Water-based Enamel Paint vs Oil Paint: A Side-by-Side Comparison

Choosing which paint to apply to your furniture can be a daunting task if you’re new to painting. Aside from choosing the right colors, you also need to select the type of paint that suites your needs.

Enamel paint is a great choice if you want a tough and durable paint job. But what makes water-based enamel paint different from oil-based enamel and other oil-based paints?

To answer that question, let’s discuss water-based enamel paint vs oil paint.

Water-Based Enamel Paint vs Oil Paint

water-based enamel vs oil-based chart

Enamel paint can be oil-based or water-based. However, it is most commonly oil-based.

Oil-based enamel paint happens to be just one variety of oil-based paint.

Related: Can You Paint Acrylic Over Enamel? Follow These Steps…


The main difference between water-based enamel paint and oil paint is the solvent used in the paint. Water-based enamel paint (and other water-based paints) use water as their solvent. On the other hand, most oil paints use mineral spirits or mineral turpentine as their solvent. For example, oil-based lacquer paint uses alkyd as a binder and white spirit as a solvent. 

Oil-based paints tend to be more toxic than water-based paints. They also carry a strong odor which can cause strong headaches, skin irritation, or nausea if exposed to them for too long. When using oil-based paint it’s important to make sure your area is well-ventilated so that you don’t continuously breathe in concentrated amounts of paint odor.  

Linseed oil paint is a rare exception to this rule. It’s made from flax seeds and natural pigments. Unlike most paints, linseed oil paint soaks into the wood rather than sticking to the surface. In a way, it behaves like a wood stain.

In contrast, water-based enamel paint doesn’t smell as much. This is because it’s mainly made up of water. It isn’t flammable and is far less toxic than oil-based paint. In turn, it’s much safer to use, but you should still work in an area with good airflow nevertheless. 

Related: Alkyd Paint: Everything You Need to Know

Characteristics and durability 

Oil-based paint dries harder than water-based enamel paint. In turn, it has great resistance to wear and tear. It’s very abrasion-resistant which makes it very suitable for high-traffic surfaces. If you have a piece of furniture that you’ll be using frequently, you might want to consider painting it with oil paint.

One major downside of oil-based paint is it is prone to yellowing over time. This ambering process tends to happen the most dramatically as the paint cures (the first few weeks after the paint has been applied). You can prevent the yellowing to some extent if the paint is exposed to sunlight as it cures. 

Oil-based paints tend to chemically harden while water-based enamel paint (and other water-based paints), dry as the water evaporates from the paint. Although oil-based paints dry harder, they also are more prone to cracking. This can happen as wood expands and contracts due to fluctuations in humidity. Water-based enamel paint tends to be a bit more flexible and can “breathe” much better on whatever surface it is applied to.

Although water-based enamel paint is much more flexible, it’s not as resistant to damage as oil-based paint. Water-based paints are much more susceptible to scuffs, scratches, and nicks from everyday hustle and bustle.

Nevertheless, water-based enamel paint still tends to be much more durable than other water-based paint like chalk paint. It also has a high level of UV resistance, which makes it less susceptible to chalking and fading.


Oil paint often has a brilliant glossy finish that water-based enamel paints may not offer. The shiny finishes of oil-based paint are extremely eye-catching and can really bring a living space to life. 

However, the effects of the high-gloss oil-based paint sheen lessen over time, making the paint look dull as it ages. It shouldn’t be a problem if you plan to reapply the paint once every few years to maintain its brilliant high-sheen finish.

Note that although oil-based paint is often sought after for its glossy finish, oil-based paint can come in a variety of other finishes as well including matte. Water-based enamel paint often doesn’t come in sheens as glossy as oil-based paint. People often gravitate to the flatter sheens of water-based paint and some water-based enamel paint doesn’t offer super glossy finishes. Nevertheless, you achieve a glossy finish by using a high-gloss top coat. A high gloss polyurethane or varnish can work wonders to transform the look of your project. 

Weather Conditions

In adverse weather conditions, you’ll find it harder to use water-based enamel paint. Low temperatures and humidity make the paint dry slower than usual. On the other hand, high temperatures can cause the paint to dry too fast, making it difficult to correct painting mistakes like a fingerprint or scuff in wet paint before it hardens.

Water-based enamel paint drying too quickly or too slowly can impact the painting experience and finished result.

Oil paint isn’t affected as much by weather conditions. Remember that oil-based paint chemically hardens rather than drying so humidity doesn’t have as much of an impact on the rate at which oil-based paint hardens. If you live in a place where your climate is super humid or cold, oil-based paint may be less finicky to work with in comparison to water-based enamel paint. 

Surface Conditions

When applying oil paint, you need to make sure that the surface is completely dry. After all, oil paint deters water. If the surface has any water or moisture on it, the oil paint won’t be able to create a solid bond with the surface.

In contrast, water-based enamel paint can endure a small amount of humidity on a surface. Small amount of water can thin out the paint a bit, but it won’t affect the paint’s ability to bond to the surface. 


Both oil paint and water-based enamel paint can vary widely in price. That said, oil-based enamel paint tends to be more expensive than water-based enamel paint. For example, mscdirect.com, an industrial supplier website explains that a gallon of gloss, safety red alkyd enamel paint (oil-based) costs $179.60. A gallon of acrylic enamel paint (water-based) of the same sheen and color costs $120.88. Note that these are industrial paints so their prices tend to be on the high side. 

Additionally, if you want to thin your oil paint for easier application, paint thinner adds to the overall cost of your project. Mineral spirits is a great choice for mineral paint. Meanwhile, water-based enamel paint can be thinned with only water. However, thinning your paint is completely optional and it’s really a matter of preference. 







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