives color to wood.
  4. For wooden floors and walkways. 

Enamel Paint vs Polyurethane

To compare polyurethane and enamel paint, 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 than enamel paints. Enamel paints are also strong and durable, but the finish can’t compare to polyurethane.

Polyurethane is reinforced with additives to make the finish withstand dents and damages better than enamel paint. 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 enamel paint colors and get a unique finish. 

Polyurethane is a transparent (clear coat) finish. However, you can tint polyurethane with flat or acrylic paint.

Moisture Resistance

Polyurethane and enamel are both moisture-resistant. That’s because both finishes have a glossy finish that repels moisture, stains, and water.

However, polyurethane is more water-resistant than enamel. That’s because the paint particles of polyurethane are flexible, while the paint particles of enamel are compact. As such, moisture can’t penetrate polyurethane coating. For instance, exterior polyurethane can withstand constant rainfall. 

Wood Protection

Polyurethane and enamel offer impressive wood protection. Both finishes protect the wood from scratches, dents, and moisture.

But, both finishes 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.

Polyurethane can be applied over stained and painted wood. But, enamel paint can’t. Enamel paint can’t offer wood protection if the wood is painted or sealed. So, enamel paint is more suited for fresh and unsealed wood, while polyurethane protects sealed and unsealed wood.

Cost

Polyurethane is more expensive than enamel. That’s because polyurethane offers more protection and is more durable than enamel paint. 

Usage and Purpose

Polyurethane is used to protect and seal surfaces, while enamel paint protects and gives surfaces color.

You can use polyurethane over painted surfaces to protect them from moisture, water, dents, and scratches. Polyurethane is more common in high-traffic areas. On the other hand, enamel paint is used to beautify and protect a surface.

The Finish

Polyurethane offers a glossy clear finish. Since polyurethane is a clear coat (has no paint pigments), the finish is transparent. The glossy finish of polyurethane reflects light and gives the finish a bright and vibrant look. However, polyurethane shows imperfections once dry. 

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

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

 PolyurethaneEnamel
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

Do You Need Enamel or Polyurethane?

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

  • Budget – Enamel paint costs less than polyurethane. 
  • Maintenance – Polyurethane is easier to clean and maintain. That’s because the polyurethane finish doesn’t attract dust and filth. On the other hand, enamel paint is easy to clean too, but not as easy as polyurethane. 
  • Dry Time – Polyurethane takes longer to dry than enamel paint. This means it will take you longer to complete a painting project if you use polyurethane. 
  • Durability – Polyurethane is more durable than enamel paint. So, if you are painting high-traffic surfaces, use polyurethane. 
  • 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 offers more protection than enamel paint, but enamel paint offers a more colored finish. Polyurethane is a sealant (sealer), while enamel is a paint.

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

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