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What is Enamel Paint?

The answer to that question is not as clear as it used to be with new technologies in paint. The other question this brings up is when should you use an enamel paint versus an acrylic or elastomeric paint?

The whole thing gets confusing so let’s unravel it and start with understanding what exactly enamel paint is and when and where to use it for the best results.

What is Enamel Paint?

While there is no standardized definition, enamel paint is essentially any paint designed to produce a durable, hard, and usually glossy finish that stands up extremely well to traffic and wear. The first enamel paints were oil-based paints, but today paint manufacturers have created water-based versions.

The name “enamel” was derived from cookware and appliances at the time that received a vitreous enamel finish that was baked on and created an extremely hard surface similar to porcelain. Marketers were hoping to tie their paint products to this type of coating which was very popular.

The original formulations for enamel paint included alkyds similar to varnishes that were, once cured, extremely hard. This made it very popular for areas like doors, windows, trim, woodwork, floors and other areas that were either walked on or received a lion’s share of hand and foot traffic.

Ben Moore Impervo
My favorite interior enamel paint

Enamel paints are very easy to clean compared to other paints due to their hard finish and that continues to make them popular still today. When you can wipe off fingerprints with just a damp cloth that is a major bonus.

You can find specialty enamel paints able to withstand high temps that work great for stoves and BBQ grills or standard brushing paint in most home stores. Enamel paints can be used on a variety of surfaces including wood, metal, concrete, masonry, wicker, wrought iron, plaster and even notoriously difficult to paint items like ceramic and glass.

Dos & Don’ts of Enamel Paint

The hard finish of enamel paints is both a strength and a weakness. True enamels provide such hardness that they are inflexible and become brittle more quickly than elastomeric or acrylic paints when exposed to the elements.

This is not uncommon of most oil-based paints, but the problem is exacerbated with enamels since they are some of the hardest paints.

The hard finish makes oil-based enamels extraordinary at avoiding “blocking” which is when one painted surface sticks to another. This is perfect for things like cabinets, windows, and doors that are constantly opened and closed.

An enamel might be the perfect choice for the interiors of your doors and windows, but you may need a more flexible acrylic paint for the outside of that same door since it’s exposed to the sun and needs more flexibility.

Plaster, drywall, siding, stucco are all examples of things that have no need for an enamel and would do fine with lower priced wall or exterior body paint. In these areas you want more flexibility than hardness.

I hope this has helped you understand enamel paint a a little better so you know when you should use it. Using the right paint really is the key to a professional looking paint job, as is picking the right paint brush. Tell me in the comments below what your favorite paint is? I’d love to hear your experiences.

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11 thoughts on “What is Enamel Paint?

  1. I want to be able to sand my plaster walls so oil based enamel sound like the best option. I do want to prime everything with a good primer because old lead paint. I have small kids and have had problems in the past with lead. What’s your favorite primer? I was considering Killz

  2. Is there any danger of yellowing when using an enamel paint? I just used a water-based enamel for the first time in my 1915 home (interior). It’s gorgeous and silky smooth and I can still see the wood grain through. We love the finish, but am wondering if I should continue to use it or if yellowing will be an issue over time.

  3. Hi Scott,
    I have a question for you too. I have a 1917 barn in Montana that needs painting. I was thinking about an oil based paint, now after reading your article on paint, I’m not sure it will be the right choice.
    Any suggestions will be welcome, thanks!

  4. Scott, I love a good oil-based enamel (Benjamin Moore is almost always my top choice) when painting trim. Where I struggle is with floors–both porch floors (outside) and interior wood floors. I’ve used BM’s porch floor paint, but it doesn’t always hold up as well as I’d like. Interested in your thoughts, especially in regard to enamels in these applications.

    1. I have used a marine paint on my porch which is exposed to sun and blowing rain. While no paint that I have tried held up great in the long term, the marine paint did the best but it is expensive and choices of colors is sometimes limited (in my area at least).

    2. For porch/floor paints, I swear by Allflor line of paints. They’re sold at Kelly Moore stores in the West. With some simple searching you should find an outlet for them in your area. Limited range of colors, but I believe they can be tinted.

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