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Lacquer vs Enamel: Key Differences Explained



V Susan
Hi! I'm Susan. I am passionate about woodworking, general DIY and home improvement. If you'd like to connect with me or talk about something you like at mellowpine, drop me a mail at susan@mellowpine.com


lacquer vs enamel

Lacquer and enamel are popular surface coatings that provide a protective layer over different materials.

The difference between lacquer and enamel is in their thickness, drying duration, and durability. Lacquer paints offer a thin, smooth finish and are often spray painted as they dry faster. However, enamel paints are thick, durable, and require less maintenance.

What are the other differences between them? Will they affect the finish quality?

This article discusses the difference between lacquer and enamel paint and how they differ from other commercially available paints.

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Difference Between Lacquer and Enamel

Lacquer vs Enamel
Lacquer vs Enamel
SolventAcetone based paintOil or water-based paint
Finish Thin, smooth finish Smooth and Lasting 
ToxicityMore toxicToxic
HardnessHighComparatively low
ClearcoatTransparent clear coatClear enamel
VOC contentHighLess
Pot Life3 – 12 monthsLess than 3 months
Bubbles and crateringLess proneMore prone
Support Base materialWood or metalWood or metal
Chemical resistanceHighLow
Dry durationFast dryingLong drying duration
ApplicationsExterior surface that faces high heat and moistureSwimming pools, interiors of a house, floor, etc.
AvailabilityLimitedEasily available
A quick comparison of lacquer and enamel


Paints are usually categorized either as water-based or solvent-based.

Solvent-based paints often called “alkyd paints” or “oil-based coatings,” have a higher concentration of organic compounds as solvents.

In contrast, water is the solvent in water-based paints.

Lacquer is an acetone-based paint (oil-based coatings), while enamel paints have additives added to oil or water-based paints.


Enamel paint requires additional time to self-level and cover the brush strokes when applying multiple coats.

Brushing and spraying enamel paints render a smooth finish due to their self-leveling feature.

Lacquer paints offer a smooth finish only when they’re spray painted. This is due to its ability to dry faster, making brushing difficult.


The toxicity of paint will depend on the type of solvent it has.

Water-based paint is eco-friendly and less harmful when compared to other solvent-based paint.

Thus, water-based enamel paints have less toxicity than oil-based lacquers.

To prevent inhaling toxic compounds from these paints, you must wear a mask and work in a well-ventilated room.


The organic compounds in solvent-based lacquer paints become a hard film when they dry.

Evaporation of the solvent of the lacquer aids in the solidification of the resins, thus forming a hard coat.

Enamel paint forms a coat of relatively low hardness compared to lacquer. Therefore, you’ll have to apply more coats of enamel to achieve the hardness of a single lacquer coat.


Applying clearcoat on wood
Applying clearcoat on wood

Lacquer clearcoats offer a more transparent topcoat when compared to clear enamel coats.

You can apply a lacquer-based clear coat over a painted layer without damaging it. This helps preserve the base color of the paint.

A clear enamel coat is similar to a lacquer. It offers more rigidity.

Unfortunately, you cannot apply clear enamel coats over a painted surface. Therefore, it can only be used as a top coat.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Volatile organic compounds, also known as VOCs, refer to the volatility of the organic compounds in solvent-based paints.

Lacquer has high volatility of the organic compounds. Thus, it gives out a strong odor while applying a coat. 

So apply lacquer coats in a well-ventilated room or an open area with enough air circulation.

Enamel-based paints have less amount of volatile organic compounds and thus have a less pungent odor than lacquer.

Always use a respirator as a safety measure against inhaling these volatile compounds.

Pot Life

Lacquer paints have a pot or shell life of around three months to a year. In contrast, enamel-based paints have a relatively lower pot life.

Bubbles and Cratering

bubbles on paint
Bubbles on paint

The formation of tiny bubbles and small depressions while the paint dries is known as cratering.

Possible causes of forming bubbles and cratering are excessive brushing or higher ambient temperatures.

Comparatively, enamel paints are more prone to the formation of bubbles and cratering than lacquer, as enamel paints require more coats due to their lower thickness.

Base Material Support

Lacquer and enamel provide a smooth, tough coating on wood and metals.

Multiple layers of enamel paint offer good resistance against abrasion, thus making it an ideal choice to paint parts exposed to surface wear.

Due to the high volatile content, lacquer is commonly applied on parts used outdoors.


Painting an object with lacquer renders a thin, smooth finish.

