Lacquer vs Enamel

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Lacquer and enamel are two common types of finishes that give the final product a shiny look. But these finishes also have differences, so they are not the same. Understanding the differences between lacquer and enamel finishes ensures you pick the right choice for your project.

Lacquer and Enamel Finishing

Many people prefer glossy, shiny types of looks for their furniture and vehicles, which leads them to finishes that produce this appeal. Lacquer and enamel finishers are two of the top choices for giving your object a shiny gloss.

Lacquer finishes give your furniture piece a sleek, glossy look. These oil and water-based finishers can be tricky to apply. And it tends to break down faster, leaving behind a dull look.

Clear brushing lacquer applied on wood

Enamel paints also provide a thick, glossy finish. Enamel paints are oil-based, so it’s durable enough to withstand harsh conditions over time. It’s easier to apply, but it does take a longer time to dry. Enamel has more versatile use than lacquer.

Lacquer vs Enamel 

When comparing lacquer finish vs enamel paint, these two finishes have a few similarities. But they also have some differences that set them apart. These differences make these finishes ideal for specific projects. 

Similarities  

Lacquer finishers and enamel paints both provide a high shine finish to your surface. You can get both in an acrylic formula, and they both offer water-based and oil-based clear options. 

Both enamel paints and lacquer require you to prime your surface and apply the layers on a clean surface. Primers should be the same as the finish you’re using – a lacquer water-based primer for a water-based lacquer and vice versa.

Differences 

There are quite a few differences between enamel paints and a lacquer finish to point out. These differences are due to the type of solvent used. Lacquer use a lacquer thinner, whereas enamel paints use white spirits that bind to surfaces, creating a thinner layer.

Applications

Applications of the two products are a significant difference. Lacquer creates a thick layer of protective gloss over the top of your furniture. It’s thin, so it takes more coats to get the results you want.

Enamel paints go through a curing process as it dries. Curing means a chemical reaction occurs to make the solvents inside the enamel harden, creating a thin gloss layer that’s durable and long-lasting.

Experience

Another difference is your experience level. If you’re new to finishing furniture, you’d want to choose a finish that’s easy to apply.

Enamel paints have a more straightforward application process. The curing process of enamel makes it easier to get the desired look with fewer coats.

Man applying lacquer

Lacquer, on the other hand, is a soft chemical that requires multiple coats to get a complete fish. But if you’re inexperienced, you can end up with a surface that bubbles and cracks.

Drying Time

Another difference between lacquer and enamel paint is their drying time. Enamel paints take two to three hours to dry and another twenty-four to forty-eight hours to cure. The curing creates a more rigid surface that’s more durable.

Lacquer finish dries faster, in less than 30 minutes. But it doesn’t cure, so the final coating will be a thick layer that sits above the surface of your furniture. Lacquer isn’t as strong since there’s no curing.

Major Distinguishing Factors

The most significant factors to consider when deciding between lacquer and enamel paints are your experience level and the type of final look you want to have. 

If you want your furniture to have a glossy look while holding up to spills, constant use, and battering, you will do better with enamel paints. 

Beginners should consider starting their furniture jobs using enamel paints. If you want to learn how to apply lacquer, which is a less common choice, you should practice on scraps before attempting a piece you want to keep. 

When to Use Lacquer

You can apply lacquer using an aerosol spray or a natural bristle brush. Using a brush gives you better control of your application, but it dries quickly. You have to work fast to get an even finish. Aerosol lets you apply quicker, but it can be messier and more expensive. 

Lacquer is ideal for giving your woodcraft projects a high glossy look. You can get lacquer that offers high-gloss, matte, or satin finishes. 

But lacquer is not for woods like rosewood or mahogany, as these woods produce oils that will leak through the lacquer. 

Man brushing lacquer on wood

And you should only use wood that has been pre-coated with a non-grain-raising, lacquer-based filler. The lacquer will dissolve other filler types

From the 1920s to the 1960s, lacquer was a popular choice for furniture and automobile finishes. It is still used for some woodworking as a final furniture finish.

When to Use Enamel

Enamel creates a clear, shiny finish on wood and metal, making it a piece of suitable furniture and automobile paint product. However, enamel can’t be mixed with paint like lacquer, which requires you to apply enamel as a top coat using a brush or aerosol spray can

This finish binds with surfaces when dry to create a flat layer that provides a challenging, glossy protective coating that’s durable enough to withstand stretching and damage.

Acrylic enamel finishes are always used in current automobile paint jobs, although some people use lacquer for classic car paint jobs. 

Enamel paints are also for giving walls a shiny finish. The hard coating makes enamel an ideal choice for walls that collect a lot of moisture, such as bathrooms or kitchens. 

This product is frequently chosen as a finish for wood surfaces, such as furniture, to create a reliable protective layer. 

Which is Better? Final Verdict

When comparing lacquer vs enamel side by side, enamel paint is the better and more versatile choice since it is harder and offers more resistance and protection. Enamel also creates a more cohesive layer as it binds with surfaces. 

Lacquer gives a shinier gloss look, but it’s thicker and harder to work with without experience. And it leaves behind a noticeable layer of varnish over the top of your surface. Plus, lacquer doesn’t hold up as well without dulling and damaging.

Use lacquer for spray finishing a large piece, such as furniture. Other than that, you probably want to opt for enamel. 

An expert at home repair, remodel, and DIY projects for nearly 40 years. His first experience came in completely restoring an antique home. Completely redone from the inside out, and restored to its original form, the home is a featured design by renowned Southern California Architect Cliff May, considered to be the father of the California Ranch Home. Now Dennis spends his time on fine woodworking projects and tool comparisons.