What Is Enamel Paint?

Paint brush and tin
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Enamel paint is often thought of as hard, glossy, and used in sparing quantities, much like fingernail polish. Modelers and hobbyists also frequently use enamel paint to add vivid colors and durability to small crafts. This type of paint's main purpose is for appliance finish touch-ups, though it can be used for more than just small items. If you're in need of a paint that forms a hard shell and provides reliable protection, enamel just might be the finish for you.

What Is Enamel Paint?

Enamel paint is defined more by its qualities than by its content. In the broadest sense, enamel paint means any solvent-based paint that dries to a hard, vitreous (glass-like) shell. Solvent-based paints are also called oil-based paints, in contrast with water-based paints.

Enamel paint springboards off of its root words "smelt" or "melt," since true enamel is a glass coating that is melted or kiln-baked at extremely high temperatures onto metal or ceramics. Note, however, that enamel paint bears no similarities with the enamel of molten glass, as there is no glass content in this kind of paint. Even traditional baked enamel finishes, long used for vehicles, have nothing to do with glass. The baking is simply a fast route to eliminating solvents and VOCs.

In reality, air-dry enamel paints are far softer than true enamels formed in a kiln. Paint manufacturers have further widened the definition by sometimes attaching the word enamel to water-based paints, thus losing the one ingredient that usually ties together all enamel paints: solvents.

Enamel Paint's Origin

At a time when paints were less than reliable and whitewash paints were friable and known to smudge off, calling a product "enamel paint" was a powerful marketing move in the mid-1800s.

Enamel was associated in consumers' minds with the vitreous shell surfaces of porcelain and ceramic tiles, or of porcelain bathroom fixtures, all of which were impermeable, sanitary, and very tough. Translating the idea of cookware, tile, sinks, and bathtub enamel to paint was a convenient shortcut to indicate that this paint was equally water-resistant and tough.

Fun Fact

Around 1900, Sherwin-Williams began advertising its version of enamel paint as the perfect coating for furniture and wickerwork.

Powder coating has largely replaced baked enamel coating for industrial applications. However, enamel paint's main competition came when synthetic latex paints were introduced after World War II. Today, enamel paint still has some associations with hard-shelled items such as large appliances like refrigerators and washing machines, though these too are now powder-coated.

How Enamel Paint Is Used

Brush on, roll on, or spray enamel paint for home projects that either require ultra-durability or a glassy, glossy look. Popular uses for enamel paint include:

Refurbishing a Barbecue Grill

Thoroughly clean the outer surfaces of your barbecue grill. Remove the grill rack. Coat the barbecue grill twice with heat resistant enamel paint, using spray paint in a can.

Painting Door Casing

Door casing gets a lot of abuse. So it makes sense to apply a highly durable paint that is also easy to clean. Clean the door casing with trisodium phosphate (TSP). Mask the wall area around the casing by taping sheet plastic with painter's tape or use self-sticking masking film. Cover the floor with a drop cloth. Apply a minimum of two coats of enamel paint with a high-quality brush to the door casing.

Revitalizing Your Outdoor Furniture

Even hardy resin outdoor furniture can fade after enough time. Colorful enamel paint in a spray can helps to bring that furniture back to life. Use a pressure washer set to low pressure, or use a water hose, soft brush, and mild detergent to clean the furniture. Let the furniture completely dry, then spray with two coats of enamel paint.

Other favorite uses for enamel paint include:

Compatible Materials

One of the standout features of enamel paint is that it adheres to a wide range of materials, from slick to porous:

  • Glass
  • Aluminum
  • Galvanized steel
  • Stainless steel
  • Caulking
  • Wood
  • Plastic
  • Porcelain
  • Ceramic
  • Uniform finish

  • Mar-resistant

  • Maintains gloss

  • Holds color well

  • Resists yellowing

  • Smooth application

  • Reduced brush marks

  • Extremely hard shell-like surface

  • Sticks to a wide range of surfaces

  • Strong, pungent odor

  • Can be difficult to mix thoroughly

  • Requires solvents for thinning and cleaning