How to Work With Enamel Paint

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Enamel paint is a general term applied to paints that dry to a hard, durable finish. They are an excellent choice for painting pieces that will be used outdoors or in places that are likely to be subjected to lots of wear, such as patio furniture, house trim and stairs. Working with enamel paint is a matter of knowing when it is best suited for your project, and learning where and how to apply it.


EditSelecting the Right Materials for the Job

  1. Decide if an enamel paint is right for your project. Enamel paints are best suited for use in places outdoors that are exposed to severe weather and fluctuations in temperature. They are also useful inside the home in areas that receive heavy general wear. Due to their dense, high-gloss finish, surfaces painted with enamel paints are easily cleaned and resistant to staining and damage.
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    • If the project you’re working on requires a piece to be able to withstand lots of abuse, enamel paints are probably right for you.[1]
    • Enamel paints are also a good pick for any material that needs a slick, protective finish. Bathroom fixtures and metal appliances are often finished with enamel paints.
  2. Choose the right type of paint. Traditionally, enamel paints are oil-based. The oil content allows the paint to mix and go on smoother, as well as adhere to surfaces longer. With recent increased demand for non-toxic paint alternatives, water-based enamel paints have become more common. Water-based enamel paints can be simpler to work with, as they dry faster and are easier to clean, while oil-based enamel paints last longer and provide a smoother, more durable finish.[2]
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    • The choice to use an oil-based vs. a water-based paint is largely preference. Water-based paints will do nicely for basic projects, while heavy duty oil-based paints will hold up to constant wear and harsh outdoor conditions.
    • There exists a wide variety of enamel paints. Before buying paint, take a look at many different kinds to find the one that best suits your project.
  3. Use high quality brushes. Not just any type of brush should be used when working with enamel paints. For best results, select a brush that features the right filament type and stiffness for the paint you’re using. A Chinese or ox-hair brush, for instance, is a softer-bristled brush that helps spread thick oil-based paints effortlessly. When working with water-based enamel paints, brushes made from synthetic fibers are preferable, as the filaments won’t soak up the water contained in the paint and become soggy.[3]
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    • Some brushes are designed with angled bristle edges that aid in painting smoother lines. This type of brush would be ideal for working with enamel paint, which demands an even finish.
    • Stick to one type of brush for one type of paint. For instance, while it’s okay to use a synthetic filament brush with an oil-based enamel paint, it’s better to choose a new brush if you’ve already used the synthetic brush with a water-based paint.

EditApplying Enamel Paint

  1. Start with a primer. Primers are special paint products that act to prepare surfaces to be painted with a topcoat. A preliminary coat of primer will fill crevices in wood grain, cover inconsistencies in unfinished materials and give the paint a more uniform area to stick to. Most primers are oil-based, which allows them to form a better seal against the wood and helps paint hold better once the primer is dry. It is recommended that you use a coat of primer before applying enamel paint, especially on indoor surfaces, furniture, cabinets and trim.[4]
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    • Look for primers that are approved for use on the type of surface you’re painting. Some brands of enamel paint are even formulated with built-in primers which improve the adhesion of the paint.
    • Always use a primer when painting wood and other uneven natural materials, walls, cabinets, trim and any surface with variations in dimension and texture.
  2. Utilize the proper brushstroke. Because of its smooth, glossy consistency, enamel paints tend to make painting imperfections more visible. For this reason, it’s advisable to use a second “tip off” stroke after brushing on the top layer of paint. To do this, make sure the brush’s bristles are wet with paint (but not oversaturated) and angle the brush as you make the second pass so that only the tips run along the area that you just painted.[5][6]
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    • When using the tip off technique, make sure that you drag the brush along the entire length of the painting surface (with the natural grain if you’re painting wood) to keep the thickness and orientation of each stroke uniform.
    • Take care to make your brush strokes as fluid and even as you can. Some surfaces, such as furniture and handmade crafts, will be harder to paint than others due to their many irregular contours.
  3. Use a sprayer. Enamel paints can also be applied via sprayer, a handheld device that propels paint through tiny holes at the end of a nozzle. A sprayer will ensure that the paint goes on in even coats. Using a sprayer can save you time on jobs where there’s a lot of area to cover, such as refinishing outdoor furniture and appliances.[7]
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    • A sprayer will help you quickly take care of rugged painting projects such as coating a patio deck or touching up mechanical equipment.
    • Thicker types of enamel paint might need to be thinned before they can be used in a sprayer. [8]
  4. Apply two coats. Most home improvement experts recommend applying a second coat on projects for which enamel paints are used because of the need for protective coverage. Allow paint to dry between coats, and tip off the top coat for an even finish. Two coats of paint will be superior to a single coat for seamlessness, durability and color integrity.
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    • Use two coats of paint on stairs, outdoor work spaces and any surface that receives regular exposure to the elements.
    • While you should apply the first coat as smoothly as possible, it’s not necessary to tip it off; this process will be reserved for the outermost coat.