However, you should only apply a thin layer of lacquer as more coats cause the formation of cracks or runs.

Enamel paints offer a thick, smooth finish. These paints are applied over a layer or two of the primer coats.

Chemical Resistance

The high hardness of lacquer paint makes it more resistant to chemical reactions. Thus high-quality thinner is required to clean a lacquer coat.

Enamel paints offer less chemical resistance than lacquer paints. However, excessive cleaning or rubbing of the surface can lead to the peeling of the glossy finish, affecting its look.

Dry Duration

Lacquer dries relatively faster when compared to other paints, offering faster completion of projects.

Enamel paints require extended periods of drying. It takes about a day to dry properly.

The extended drying duration between subsequent coating makes enamel paints a less reliable choice.


The hardness offered by the lacquer paints provides them with better durability than enamel paints.

Multiple coats of enamel paint are needed to match the durability of a single lacquer coat.


Enamel paints are not a good option when painting plastics as the enamel thinner tends to cause the base material to be weak and brittle.

They are best when used on surfaces that absorb moisture or water.

Thus areas in kitchens and washrooms are often enamel coated. Enamel paints also serve well for panel washes.

Painted kitchen
Painted Kitchen

Lacquer paints are usually applied on heavy objects or projects that need to be completed fast with better finish and durability.

They last long on surfaces subjected to extreme weather conditions such as high heat and moisture.


Enamel paints are generally available in most hardware stores. In addition, many manufacturers offer them in a wide range of colors.

Lacquer paints are not readily available, have fewer color options, and usually have to be shipped to remote parts.

Hobbyists tend to choose enamel paints over lacquer due to this reason.

On the other hand, professionals choose lacquer paints as they provide quality work in a short period.

Cost and Ease of Use

Lacquer is expensive when compared to enamel paints. Also, you may need professional help to get good results using lacquer paints.

Comparatively, enamel paints are inexpensive and easy to use, making them an ideal choice for hobbyists.

How do Lacquer, Enamel, Acrylic, and Epoxy differ?

Lacquer, enamel, acrylic, and epoxy paints
Lacquer, enamel, acrylic, and epoxy paints
SolventAcetone-based or water-basedOil-basedWater-basedWater-based and oil-based
ToxicityMostly toxicToxicNon-toxicToxic
Ease of cleaningHigh-quality thinnerEnamel thinner to clean upEasy to clean with waterEasy to clean
DurabilityMost durableDurablePoor durabilityHighly durable
Ease of useEasyEasyEasiest optionEasy
MethodologyAirbrushingHand brushingHand brushingHand brushing
Time to dryDries fastestSlow dryingDries fastProlonged drying
A quick comparison of lacquer, enamel, acrylic, and epoxy

Based on the need and application of the part, you can choose the right paint.

Generally, acrylic paints are not that toxic and are user-friendly. Hence they are even safe for kids to make different coloring works.

Epoxy paints take a relatively long time to dry. The approximate duration of drying is about a week. Here enamel outperforms epoxy paints.

Lacquer is best suited for industrial use, where its fast drying feature facilitates the continuous movement of parts.

How to choose between Lacquer and Enamel

If you are a hobbyist wanting to work on projects like refurbishing old furniture, the ideal choice would be enamel paint.

Longer duration of drying, ease of application, and above all, fewer amounts of VOCs make the enamel paint stand out amongst the others.

If you are a professional or have a small-sized business, especially furniture, lacquer paints are the proper choice.

Their fast drying rate and the ability to spray the coat will help you complete the work in less time, increasing your productivity.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are lacquer-painted objects vulnerable to scratches?

Yes, lacquer-painted parts are vulnerable to scratches, wear, and chipping. Though lacquer paints offer a protective coating, there are high chances of flanking its thin layers when subjected to rubbing forces.

What care should be taken while cleaning a lacquer-painted object? 

While cleaning a lacquer-painted object, do not use abrasive or solvent-based cleaners as they are likely to cause peeling of the lacquer coating. In cases with tough stains, use a soft, damp cloth wrinkled to remove excessive moisture.

What are the basic ingredients of paint?

The basic ingredients of paint are solvents, binders, pigments, and additives. Paints are classified based on the type of solvent and additives used. Additives further enhance the qualities, such as anti-caking and leveling.

V Susan
Hi! I'm Susan. I am passionate about woodworking, general DIY and home improvement. If you'd like to connect with me or talk about something you like at mellowpine, drop me a mail at susan@mellowpine.com