While they both produce a shiny finish, enamel paint and lacquer paint are very different compounds, formulated for different applications. Typically, enamel paint is an oil-based paint used to cover surfaces, however; many latex and water-based paints nowadays are also termed as enamel. In contrast to this, lacquer paint refers to a quick-drying solvent that contains nitrocellulose resin, which is obtained from cellulosic materials.
Lacquer-based paint was a popular type of paint from the mid 1920s to 1960s. It was typically used to cover hard wearing surfaces like auto bodies and furniture. Lacquer paint is difficult to work with and requires sanding between coats and about four to six coats on automobiles. This is still found and commonly used by many. These paints are soft and do not have many chemicals. Thus, they are not durable or long-lived. This is why an antique car with an original paint job will appear dull rather than glossy. This paint is available in aerosol spray containers as well as spray guns.
Tip: The only place that lacquer paint is used today is in furniture manufacturing shops. It is extremely rare that lacquer paint will be used in auto body and paint shops, and usually only if the customer requests it. Body shops now use the basecoat/clearcoat method, and the basecoat is always enamel.
Enamel paints tend to dry very hard, making them much more durable than lacquer paint. Also available in both aerosol cans and spray guns, these paints are long-lived but do not lay down as easily as lacquer paint. Some enamel paints need to be used in a two-stage system. That is, they require a clear topcoat.
The biggest difference between the two types of paint is the solvent. Enamel uses thinner or white spirits, and lacquer paint uses lacquer thinner. Enamel paints use a process that allows polymers in the paint to set and bond together so when the paint hardens, it will not soften again. In contrast, lacquer paint dries when the solvent has evaporated and can soften over time.
Though both paints can achieve a glossy and shiny finish, lacquer paints result in a thicker coat than enamel. However, lacquer paint can bubble and crack if not applied effectively with the correct technique. Often, several coats of lacquer paint need to be applied to get the right finish. There are both latex and oil-based paints that can be just as shiny as lacquer paint.
Lacquer paint is much more expensive than enamel paint, especially now that it is not used as much. Paint stores and home improvement centers do not carry lacquer paint, and it can only be purchased in pricey auto body supply shops. In the past, lacquer paints were the choice for shiny, hard shell paint jobs. But they required frequent waxing and buffing and were ultimately superseded by more efficient, versatile, and durable enamel paints.
Edward Kimble is a professional painter, the author of "Interior House Painting Blog," and contributor to this article.