EditDrying, Cleaning and Stripping

  1. Account for drying time. Under normal conditions, oil-based enamel paints will require between 8-24 hours to dry completely due to their thickness. Water-based paint can dry to the touch in 1-2 hours or less. Temperature and humidity have an effect on drying time, so outdoor projects can be expected to take longer to dry. Freshly painted surfaces should be left alone while drying to prevent smudging and other contact imperfections.[9]
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    • Whenever possible, time outdoor painting projects to coincide with warm, dry weather to prevent excessive humidity, temperature spikes or precipitation from potentially sabotaging the drying process.
    • Some paint companies have special quick-drying enamel paint formulas that dry in as little as 15-20 minutes.[10]
  2. Touch up worn paint carefully. When reapplying enamel paint to worn and discolored areas, use a single thin coat at a time. Brush the fresh coat on carefully to make sure that the surface remains uniform. Primer shouldn’t be needed for touch ups unless you plan on completely stripping the paint from an area first.[11]
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    • It’s generally a good idea to apply a fresh coat over the entire area being painted, provided that it’s not too large. This way you can avoid variations in thickness or a mismatch “seam” where the new coat has been brushed on.
  3. Clean enamel paint when needed. Another benefit of the smooth finishes created by enamel paints is that they lend themselves to hassle-free cleaning. Should a painted surface become dirty, simply wet a towel with a mixture of warm water and a mild liquid detergent and wipe away whatever debris is clinging to the paint’s exterior. Oil-based enamel paints can be more difficult to clean and may require the use of mineral spirits or diluted acetone.[12]
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    • Mineral spirits is a mild solvent used to thin and strip paints. It can be brushed on or applied with a damp towel. Because of its solvent properties, mineral spirits are highly effective at removing dust and grime from dried enamel paint.[13]
  4. Remove paint using chemical paint strippers. If you need to take off a coating of paint, you will most likely need a powerful paint stripper. Chemical strippers come in a variety of forms and are one of the only methods strong enough for removing the thick, hardened paint. Apply the paint stripper in heavy globs rather than even coats and allow time for the solvent to take effect. After the chemical stripper has set to work dissolving the enamel paint, remove any remaining paint by going over the area with a medium-grit sandpaper.[14]
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    • Chemical paint strippers tend to highly caustic, and some types may emit toxic fumes. Caution should be taken when using chemical strippers to remove enamel paint yourself.
    • If possible, acquire the services of professional paint specialists to strip surfaces finished with enamel paints.


  • Always use a primer whenever possible before working with enamel paint. Paint that is applied without a primer base is more susceptible to running, cracking and flaking.
  • Some enamel paints have lacquer components blended in, upping the luster and waterproofing of the glossy finish.
  • Be sure to mask the work area with painter’s tape before painting precise lines and corners.


  • Chemical paint strippers are highly caustic and put off noxious fumes. Wear a mask and gloves, and work in a well-ventilated area if at all possible when dealing with chemical strippers. Avoid contact with the skin. Seek immediate medical attention if paint or chemical paint strippers get into the eyes or mouth.

EditThings You’ll Need

  • Oil- or water-based enamel paint
  • High-quality brush
  • Paint primer
  • Paint sprayer (optional)
  • Painter’s tape (optional)

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EditSources and Citations

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